Pool Running for Prehab and Rehab

5 tips and 4 workouts to get the most out of pool running sessions

When you run regularly and log even a moderate amount of mileage, the occasional injury is inevitable. It could be a simple strain from overuse or a pulled muscle, or something as serious as a stress fracture or torn ligament. If you are in this unfortunate group of hobbled runners, what should you do? “Running” in any form, may seem counterintuitive, but logging “miles” in a near-weightless environment such as a pool can be a fruitful way to maintain fitness while your body heals.

According to coach Hayley Munn of Runners Connect, running in a pool helps to maintain cardiovascular and leg strength without the impact that comes with running outside. “It provides a workout for running-specific muscles. This is not true of other cross-training methods such as cycling and swimming,” she says. “It’s possible to burn even more calories than when running on land. It also helps to avoid weight gain during injury-induced periods.”

Even if you aren’t injured, you can head to the pool. Coach Dennis Barker of the Team USA Minnesota elite development program says that pool running is a way to incorporate non-impact aerobic training to a program in order to give tired, high-mileage legs a welcome break. It’s also a refreshing way to tackle a second run of the day without the pounding.

Here are five tips to get you started on a pool running routine.

1. Make sure you are cleared to pool run in the first place.

If you have a stress fracture or some other serious injury, it’s best to check with your doctor or physical therapist to get cleared for splashdown.

2. Wear a flotation belt and “run” in the pool’s deep end, using a similar form as you run on the land.

Flotation belts keep you buoyant so you can focus on form, not staying afloat. They also come in handy for those who aren’t the strongest swimmers. Head to the deep end–make sure you can’t touch the bottom–for non-weight bearing running. Munn offers the following form advice: You only want to do the back half of the running motion. “This means that the knee comes straight up and down rather than forward kicking out,” she says. She also recommends that pool runners use a higher knee lift than they would on land. “Keep your upper body straight, and don’t lean forward too much. Your arms should go straight back and forward. Keep shoulders stationary, only the arms and legs should move. Keep the elbow bent at 90 degrees. Find a focal point, eye level ahead to help you to keep your head level.”

3. Maintain a similar workout schedule in the pool as you do on the road or track.

According to Barker keeping the same weekly habits will help you feel like you are training in the same way as you were when you were healthy, which can be good for the mind when dealing with an injury setback. An example of this approach is doing harder pool workouts on Tuesdays and Thursdays with a recovery day on Wednesday, similar to running track intervals.

4. Find something to break up the monotony.

Unlike distance running out on the roads or trails, there is nothing but the same length of pool to stare at during the entirety of your workout. Boredom is one of the biggest complaints of injured pool runners, so be prepared to deal with an impatient mind. Munn recommends that runners wear waterproof music-playing devices. Also, going into the pool-running session with planned workouts that break up the pace can help ward off boredom. So does getting a friend to join you for your pool session!

5. Do intervals similar to on the land to get your heart rate up.

Treat pool running like the workout you want it to be. And yes, you can work up a sweat in the pool! In case you need some direction, Munn and Barker suggest the following workouts to get you started.

Munn prescribes the following “pyramid” workout for her athletes:

– Conduct a decent warm-up in the pool which entails 10 to 15 minutes of easy running.

– Run Intervals of 1, 2 and 3 minutes at hard effort. You should feel your pulse increase and your breathing more pained during this segment.

– Between these first three repetitions take a 30-second total rest. If you are wearing a pool belt, let your legs hang down while you catch your breath.

– Resume intervals of 4, 5 and 6 minutes at a hard pace.

– Take a 1-minute rest between intervals.

– Cool down as you warmed up, with 10 to 15 minutes easy pool running.

Barker has his pool runners doing three types of workouts: long, medium, and short.

“A good long workout is 5 x 5 minutes hard with 2 to 3 minutes of recovery jogging,” he says, “A good steady-state/lactate-threshold workout is 2 x 15 minutes at the perceived-race effort of your 10K to half marathon race time with 4-5 minutes of recovery.”

Barker’s short workouts entail 20 x 30 seconds of hard running with 1 minute of recovery jogging. “All these workouts can be preceded with 10 minutes of easy warm up and 10 minutes of easy cool down,” he says.

Duncan Larkin
Duncan Larkin is a freelance writer and 2:32 marathoner. His latest book, "The 30-Minute Runner," will be published in January.