The latest research on the effectiveness of aqua jogging and 3 scientifically supported tips to help you get the most out of your deep water running

Many of my recent articles have been about various ways to prevent injury. But unfortunately, our best efforts are sometimes not enough, and we get injured anyways.

When you’ve run too far, too fast, or too much and you’ve done some damage to your body, you’ve got to let it heal. But runners are notoriously tenacious and defensive about their fitness. They don’t want to lose what they worked so hard for! It’s this attitude that often gets them into trouble in the first place.

But more to the point, if you have suffered an injury that is going to require some time off, you are probably going to want to do something to maintain your fitness.

Among the most popular methods is aqua jogging, sometimes also called deep water running. Today’s article looks at some of the science behind how aqua jogging is done and whether it can be an effective exercise during rehabilitation.

Cross training vs complete rest

First, however, we ought to consider the alternative to “cross training” during time off due to injury—complete rest. Dr. Jack Daniels, one of the pioneers of the use of threshold training, quantified the drop in fitness that occurs due to time away from running in his best-selling book, Daniels’ Running Formula.

Daniels’ work exposes a few important points: first, there is virtually no drop in fitness as a result of missing up to five days of running. After that, your conditioning drops more sharply, then “bottoms off” after about ten weeks (representing your “baseline” fitness as a sedentary individual).

After about a week or two away from running, the differences between those who cross-train (by any means) and those who take complete rest begin to emerge. Though the gap is only about two percent after fourteen days, this increases to ten percent (80% of initial fitness vs. 90% of initial fitness) after ten weeks or more. This means that a 4:30 miler who takes 10 weeks completely off will (in theory) regress to 5:32 without cross-training, but only 4:57 with it.

So, having realized the benefits of staying fit, we can move on to how to go about doing so.

Studies on the effectiveness of aqua jogging

Aqua jogging has become popular because, unlike cycling or using an elliptical machine, it is quite similar to overground running, at least in terms of the muscles used and your range of motion. A good deal of physiology research was done on aqua jogging in the early and mid-90s, as its popularity was rising.

Aqua jogging and heart rate

One of the earlier and more influential studies was done in 1991 by Nancy Butts, Mary Tucker, and Christine Greening at the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse.1 Their work compared oxygen consumption and heart rate during a graded exercise test done while aqua jogging and while treadmill running.

Although the runners were not able to achieve the same heart rates and oxygen consumption levels in the pool as they did on the treadmill, the researchers noted that the disparity was similar to that between running and cycling, which also elicits lower oxygen consumption and heart rates (when done by runners, at least). This paved the way for aqua jogging to be viewed as “on par” or even superior to other forms of cross training.

In an early review of some of the literature on aqua jogging, Reilly, Dowzer and Cable in the UK found that, at low to moderate intensities (comparable to an easy run or marathon pace), deep-water running is actually more demanding on the cardiovascular system, probably due to the increased demands on the upper body, which is poorly trained in runners compared to the legs.2

It’s only when the intensity approaches what you’d encounter in a 5k or 3k race (or shorter) that aqua jogging reaches its limits. Perhaps because of the hydrostatic pressure from being submerged in water, or simply because of unfamiliarity with the exercise, runners aren’t able to push their bodies as hard in the water versus on land. This indicates that aqua jogging is probably better suited for maintaining aerobic fitness versus race-specific anaerobic fitness.

How to make the most of aqua jogging workouts

Building off Reilly et al.’s work, Garry Killgore at Linfield College authored an extensive review of the literature on aqua jogging in February of this year.3 In it, he highlighted the strengths of aqua jogging (namely, how closely it simulates actual running) and made some recommendations on how to take advantage of these.

  • First, runners should use a flotation belt while aqua jogging if they wish to preserve “normal” biomechanics. While aqua jogging without a belt is certainly possible, you have to adopt a “high knee” gait with a rapid stride turnover to stay afloat. This high-knee style of aqua jogging demands more energy, and therefore might be a better workout, but comes at the cost of running specificity. Killgore recommends a “cross country” style gait, where the leg sweeps back at a larger angle and the foot “pushes” down at the bottom of the stride, much like in real running. Your stride frequency with this cross country gait in the pool will be much lower than if you were running on land. He also cautions against adopting too much of a forward lean, which is the most common form error in novice aqua joggers.
  • Second, Killgore found that later studies confirmed that aqua jogging is relatively close to real running in terms of cardiovascular demand at easy to moderate intensities, but falters when it comes to high intensity work. A few tricks, like keeping your head dry, running in a warmer pool, or wearing a tight-fitting synthetic shirt (like an UnderArmour vest), may boost the intensity of your workout somewhat, since one of the inhibitors of aqua jogging intensity is heat loss to the water.

In general, though, Killgore’s review stresses that aqua jogging is more suited towards maintaining fitness, not building it. Though a few studies have found fitness gains in subjects who undergo an aqua jogging regimen, these tend to use sedentary people instead of athletes.

