Hi everyone! I’m Emily, and I blog over at Speed Laces, Amazing Races about all things related to running and triathlon. I’m thrilled to be guest-blogging for Page while she’s enjoying her well-deserved post-wedding bliss.
I’m one of those injury-prone endurance athletes. I’ve had a number of stress fractures and pulled muscles and strains of all kinds. Training for marathons and Ironman will do that to you. Soon after I began ramping up my mileage in preparation for Boston this spring, I was sidelined with a stress injury that caused lingering pain in my left ankle. I did the whole ortho/PT bit and got into a regular rhythm of stretching and strength exercises, but since I couldn’t run on the road I had to find some other way to keep my running fitness in top form.
Enter pool running. Or aqua jogging. Whichever you prefer.
Sure, it looks goofy, and you probably picture old ladies doing water aerobics and think “I’m a serious athlete, there’s no way that’s going to do anything for my training.” I’d attempted it once or twice when recovering from injuries in high school — but when I was training for Boston, I quickly learned that it is not a joke. It’s hard work, and you can definitely feel it in almost every leg muscle. And you sweat like mad. Apparently you don’t need to pound the pavement to get a good workout.
To run in the water, you need a deep pool (so you can’t touch the bottom) and a flotation belt (which is optional if you have a really strong core). There’s some debate over exactly how to run — do you lean forward slightly so you move through the water, or is it better to be upright and stay in one place — but to me it feels natural to actually run laps. In my uneducated opinion, I think as long as you feel like you’re doing a running workout, you can be a little bit more relaxed about form.
In doing some pre-workout research, I also learned that slow, casual jogging won’t do much for your fitness level — which, given the lack of technique work, is the whole purpose of these sessions — so it’s particularly important to do intervals and up the intensity. It also helps with the boredom. I found that you can translate almost any track or interval training into the pool simply by using time and effort level to gauge what you’re doing. It’s not an exact science, but it’s the easiest way to stick to your training schedule.
If your workouts are written entirely based on time and heart rate, it’s easy. For example, warm up for 5 minutes, then do 6 x 3 minutes at your VO2 max effort level with 30 seconds of recovery between each interval. If your workouts are written based on distance (8×800, for example), use the approximate time it would take you to complete each rep and run for that amount of time at the same effort level you would on the track. Always cool down for 5-10 minutes. I also did tempo and long runs in the water. The trick is that you have to be very in-tune with your effort level and not cheat yourself by going easier than you really should.
So, does it work? I’d say yes. I did minimal running on the road in the lead-up to Boston and then PR’d my marathon by 8 minutes. I was doing a fair amount of cross-training with biking and swimming, which kept my base fitness high, but I think it’s critical to do running-specific activity as well.
Another option – though slightly less accessible and affordable – is to do your workouts on the Alter-G. And man, is this a sweatfest.
This spaceship-looking machine is actually an anti-gravity treadmill, so the user can adjust the amount of weight at which they run using a pressure-controlled chamber. If you can only have minimal impact on your bones due to a stress fracture, no problem. Run at 65 percent and feel like you’re floating on a cloud with your feet barely touching the belt. Working your way back from injury? Do intervals alternating between 85 and 90 percent. You get the motion and the aerobic workout without the pounding.
Here’s how it works: You wear special shorts that resemble very tight bike shorts but have a zippered waistband attached to them. Step into the machine, raise the sides to waist level and zip yourself in. At this point, everything feels normal. When you turn the machine on, you have to stand very still on the belt as it calibrates your weight. From there, it operates like a normal treadmill — speed, incline, etc — but with the added setting of % weight. If you run at less than 100 percent, the machine fills with air and more or less raises you off the belt. As you adjust the percentage, you can feel the change in impact. It’s incredibly strange at first, but then you realize that you’re running without beating up your legs.
The catch to these machines is that they’re very expensive and therefore can be tough to find and pricey to use. PT practices are starting to invest in them for rehab purposes, but even those are few and far between. When I first got injured, I did some research on using one to train for Boston. Not a single one in D.C. I was able to jump on one while home in Savannah just to try it out. But I imagine that more and more will appear in the coming months, and some upscale gyms might even invest in them. Like pool running, they’re a commonly-used tool for pro athletes.
Finally, you don’t have to be injured to take advantage of these workouts. In fact, substituting a session in the pool for some of your regularly-scheduled runs or hitting the Alter-G a few times during your training cycle likely would relieve the stress on your body and prevent injuries from happening in the first place. No one likes to be hurt, so it’s about prevention rather than treatment.
If you’ve got any other great ways to stay in peak form while injured, please share!