Pool Running: Why You’re Doing it Wrong and How to Pool Run to Get Faster

by Jason Fitzgerald

One of the best cross-training exercises for runners is pool running. It’s zero impact and has an extremely low risk of injury – making it a perfect supplemental form of training for a healthy runner and one of the best alternative exercises for injured runners.

Pool Running

I spent a full two weeks in the pool doing pool running workouts during my senior year of college when I was injured. Never before had I worked out harder during an injury.

But I did: I often pool ran twice per day and did hard workouts almost every day. With zero impact, you can increase your effort substantially in the pool without getting hurt.

After those two weeks, I came out of the pool and ran significant personal bests in the indoor 3,000m and outdoor 5,000m. I was officially a pool running convert, realizing that it’s power to maintain running-specific fitness is unmatched with other forms of exercise.

Pool running is my favorite form of cross-training for runners because it’s highly specific to running; it closely mimics your running form while using most of the same muscles. You will be able to maintain your fitness even if you’re not doing any running on land. Keep in mind that you pool run in the deep end. You are not supposed to touch the pool floor.

While cycling outside can be a great form of cross-training or injury rehabilitation, hilly terrain can force you to work harder than you’d like. Downhills can also decrease your effort because you don’t need to pedal to maintain your speed. I own a road bike and love to ride, but if you don’t have access to a pool then a fitness bike can help you stay in great shape. Indoor spinning allows you to control how hard you work – plus, there’s no risk of crashing!

The ABC’s of Pool Running Form

If you’re hurt, you can immediately transition all of your training into the pool. In fact, you can actually spend more time pool running because you virtually can’t get hurt.

Once you’re in the pool, the most important part of your workout is maintaining proper form. Just like running on land, you need to keep your back straight (no slouching!) and maintain a quick turnover of at least 180 strides per minute. Pump your arms the same way as well, maintaining about a 90 degree angle at your elbow.

Where most people fail at pool running is with a low cadence. Trying to take slower strides is a mistake and will make your legs overextend in the water. The biggest risk for injury lies in overextending your legs and risking a slight hamstring strain.

Instead, drive your knee up and then drive your foot down. Your stride will slightly mimic that of a cyclist and may be more up and down than usual. That’s fine and completely normal.

Some over-enthusiastic runners think that by not using a water belt (or Aquajogger) that they’re getting a better workout. While it’s true that you’ll have to work harder, it’s almost certain that your form is going to suffer. Instead, get a pool running belt and use it to maintain your form.

Because of the buoyancy of the water and the Aquajogger, you’ll need to be extra diligent in maintaining a quick turnover. One of the best ways to do this is to run workouts in the pool.

Pool Running Workouts

Being in the pool fools you into thinking you’re working hard when in reality you’re probably not. With no wind resistance or impact, plus the natural effect of the water on your body, your heart rate is going to be artificially lower than usual.

It’s important to keep your heart rate up or else you’re not maintaining much fitness. To do this, you implement a fartlek style workout to almost all of your pool running sessions.

These workouts are all based on effort. When I was in the pool, I used three effort levels when designing my workouts: sprint (100% effort), hard (90% effort) and tempo (80%). Sprint efforts lasted 15 – 30 seconds while hard efforts lasted 2 – 5 minutes. Tempo efforts could last 5 – 10 minutes.

Like I mentioned before, pool running workouts have to be hard. If your form is correct, you virtually can’t get hurt. With that in mind, your workouts may seem intimidating. They’ll likely be longer with more fast running than the workouts you’ve done on land!

Below are three examples of pool running workouts that are of varying intensities. As you’ll see, the shorter session is focused on speed development, while the longer workout is focused on developing your aerobic capacity.

Reminder: a dynamic warm-up is still recommended before these workouts.

Workout 1: 45 minutes

10 minutes easy pool running. 10×1’ at hard effort with 1’ active recovery. 10×30” at sprint effort with 30” active recovery. 10 minutes easy warm-down.

Workout 2: 60 minutes

15 minutes easy pool running. Pyramid workout: 1’, 2’, 3’, 4’, 5’, 4’ 3’, 2’, 1’ at hard effort except the 5’ session which is at tempo effort. Each interval has 1’ of active recovery. 12’ easy warm-down.