On the bright side, however, runners can expect to maintain their fitness for at least six weeks by using an aqua jogging routine when injured. (Click to Tweet)

The only caveat is that the aqua jogging should be done at the same intensity, duration, and frequency as your normal training. So, if your training schedule called for a 90-minute long run, it can be a dull hour and a half in the pool!

Finally, he notes that your perceived effort while aqua jogging (how “hard” a particular effort feels relative to its actual physiological demands) is slightly increased in the pool. So, to get the same training effect, you’ll have to bump up the intensity a notch over what you’d use when running on land.

Recommendations for better aqua jogging results

While there’s little news that can cheer up a runner who’s been sentenced to four or six weeks off, the research we’ve reviewed in this article shows that not all is lost.

  • Aqua jogging is an excellent way to maintain the fitness you had before you were injured, provided you stick to it with the same intensity you usually train with.
  • To keep it as close to real running as possible, mechanically speaking, wear a flotation belt and make sure your stride in the pool is as close to your “normal” running stride as you can get it. If you want a harder workout, you can ditch the belt, but understand that the intensity is coming at a cost of what coaches call “specificity”—though it is a hard effort, it is less like running.
  • If you’re in need of some aqua jogging workouts to spice things up, check out our extensive Cross Training Guide for Runners. It’s our free guide that provides a mix of easy, medium, and super hard workouts (using a bungee cord tied to one end of the pool, which is guaranteed to get your HR skyrocketing) to add variety to your aqua jogging routine. Did we mention aqua jogging can be painfully boring?
  • Finally, keep in mind the particulars of your injury situation when pondering a cross-training regimen. There are some injuries, like a hip flexor strain or various hip and knee ailments that do not handle aquajogging well. If aqua jogging hurts, you shouldn’t be doing it! Work with your doctor or physical therapist to find another way to stay fit while you get healthy.

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References

1. Butts, N.; Tucker, M.; Greening, C., Physiologic responses to maximal treadmill and deep water running in men and women. American Journal of Sports Medicine 1991, (19), 612-614.
2. Reilly, T.; Dowzer, C. N.; Cable, N., The physiology of deep-water running. Journal of Sports Sciences 2003, 21 (12), 959-972.
3. Killgore, G. L., Deep-Water Running: A practical review of the literature with an emphasis on biomechanics. Physician and Sportsmedicine 2012, 40 (1).

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17 Responses on “The latest research on the effectiveness of aqua jogging and 3 scientifically supported tips to help you get the most out of your deep water running

  1. I just ran a half marathon after 4 weeks of pool running. I only had 4 days of land running during that 4 weeks. I felt my endurance and speed were maintained. The only problem I had was not being acclimated to the heat and humidity of Texas in June. Pool running wasn’t good for that! That added about 3 minutes to my overall time. I should’ve run it in 1:41 and my actual time was 1:44. I give pool running “two thumbs up”! Thanks for the article.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Lisa. Indeed, preparing for the heat is difficult enough when you’re not injured. I hope you have an injury-free summer of training and can break 1:40 this Fall!

  2. I am using aqua jogging to recover from a number of procedures and surgeries over my life that have finally caught up with me – most recently an epidural steroidal treatment for lumbar canal stenosis. This last procedure required a sedate lifestyle for a month and then gentle to moderate physio. I am finding that aqua training, that is jogging for a 100 count cadence, mountain climbers for a 100 count cadence, cross country ski for 100 count and upright crossover crunches for 100 count repeated over a 30 minute period is increasing flexibility, breaking loose scar tissue over a reconstructed left arm and stregthening the multifidous muscles and lower abs plus obliques. Using Aqua Jogger’s resistance shoes adds resistance to the cross country ski exercise for quad development and alignment of the patellar Q angle. Think straight leg raises on steroids. While I will never run a marathon I see massive improvement in my golf swing (form plus control), a reduced waist size (34 to 33 in a month) and no pain in the lumbar region. Flexibility is improving as the last set is done at a slower pace but through a greater range of motion. I am tethered to the side of the pool in an aqua jogger; which helps increase resistance on the mountain climbers and jogging. In other words, if injured and one can still workout, head to the pool, put on the vest and get after it. I’ll buy the webbed gloves next for increased upper body resistance. It is a boring 30 minutes but well worth the results. I use the time to clear my head from work and stress; meditating and focusing on form.

  3. Pingback: Aquajogging

  4. I tried aquajogging a number of times (with a vest) after plantar fasciitis prevented me from running on land before a final cross country championship race a few weeks later. Honestly, it wasn’t very successful in the end – although I felt like I might have been maintaining fitness, I also pulled some low abdominal muscles because the motion in the water is quite a bit different than normal running.

    Worse, the aqua jogging helped me fool myself into thinking that I could still run that championship race, and when I did, I exacerbated the plantar fasciitis injury horribly, to the point where I was hobbling for the last mile of the 5 miles. Had I not had the futile hope that I was maintaining fitness, I might have ditched that race entirely and not gone through another 3 months of pain, significant expense, and no running at all.

    So I’d just note that just because you might be able to maintain fitness in the pool doesn’t mean you can run on an injury.

