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For the Sake of Your Joints, Try Pool Running July 24, 2009

Many seasoned runners in Central Texas take advantage of a fitness activity you rarely see them doing: Pool running. It may be the best kept fitness secret since boot camp training. Pool running, also known as aqua jogging, is usually recommended when a runner becomes injured and can't take the full force of stress from running on the hard road. It's also what you may see seniors engaged in to maintain an active lifestyle into their later years, along with water aerobics. Keeping up activity of any kind is very good news since The American Heart Association reports Baby boomers are not in good shape when compared with their counterparts 10 or 20 years ago. Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 comprise 80 million, or a third, of the total US population.

As the aging Baby Boomers put more and more mileage on their knees and joints, running in the water may be the perfect compromise between running and not running at all. Research shows that pool runners maintains fitness levels comparable to those running on the road, but with much less impact to the knees. ankles and hips. "I find water running a fabulous way to cross train to prevent injury and to stay at a good running fitness level when you are injured," says 52-year-old Boomer Mary Faria, Seton Southwest Hospital Chief Operating Officer, who has more than 23 years running experience.

Just because you're in the water doesn't mean the workout has to be boring. Just as you have interval workouts, sprints and long runs, these workouts can be replicated in the pool. Vary the time and intensity to mix it up a bit. You may have to get over the fact that you're running in a pool and not getting anywhere. Call it aqua jogging or just tell your friends you're running but don't tell them when or where. Although, they'll probably want to know your secret when you show up to your regular road runs in better shape with fresh legs.

Mary's Suggested Workout

"My favorite place to water run is Barton Springs and I love to have friends join me there," said Mary. "You can get an excellent workout in 30 minutes by doing interval work. You can mix it up between timed or distance workouts. If you have a partner you can pick a distance, say 100 meters, and challenge each other."

  1. Run for 30 seconds at a very hard pace followed by 10 seconds at an easy pace. Keep this going for 10 minutes.
  2. Run for 45 seconds at a very hard pace followed by 10 seconds at an easy pace. Try this for 15 minutes.
  3. Run for 60 seconds at a very hard pace followed by 15 seconds at an easy pace. Try this for 15 minutes.

As you get beyond one minute hard you can increase your easy or rest portion. For example three-to-five minutes hard with one minute recovery.

Benefits of Aqua Jogging

Benefits are many with aqua jogging. Once you get past the stigma of running in the pool, you'll be far ahead of the folks that run every day on hard surfaces, placing serious stress on the joints. Here's what you get:

From a Medical Standpoint

Running in the pool has long been a treatment prescribed for those with running injuries. "I commonly recommend aqua jogging for my patients recovering from knee, hip, and ankle surgery especially in conditions that require decreased weight bearing such as ligament reconstructions, meniscal repairs, cartilage transplants, and fracture surgery," says orthopedic surgeon Scott Welsh, MD. Across the nation, more than 166,000 people between the ages of 45 and 64 sought medical help for exercise- and exercise equipment-related injuries last year.

"By performing the exercises at various depths, we can gradually increase weight bearing on fractures that are not yet healed. Due to less gravitational impact on the extremities, movement can also be performed earlier and with less pain after surgery. The warmth and hydrostatic pressure applied by the water aid in circulation, which can expedite soft tissue healing and decrease swelling. The warmth of the water also has been shown to be very beneficial for reducing pain in an arthritic joint by relaxing tight muscles to improve flexibility, aiding in lubrication and by strengthening the surrounding muscle groups."

"I also use aqua jogging for patients with stress fractures so they can continue training for their events with less impact on their fracture. This is helpful for healing of the fracture due to controlled loading and beneficial for maintaining one's cardiovascular fitness. Runners often can actually get a more intense workout because of the increased resistance applied by the water and the recruitment of more muscle groups. Aqua jogging also can improve balance and strength in all muscle groups as compared with machines which tend to isolate individual muscle groups. As a result, pool therapy can be very helpful to re-educate muscle groups that are important for balance."

Equipment and Facilities

If you are running in deeper water, you will need a flotation device to help keep your torso above the water. You can purchase water running belts at Runtex or most other running stores and sporting goods stores. "There are also some great water running classes offered at the YMCA (they will provide the belts)," noted Mary. "Form is important as you want to be sure you are truly running with your body very vertical, legs pumping."

While belts put the body in the proper form in the deep end of the pool where you can't touch your feet, many pool runners advocate running in the more shallow end of the pool. You still experience the resistance benefit, along with the low impact benefit. This method will also allow you to concentrate on your running form. When you run on the hard road, it's more difficult to slow the pace and allow your foot strike to land on the mid-sole or ball of your foot if you're a heel striker. But in the water, you can slow the pace way down and land properly. Reinforcing the proper form in muscle memory will translate into better form during your on-road runs.

Just like swimming in lanes, you can run in lanes as well. If the pool is a little too crowded for lane running, choose to situate yourself in the deep end. Even if you don't have a suspension belt you may be able to keep yourself atop the water with your arm and leg movement alone. If you try it and it feels unnatural, you're probably a candidate for the aqua jogging belt. A couple of notes about running on the surface of the pool.

If you are still not convinced to try aqua jogging, Mary has an added benefit. "I suggest Barton Springs at dusk or even night as the sky and city skyline are very beautiful and its a very different experience."

Scott A. Welsh, MD

Appointments: (512) 301-9922 or email

Central Texas Orthopedics
7900 FM 1826 Ste 120, Bldg #1
Austin , TX 78737
512-322-9163 phone
512-358-0183 fax

A specialist in sports medicine and general orthopedics, Dr. Welch has a particular interest in arthroscopic cartilage restoration procedures for the knee. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois and attended medical school at Loyola University Chicago. He then completed his orthopedic residency at Michigan State University and a sports medicine fellowship at the Florida Orthopedic Institute in Tampa. He has worked as a team physician for the University of South Florida, University of Tampa, Western Michigan University, Saint Leo University, and several high schools in the Tampa area.

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