Workout 3: 90 minutes

15 minutes easy pool running. 5×5’ at tempo effort with 1’ active recovery. 4×3’ at hard effort with 1’ active recovery. 6×30” at sprint effort with 1’ active recovery. 21’ easy warm-down.

These three workouts are just examples of what you can do in the pool to maintain your fitness while injured (or give it a boost if you’re healthy). Your options are only limited by your imagination.

I have sprinted every other side of the pool while jogging the other sides. I’ve done diagonals across the pool at sprint effort while doing easy running on the straight sides. My point is that you can be creative – as long as you are mixing hard running into your pool workouts, you can be confident that your heart rate is high enough to mimic land running.

Your cheat sheet to successful pool running:

  1. Form comes first: back tall, fast cadence of 175+, and don’t overextend your legs.
  2. Use an Aquajogger.
  3. Implement fast running in almost all of your workouts to ensure your heart rate is high.

If you start pool running for several days doing high-intensity workouts, you’ll notice something odd: you will be able to eat much more than usual! Even though your workouts are of a similar length to before you were in the pool, the thermal load of the water will spike your metabolism.

Since water is a much better heat conductor, it will force your body to generate more heat to stay warm (and therefore burn more calories). As detailed in Tim Ferriss’ book The Four Hour Body, this is how Michael Phelps is able to eat over 7,000 calories per day. It’s a combination of the time spent in the pool and the effect of the water.

My last recommendation for making pool running a part of your training is to get a friend to go with you. Unlike running outside or cycling, it’s incredibly boring. You’ll be working really hard but moving slowly. It can be mind-numbing so enlist the help of another runner to join you.

How have you used pool running to gain fitness or maintain it while injured? Let us know of any other pool running tips in the comments!

PS. [Yes, you can do a PS in a blog post] My buddy Matt Frazier at No Meat Athlete has officially launched his Half Marathon Roadmap. It’s a vegetarian guide to running well at the half-marathon distance with training, diet, and race execution sections. Matt is including a few bonuses that are only available for 5 days, so check it out if you want to debut or improve at the half-marathon or you “run on plants.”

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Tammy

Thanks Fitz! First page I looked at when I logged on with my coffee to see what ‘goodie’ you had posted! Great information- looking forward to Week 2 of my water running sessions- love breaking a sweat in a pool.. and it is nice to work on finding my stride again! Thanks for all the tools and info! You are awesome!

Fitz

Thanks Tammy, get after it! Running is easy when you don’t have to land on the ground :)

Wes

I’ve seen pool running recommended alot for injured runners. Healthy runners? not so much. I’m thinking it has to be MORE boring than being on the treadmill. Maybe some tidbits on how to fight the tediousness?!?

Kate

Hi Wes, I am an injured runner who has switched to pool running while my achilles tendinopathy is treated. I am training for a marathon, so I cannot afford time off running, but I cannot actually run at present. So, the answer is pool running. And for me, how to stop it being boring is the same as when I am doing a long road run…I listen to music. I have a waterproof case and headphones for my music device. It clips to my goggles on the back of my head, and I can listen to my favourite playlist while running in the pool. There are many brands of devices out there. I bought the case to suit my existing device. My work colleague bought an a waterproof mp3 player as they didn’t have an existing music device. Cheers, Kate

Caitlin

Hey Kate,
How’d the marathon go with the pool running? I’ve got 26.2 in 6 weeks and a bad case of IT band flaring up, so I’m in the pool while I”m supposed to be running 16, 18, and 20 milers the oncoming weeks. Is this doable still for me to forego all of these workouts (hop in the pool for 2 hours on long run days) and still finish? Thanks!

Lydia

Thank you. I am at the track right now, seeing how that first run/walk will be. Long story short, I’m still hurt. I’ll start this on Monday. You are the best!

Lindsey

I just came across your blog, and this post is so helpful! I have been injured for the past 4 months (ahhh!) and I have been pool running on and off since I injured my foot. The last few weeks I have been at the pool a lot and I’m so tired of my workouts. I’m going to try yours next week! Thanks for the ideas.