  5. I have been doing the TNAR aqua running with a flotation suit once or twice a week. Its high intensity for 1 hour and works your core and whole body.

    I am not injured but incorporated it into my schedule as I am a v45 and wanted to try something new.

    Last night I did the 1 hour session in the pool and today 14 hours later I did a cross country race and to be honest ran terribly.

    My questions are is it worth doing this when you are not injured, should you do it the day before a session or a big race ( I think I know the answer lol)

    • It’s definitely worth doing when you’re not injured. It’s great for building your aerobic system without the pounding and is a new stimulus for the body to build. However, as you noticed, it definitely makes you tired. I’ve always found it very hard to run well the day after a pool session, especially a tough one. Just because you’re not pounding, doesn’t mean it’s not hard :) I would definitely stick with an easy run before a race to stimulate the CNS and get the blood flowing. http://runnersconnect.net/running-training-articles/should-i-run-the-day-before-my-race/

      • Thanks coach Jeff. As I am a Vet 45 I will utilise this as part of my future training but never ever again before a race.

    • Hi Kenny,
      The coach is very correct.
      I read with interest your comments about running poorly after a 1 hour session in the TNAR Suit.
      It must be understood you should never run intensively in the pool so close to a race as it can leave you drained of energy and is not recommended.
      I believe firmly one of the major benefits is the TNAR or Aqua Running can help develop a more relaxed and efficient running action with time.
      Was this 1 hour session before the race your own personal session Kenny as i am very strict on TNAR Classes being no longer than 45 minutes (they don’t need to be)

      Good you are using the TNAR suit!

      Cheers

      Terry

      This is why my trainers are told to constantly re inforce good technique.
      The

  6. Thanks for this article! I used aqua jogging as I recovered from stress fractures in 2010 & returned to PR a 5 miler. Used it again more recently in my recovery from a Plantar Faciia rupture. Definitely helped maintain my aerobic fitness as I followed what I feel was a wise return to “land leg” running, increasing my mileage gradually. Both times I used intervals (as opposed to steady state, longer endurance sessions)… I certainly can’t dispute the studies that show the endurance sessions are preferable but I can attest to benefiting from my approach which was more tolerable vs certain boredom :)

    I also appreciate the notes re: beltless… my Sports Chiro recommends beltless & I worked up to being able to ditch the belt for the last several minutes of my sessions which gives you an incredible cardio workout. After reading this article, I think I’ll use it only for a cardio boost at the end of my “aqua belted” sessions! And thanks for the “heads up” re: this may not work well for hip flexor strains for knee injuries as I head back to the pool this week for exactly that (hip flexor &/or quad strain) per my Doc’s initial diagnosis.

    The above info MUCH appreciated!

    • Donna, just curious how that turned out for your knee,hip flexor and quad strain? I’ve been going the DR’s for same issues and they have yet to pin point a solid diaganosis, besides arthritis maybe a muscle imbalance. My issue is when i first start running, the knee feels a little tight but after a few miles the muscles warm up and I’m good for a while. The resting pain is unbearable at times. I hope I’m doing the aqua gogging correctly.

  7. Pingback: Aqua Jogging | 365 Days of Night

  8. After a motorcycle injury, I’ve found water jogging has been helpful in a non impact way.
    To get around the “boring” issue I use a waterproof case for my iPod.
    I listen to audio books and music, depending on my mood and the time flies by.

    Just google ‘ waterproof iPod’ and you’ll find a bunch of affordable choices.

    Good luck!

  9. hi. I’ve introduced to pool running after I developed an Achilles injury after doing Ironman 2013. I try to spend 1 hour four times a week. It’s very boring though but I’m determined to stay fit. cant wait to get onto the road again.

  10. Pingback: Aqua Jogging workout– A Mental Challenge

  11. I’m suffering PFPS at the moment and my physio banned me from running for a while in the lead up to a recent race. I spent 2 weeks in the pool and the knee got better enough for me to run my half marathon. I started nervously not sure where my fitness or strnegth would be – but it all hung together well and I ended up with a 3 minute PB improvement!

    Unfortunately, that outing did aggravate my knee again (although only mildly) so I’m staying off my feet until the knee is given a completely clean bill of health (2-3 weeks – perhaps a little more). In the meantime I’m running in the pool as often as I can getting each workout as close to the land-based equivalents as I can.

    This morning I did a 45 minute interval session, later on in the week I’ll try and replicate the effort of a 10km tempo run, and at the weekend I’ll settle in for a 2hr long (and wet) run – all safe in the knowledge that my knee should be getting better not worse and fitness is being maintained.

  12. Hi,M
    My coach introduced me to water running when I was recovering from stress fractures in the calf. It was a great way to keep doing something and also maintaining a good level of Cardio, She was also of the opinion the water massage was very good for the tense muscles. Alone is very boring, but we got a little group together and it was a fun hour or so trying to sprint from point to point or whatever the instructions were. I think it helped the healing and great to burn off that accumulated energy.

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