How runners can train in the water

Swimming and athletics are the two most classic Olympic sports. In some ways the sports are similar, displaying different types of movement in their purest form. But in other ways they are complete opposites. For example a key component of sprinting is how the body navigates gravity and contact with the ground. Both of those play little role in swimming. As a result, the sports do not influence each other very much when it comes to physical preparation. That’s a shame, as there is a thing or two that runners could benefit from by jumping in the water.

» Learn more: Dean Benton’s water-based training module explains the theory and practice of water-based training, including an exercise library and sample programs.

Understanding water-based training

Before I get into the benefits, it helps to talk about what I mean by water-based training for runners. I’m not talking about jumping in the pool and swimming laps. The butterfly or breaststroke aren’t going to transfer much to running, but movements can be made more sport specific. All kinds of variety of running movements can be replicated in the water including sprinting, jumping, and lunging. These can be done in different forms, with or without equipment, and in varying intensities.

When to implement water-based training

Compare sprinters in swimming and track and one major difference stands out: the volume of training done by swimmers is massively larger. It’s not that running-based sports should go out and copy those volumes, but we should ask why. One big reason is the lack of impact. Being a lower-impact movement allows for higher training volumes. But more importantly it can be used to find volume in a low-impact environment for injured, recovering, or fragile athletes.

In my experience training athletes in track and field, as well as various football codes, I’ve found four main situations where water-based training can aid my athletes:

  • Conditioning – to supplement training that cannot be completed in traditional sense due to injury, disability or severe environmental conditions (heat or cold);
  • Rehabilitation returning from injury – the use of water to progressively reload soft tissue or joint injuries;
  • Reconditioning returning from injury – as a modality restore physiological qualities back to pre-injury levels; or
  • Recovery from training and competition – to elicit mild aerobic stress and the use of water’s hydrostatic pressure properties for active recovery.

The benefits of water-based training

Of course the low-impact nature of water is not the only benefit from water-based training. It provides a long list of unique benefits, including:

  • The ability to simulate speed, power and endurance that may not be possible, or functional with other modalities due to circumstances;
  • Allows athletes to supplement their broader training program, which otherwise would potentially see their long-term performances compromised;
  • Overweight individuals can undertake a rigorous program in a safe, friendly environment without fear of social comments or stares;
  • Reduced impact on the musculoskeletal system;
  • Water has a massaging effect, which assists with recovery; and
  • Water-based training enables athletes remotely to maintain their training program wherever a pool is available.

Final thoughts

Running might have unique demands on land, but as shown above, there are advantages to using water-based training methods for runners. Injured or not, it is an overlooked method that more athletes should consider including in their training plans.