Your tips on form while pool running are helpful too. I have been worried that I’m not “running” correctly in the pool because it feels like my legs are going up and down more than they should be. But it sounds like that’s normal.

Thanks for the post!

Fitz

Hi Lindsey, thanks for stopping by! Yes the up and down motion of the legs is a bit more exaggerated in the pool than on land. But if you try too hard to extend your legs out you could risk straining your hamstrings. That’s normal.

Steve

Fitz,

Another great article. A question for you… the pool I have access to does not have a deep end and I’m fairly tall. As a result, I touch the bottom of the pool when I pool run. I know this is not ideal but do you see much issue with this?

Thanks for your ongoing work.
Steve

Fitz

If you’re touching the ground and actually “running” along the pool floor then it’s a completely different (and in my opinion, impractical) workout. I think the injury risk is higher because there’s more impact and you clearly can’t maintain a high cadence. Tough spot you’re in… I’d probably recommend you cycle more than pool run in this case.

Greg

I did deep water running (DWR) before. It helped me recover from injury while maintaining cardiovascular fitness. Due to the higher density of water DWR also serves as a resistance exercise for the legs. As you mention, high-intensity workouts are the key to success. Typically heart rate is 10 to 15 bpm lower in the water, mainly due to a lower environmental temperature (water temperature) and the water pressure increasing venous return. Nevertheless, the training effect will be the same as stroke volume is the same.
However, I doubt that DWR is very running specific because muscles are used quite differently. I will keep it simple. While running on land, the legs use something that is known as the strength-shortening cycle to store and recover energy from ground reaction forces (GRF) to help propel the runner forward during the push-off phase of the gait cycle. After active hip-extension, the trailing leg is then more or less passively thrown forward, eventually resulting in the lifted thigh in front of your body (before it again hits the ground). To control the leg before and on impact there is quite a bit of eccentric (lengthening while contracting) muscle action present (i.e. hamstrings eccentrically decelerating lower leg, calf muscles eccentrically controlling dorsiflexion of the foot, …) which puts a lot of stress on muscles.
In DWR there is no impact and consequently no GRF to be re-used. Eccentric stress on muscles is almost completely absent.
The thigh has to be actively lifted by the hip flexors against the denser water. Hip extension will be more of a thrust backwards than a push-off.
Practically this means, DWR is a great tool for additional cardiovascular exercise and for recovery from most running injuries. However, don’t expect to come out of the pool after 3 months of DWR and be able to run a marathon (or even a 10K). You will have to gradually re-build your running specific strength and harden your body for the stress of land running first.

Thanks for the great article, Fitz!

Fitz

Hey Greg, thanks for the comment! And I agree with you mostly on this. I think pool running is one of the most specific exercises to running on land (along with cycling). But because there’s no impact, like you mentioned, you can’t jump back into running/racing so soon. Your cardiovascular fitness will be high, but your muscular strength will be low. Ideally you would do a lot of strength workouts to minimize this loss in muscular strength. Cheers!

valerie

After injuring a hamstring several years ago, I continued marathon training by running in the pool — I was not as fast in that race, but I was a finisher. I injured my other hamstring on a run last Thursday and was in the pool running the next day — I am so grateful the pool is an option for a runner. My question is this: will my heart rate increase if I run in warmer water? I think I read somewhere (in the Pfitzinger pool running literature, maybe) that running in warmer water will increase the fitness benefit. I am terrorizing the children in the heated family pool at my YMCA — should I be running in the cooler lap pool?

I’m enjoying “Racing Weight” — lots of good advice.

Thanks for any response you might have time to give.

Best,

Valerie

valerie

My bad — made an incorrect assumption re: “Racing Weight!” Apologies.

Fitz

Hi Valerie – right, I’m not THAT Fitzgerald! :)

I always thought that colder temperatures make you burn more calories because your body has to work harder to stay warm. I could be wrong though – I haven’t read anything like that on the subject. However, this is something that I wouldn’t worry too much about. It’s best to just get in a great workout than worry about the water temperature. Good luck with your hamstring!

valerie

Hey, Fizt — thank you for your prompt reply! I felt a little better about my gaff after I read in one of your articles that you found useful the book by Hudson and THAT Fitzgerald!

