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Water Running: Taking the Road Warrior to the Water

Water running is an effective, low-impact exercise that provides an excellent and refreshing alternative to land running when injury strikes.

Submerged in the water, resistance on all sides forces opposing muscles to work equally. And moving against the resistance of water is great cardio and strength training.

No Impact Cross-Training

Water Running

Water running is an excellent cross-training method for any athlete.

Because there is no impact, an injured athlete can train in the water and remain fit while an injury heals. Water running is an excellent cross-training method for any athlete.

It’s a great way to work on technique and increase resistance while reducing land-based mileage and risk of injury. It’s also takes the monotony out of any exercise routine.

While you don’t need any special equipment to water run, adding certain items allows you to vary your effort and intensity.

  • Floatation belts, vests and even a pair of children’s floaties can stabilize you for deep water running, where your feet don’t touch the pool bottom in a vertical, suspended position. Runners should use afloat if they wish to preserve “normal” biomechanics. The “cross country” style gait works best in the water, where the leg sweeps back at a larger angle and the foot “pushes” down at the bottom of the stride, much like in real running.
  • Water shoes protect your feet and give more stability in the water. They provide 20-30% more resistance compared to barefoot walking or running. Though workouts can be conducted with and without shoes, wearing shoes provides additional resistance. If you run from shallow to deep it is recommended that you wear shoes, but if you are suspended you can run without shoes and maintain proper form
  • Webbed gloves or water barbells provide more resistance for your arm movements I recommend instruction if you want to add equipment, so that you get the proper motion down.

Water Depth

Waist-deep water yields approximately half your body weight, chest deep yields 70-80% of body weight, and deep water (up to chin with buoyant device) is 90% of your weight.

It is important to get a feel for the water, so start out in waist deep water. Once you’ve adapted to the impact of running in waist-deep water, then take the movement to being fully suspended in the water.

Why Water Running?

Water Running

Connie Lagerhausen (R) leading a class of water runners.

In addition to increasing the resistance of movement, water decreases the stress on your joints while increasing range of motion.

Water assists, resists and supports your body as you work out. It’s 800 times denser than air and provides great resistance training.

Running on land is far more traumatic. And due to gravity, it will expose weaknesses in technique, muscle group imbalances, and more.

Just like with any training, allow your body to adjust and “learn” how to run in the water correctly. It will recruit some lesser-used muscles differently. So, build up slowly.

Water running gets a bad rap as aqua aerobics by a different name. But with proper technique, it makes for a tough workout and is a perfect training tool. The Marine Corps promotes low-impact pool running — dubbed “water cadence”— to help even the fittest Marines up their game.

Water Run for Time

Commit to spend as much time in the water as you would spend on a normal run. Just start your watch when you jump in, and get out after a predetermined time.

Do regular running workouts. Vary the pace, tempo, and length of time. Simulate a favorite running workout using some type of interval workout, whereby you’re constantly changing speeds.

Nine Tips for Great Form

  1. Unlike water walking, the movement tends to be more toe to heel (for shallow water running). First and foremost, try to emulate your normal running style.
  2. Don’t ‘paddle’. Keep a loosely closed fist and let your legs move you forward.
  3. Put your arms gently by your sides, palms facing backward, elbows slightly bent. Let your thumb graze your thigh as it swings. Don’t cross the mid-line.
  4. Look straight ahead with your jaw relaxed. Feel as if a string is supporting your head above your shoulders.
  5. Press your shoulders back and slightly down. They should be loose and relaxed. Press your chest forward and up for easier breathing.
  6. Try to let the bottoms of your feet kick the water behind you.
  7. Take short, quick strides. A fast cadence intensifies the workout. The critical focal point has to be on technique and range of motion (ROM) of your legs.
  8. Expect a lower stride cadence. Remember water is more resistant than air and your pace will decrease accordingly.
  9. Remember your heart rate will be about 10 percent lower than at the same intensity on land.

Patience Pays Off

Very often, passionate runners, triathletes and endurance athletes aren’t willing to allow enough time for their injuries to heal properly, which results in more serious disabilities and compounded frustrations later on.

Water running just might be the compromise between doing nothing and over-training to the point of serious injury.

Stay Hydrated

We sweat in water the same as we sweat while we engage in land-related sports. However, because we are in water, we don’t notice we are sweating while we’re working out. To that point, runners/endurance athletes tend not to hydrate enough when they are exercising in the pool.

Remember to hydrate throughout your workout. Dehydration can contribute significantly to fatigue and can be detrimental to physical performance and mental clarity.

Hydration Guidelines

Here are some basic tips on hydration for endurance athletes, land or water:

  • In general, to determine how much water you should be consuming on a daily basis, divide your body weight by half. That is amount of water in ounces you should be consuming daily without exercise.
  • Two hours before exercise swimmers should consume 16 fluid ounces (or half a liter) of water or a sports drink to help hydrate them ahead of time.
  • Always bring water to training sessions.
  • Long-term, moderate to intense activity of 30 minutes or more requires periodic rehydration. Recommendation: 8 ounces every 20 minutes.
  • Another measure of adequate fluid intake is body weight. Weigh yourself prior to training so you can become aware of decreases in body weight due to dehydration. If you’re down 1-2% in body weight post-workout, assume dehydration is the cause.
  • Post-workout hydration is an important key to recovery. Top off your water after your workout.


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