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Water Workouts Are Worth Your Attention—Whether You’re Injured Or Not

"More time running in the pool now can add years to your time of running on land.”

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“More time running in the pool now can add years to your time of running on land.”

Recovering from an injury (or trying to stave one off) without losing your current level of fitness is a challenge many athletes face at some point in their training. And you almost certainly know that you can get one heck of a workout in the pool—after all, swimming is kind of a big part of our sport.

But did you know you can get a hardcore cross training workout—one that’ll work the same muscles and encourage the same good form as you’d hold on land while biking or running—by hitting the deep end of the pool? It’s true! This isn’t your granny’s water aerobics we’re talking about—this is serious cross training, fit for a serious triathlete and with the added benefit of a seriously lower impact than land-based training options.

We talked to Melis Edwards, an Ironman-distance triathlete and ultra-runner who has 30 years of experience as a running and triathlon coach, personal trainer and fitness instructor and athlete—and she literally wrote the book on this subject: Deep End of the Pool Workouts: No-Impact Interval Training and Strength Workouts.

Why Water vs. Land?

“The main reasons people should hit the pool are for maintenance of muscle and cardiovascular conditioning when rehabilitating, achieving a better range of motion (for example, those who are struggling with tights hips and hamstrings) and especially for long term joint health,” Edwards says. But she believes incorporating water workouts two to three times a week can be beneficial for many athletes, particularly those who are logging major mileage.

“There are countless peer reviewed studies that cite the value of training in water, both shallow and deep. Some of the most surprising research points to overtraining issues or the fact that some people are not built (biomechanically) for the volume they are asking from their bodies; they are basically exceeding their orthopedic limit,” she says. “The body you are working with now is the same one you’ll have for your whole life. Too often I hear older folks talking about sports and activities they used to love, that they had to give up due to injury. With water workouts, reducing the impact on your bones and joints doesn’t have to mean reducing the impact of your training. Think of it as time wisely invested—more time running in the pool now can add years to your time of running on land.”

And like running on land, the equipment requirements are minimal—just a floatation belt (and water, of course) will do the trick—but it’s important to note that a belt is absolutely vital in order to hold form and maintain the proper intensity. Without one, your water workout will be comparable to you going out and running, biking or swimming at a full sprint. Every. Single. Time. There are other tools (weights, fins, etc.) that can be incorporated, but if you’re just getting started, the floatation belt is the way to go.

Just because the water and your belt are buoying you, that doesn’t mean you’re not working as hard as you would be on land. And you have a little extra power over just how tough each workout is, because another interesting aspect of working in the water is that the athlete can create his or her own added resistance by creating eddies (aka the movement of water that occurs behind an object, like a mini whirlpool) and then turning and moving directly into that turbulence.

Who Should Sit on the Side?

Low- to no-impact, highly effective, customizable—what could go wrong? Edwards points out that any individuals who need to be cleared for activity (such as those coming off an injury or surgery) should try these workouts with the same kind of caution they would use for any of their other workouts, always under the guidance of their doctor or medical professional. Even without impact on your joints, the potential for injury is there.

She’s found that injured and post-surgical athletes often come to the water to rehabilitate, but they push harder than they should (possibly because the hydrostatic pressure works against their muscles, heart rates and injury sites, making them feel better than they probably should)—and then they end up sidelined by the workout that was meant to help them recover. But, it’s not the water running itself that causes the problem, she notes; it’s “their inability to train appropriately for their given rehabilitation guidelines.”

In the Water: Now What?

So you’ve got your floatation belt and you’re ready to get wet and work up a sweat. The first exercise to try is probably the water run—either with or without your arms.

“Running without the use of your arms will drive more energy into your core and make the hamstrings work a bit harder,” says Edwards. “For speedwork, perform both versions with some eddies (the water turbulence discussed earlier) as well; this will pull in additional muscular demands on the quads, hamstrings and glutes. I would also suggest the regular cross country leg motion as well as adding in the upper-cut punch for a bit more core performance. To drive more quad dominance, shift to a backwards cross country legs only.

Tilda Loftin, a running and triathlon coach who also likes introducing her athletes to the wonders of water, uses a series of flutter kicks and dolphin kicks—both with and without hand sculling—to really target glutes, hips, hamstrings and core.

What to Know Before You Jump in

Working in water is different than working on land in a variety of ways—and that’s exactly why it’s crucial for athletes to understand that heart rates are different when the body is submerged and take the time to learn how to properly do the exercises before pushing themselves to their limits.

“Some athletes are so used to training hard, that they want to jump in and proceed with water training without taking time to learn the motions,” says Edwards. “The principles of water dynamics are a very unique, making this a different training platform; even different when compared with swimming. Water training is about working against the water—not streamlining with it.”

But that doesn’t mean you’ve got years ahead of you before you can make full use of your pool’s deep end. Athletes with a good sense of body awareness typically need just a few sessions to get the feeling and work at the proper intensity.

Heart rates, though, can still remain tricky. “Heart rates in the water are much lower than on land due to the hydrostatic pressure,” meaning that if you or your coach were to feel your pulse during an interval, it could be assumed you’re not performing optimally, says Edwards.

The way around this? Use the Kruel method of heart rate when in the water. “The Kruel method is like Karvonen’s, but adds a deduction to the number. The long and short is that depending on your fitness and ability, your heart rate could be 11-30% lower than your land-based training heart rate at the equal intensity. In addition, the hydrostatic pressure also helps athletes recover faster (than on land) between sets,” says Edwards.

Ready to jump in? You can see a sample water workout here, or catch more in Edwards’ book.

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