I revisited the Pete Pfitzinger pool running article in which he says that warm water elevates your heart rate more than cool water — he provides no support for this, it is merely a statement. My husband (and resident physician) says he believes Pfitzinger is correct (although, like the rest of us, he thinks it’s counterintuitive — one would think the opposite). Perhaps Tim Ferris can test this theory???

At any rate, I will follow your advice and just get a good workout — headed there to do the 90 minute workout right now. Thanks for advice. Looking forward to your newsletter.

Valerie

Monte in NoLA

Running in warm water is DEFINITELY more HR intensive, just as running in high temps in the air is. The body is trying to cool itself but the physiological explanation is beyond me. I just know it is a LOT harder to exercise in high heat and especially in warm water (I’d say 80-85 degrees) or hot water > 85 degrees. My pool is 92 right now : ) – it will test you, but of course, I am training in 100 (8am) – 114 degree (2-4pm) heat index here in New Orleans in August.

carol moran

I love my pool running. This is what I do and it’s not boring at all. I have a 24ft round pool. No deep end, the whole pool is about chest deep. I run 45 laps around the edge of the pool, then swim 15 laps. I repeat that 3 times and then run another 20 laps and swim 15 more laps. I love it and is the best I’ve found to keep weight off and really buffs me up. I hate to see summer end because that means my pool regimen ends until next year.

Era

I recently got injured and I’m 5 weeks away from the INGNYC Marathon. I am supposed to do 18 miles on Saturday and I’m torn about how to get in the adequate amount of cross-training to compensate for missing the miles. Any recommendations? Would you pool run for the same time it would take to run the 18 miles? Or do multiple cross-training exercises?

Fitz

Hey Era, i like to run a little more per mile in the pool than I would outside to get the same aerobic benefit. So allocate 10-12 minutes per mile in the pool. Then again, you’ll quickly see an 18 mile LR turn into a 3-4 hour run in the pool if you do this, so do what fits your schedule. With that said, pool running won’t simulate the impact forces you’d receive if you were running on land. Just be careful you don’t over-rely on pool running since your muscles/bones/ligaments will get weak from less impact. Good luck!

Sarah

Great article! I am not currently injured but enjoy pool running to supplement my training.. and by “enjoy” I mean it is a great supplement, boring as all hell, but great!

Any advice as to how to calculate calories burned pool running? I have seen sites that claim pool running burns more calories than land running because of the water resistance but I don’t believe that, considering the perceived effort is much less. I usually hit about 175 strides/min, 180 or so during a “sprint,” but my heart rate still doesn’t seem to be quite as high as when running on land (probably because you have to constantly focus on making yourself work). In terms of just getting a cardio workout (not necessarily improving running fitness), does it burn more calories to swim freestyle laps or pool run at about 175 strides per min?

Just curious. Main point is: great post! I am always looking for more info on pool running because when I first started my heart rate was definitely not high enough, and I have seen a few different instructions for proper form, types of workouts, etc. So thanks!!

Jason

I feel ya Sarah, I used to do a lot of pool running even when I was healthy and it was effective…but boring. Honestly I’m not sure about the calorie expenditure of pool running (I don’t track that myself). My guess is that swimming freestyle burns more calories because it’s more of a full-body exercise, but I could be wrong. Thanks for the kind words, I hope you find the other articles useful too!

Chandelle

Hey there,thank you for this helpful info. I am 3 weeks away from my fourth full marathon. I have done 700 miles of training including the hard stuff ;). I have a slight injury requiring me to be off my feet. Deep end pool running is fine. I rested the first week. Started yesterday with 1hr of pool running, no belt, good form, hard effort. Do you believe I can maintain my fitness if I do an hr a day for next 2weeks, tapering some week of the race? Thank you for your honesty. Trying for a time in the full 2/19. Chandelle in AZ

Jason

Hey Chandelle – I’d be careful that you’re not setting yourself up for another injury. You may be letting your current injury heel, but with no impact exercise for the next 3 weeks, then jumping into a marathon, you’re going to subject your legs to a lot of trauma on race day. Trauma that you can’t simulate in the pool because it’s zero-impact. To negate that, do a lot of strength exercises if you can for your legs. The best option is to run a little on the roads if you can. Good luck!

mark

Very nice article. I have used water running for the last 5 years. I have had multiple stress fractures and muscular injuries and I immediately head for the pool. We also use the pool 2-3x/week for recovery and general cross training. I believe it the most running specific X-training one can do, with almost no trauma. I use the belt but I also use the ankle cuffs. Here is a link to one. Its about half way down the page http://www.fit-senior.com/acatalog/Online_Catalog_Aqua_Aerobics_and_Hydro_Therapy_240.html
Water Aerobics Aqua Cuff
This device makes you stabilize your core and increases the resistance of the cuff to increase training effect. When I am training and not injured I use the cuffs more than the belt because it seems I work harder. When injured I use the belt more. I attach a tie down strap to the ladder and hook on to the back of my belt. That way I can run super hard and not move anywhere, taking away the aspect of moving around the pool. I think it makes the workout more intense. Finally I use an iPod attached to a visor and crank some upbeat music during the workout. I go hard for a song and recover on the next one.

I would be seriously depressed if I didn’t have the water running when injured. I also tried the alter-G anti gravity treadmill, and if I had the cash and the space I would get one. that device works really well for training while injured or training on recover days…

thanks for bringing up the topic

Jason

Thanks for the comments here Mark – good luck with the stress fractures! I’ve never used a tether with the belt, but it’s a common thing. Glad it’s working for you.

Mark Eichenlaub

Fitz, do you have a system or formula for determining how to count pool running towards weekly mileage?

Jason

I usually go with 15 minutes of pool running/cycling is equal to about a mile. But keep in mind there’s no impact when you’re in the pool, so if you’re “running” 50 miles/week in the pool, you can get out and do that on land. Your muscles/ligaments won’t be strong enough. See: http://strengthrunning.com/2011/11/dont-let-your-engine-outpace-your-chassis-how-to-build-a-strong-body/

Mark Eichenlaub

Thanks jason

Mark Eichenlaub

Jason, just curious…when you’ve had to take time off from running due to injuries and had to cross train how much running fitness would you say you lost over various amounts of time? I’m starting to worry I’m going to return to running and be behind.

Mizunogirl

Just on my way out to do an “8” mile run in the pool, which will translate into 1 hr and 45 min or so. It’s going to be OK. My biggest problem with pool running is that it is SO hard to get my HR up. I’m a regular swimmer and have the same issue with swimming, so lets hope this suffices this week for my 8…which I really wanted to do! But…Playing it safe.

Harptuba

Just sprained my ankle in indoor soccer. Hmmm, actually someone else sprained it for me, but now I need to rehab. I am going to see the sports doc to find out the severity of the sprain. I went to ER and had x-rays and there is no fracture. Is there any reason to delay pool running? The biggest challenge I see is the logistics of getting poolside, I’m on crutches and the floor will be slippery. Currently I include pool running in my training once a week so I am fairly confident the workout itself will be okay. Can I go? any caveats?

eddie

I’m currently injured with a calf injury being a 4hurdler I recommend this as a substitute I have been doing my sessions that I would normally have to do on the track to maintain my form. An injury I had before restricted me to the pool, but after 3 weeks I returned to the track running quicker 2s than before.

Lizzy

Any other ways to increase mental tenacity and decrease boredom while doing these workouts? I don’t have a means to listen to music while in the pool (since I don’t have the right mp3 equipment and I run at a public pool).

Thanks!

Harptuba

Follow-up post on my ankle sprain. Poolrunning has been great. Even ran 2 hours straight – to the astonishment of the lifeguard at our local indoor pool. However, my ankle sprain was not healing and the pain and swelling not subsiding so I was sent for an MRI. I have 2 torn ligaments – 1 is totalled. And a talus bone bruise. I have tolerated some easy trail mileage, but count on the pool for lots of training. Any suggestions to maximize the use of the pool to heal my injury and gain fitness. Right now I’m just “treading water” in terms of cardio, no great losses, but no great gains. Also, when I do run on the trail my legs are clearly weaker and while I feel i could go on for miles, my muscles are not inclined.

Predictably I end this post with the “I have a race coming up” plea.

Jason Fitzgerald

Use fartleks like I recommend in the article. And you feel weaker because of this: http://strengthrunning.com/2011/11/dont-let-your-engine-outpace-your-chassis-how-to-build-a-strong-body/

Bob

Dear Fitz,
If I’m healthy and want to pool run, but my pool is very shallow and my feet touch the ground will this still help me in cross-training?(I don’t have access to another body of water) My plan is to run in the morning on land then run in the pool twice after that. Also, if I do “distance” in my pool how long should I run, I’m going to be a high school junior im training for cross country and I missed all of last cross country with a stress fracture but I’m not having any complications. Hope you can get back to me as soon as you can

Jason Fitzgerald

To pool run correctly, you really need a deep end. I’d talk to your coach about other alternatives.

Bob

Dear Fitz,
My pool is very shallow and I touch the bottom, I don’t have access to any other pools, will it still help me? my plan is to run on land then in the pool or am I better off swimming and in both cases tell me how long for each of them I’m going to be a junior in High school and want to train for cross country. Hope you can get back to me

Deborah

My husband and I have an Endless Pool. He is a swimmer and loves the pool. I don’t really care to swim. Because of arthritis, running in water would be a good workout. Our pool is 45″ deep, thus when I stand, I touch bottom. Is there any benefit to running in a pool that has a current?

Jason Fitzgerald

With traditional pool running you need to be in deep water so an endless pool isn’t a good option for that. Touching the bottom defeats the purpose of having no impact.

Marian

Hi!
i am so glad that i found this article this completely set my mind at ease, because I’m going on vacation soon and will NOT be able to run, and i will only have access to a pool! I was freaking out because my vacation is for three weeks to a month and you not running for that long all your work will go down the drain… and I’m not a serious runner…yet i’m only at around 4 miles to 4 and a half every other day. I have a question I’m not just rambling, so my question is if i am running at a certain point now and I do pool running every day when I get back from my vacation will I be in the same shape or even in better shape? and can i do pool running with laps too? oh and can i do distance running in the pool, since that is how I’m used to running, how would I do that in the pool though? ahh! sorry this was long, thankyou so much again! this has really help and I can’t wait to start pool running!

Jason Fitzgerald

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s article :)

MJruns

Can you post a link to what you call “tomorrow’s article”? I’m desperately looking for any/all info on pool running, so glad I found this post! (still would be interested in any way to calculate calorie burn) I’m training for a marathon 10 weeks out, training has been going well for several months. About a week ago I did my long run (on my tmill, as almost all my runs are), just over 4h. Had some ankle/foot/shin pain that showed up toward end of run, persisted thru 2 short runs (1 same day as long run, 1 next day). Took 2 days off, went to chiro & got dry needling treatment. Ran w/o pain for 5 min next day (2 days ago, chiro ok’d), then pain for rest of that run, worse after. Took yesterday off, got dry needled again. Taking today off too, seeing podiatrist for 2nd opinion, maybe PT rx. Thought it either anterior tibial tendon inflammation or maybe shin splints. Hurts to raise ankle/foot. Has improved a little but not enough to let me even run or bike. So this afternoon, I’ll find the local pool and get set up to do my “long run” in the pool tomorrow. I’m going crazy physically and mentally w/o running (had been running very well, wasn’t ignoring early warning signs or anything like that – 70+ mpw solid, good speedwork and long runs, loving it – last week hit 80!) and of course am concerned about when I can run, whether I can do my marathon (for which I had huge PR goals).

Any advice, encouragement, more info on pool running or other rehab/prevention suggestions most welcome! Thanks so much!!

Ted Oviatt

So glad to have found your article. I am 79 and was told “no more running” about a year ago when an MRI revealed a deteriorating spine. Hard to stop after 65 years of running and competing. I have been pool running, way too slowly, for about six months. I ran a 26 minute 5K at 70, then started having back problems. I find your ideas immensely helpful. Any suggestions, cautions, etc. specifically for the “elderly”? TED OVIATT

MJruns

Hoping you’re still checking comments, can’t tell how old this post is!

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