Former Swiss triathlete Irene Birrer of Powerhouse Personal Training in Collingwood, Ontario, has been hosting deep water running classes, sessions and clinics for years. We hopped in the pool for a session to experience how deep water running worked. I was skeptical: I’d done it once before when I was injured and training for an Ironman and didn’t want to abandon running, but I hated it when I first tried it. After splashing in the water for an hour, watching my heart rate skyrocket and coming out of the pool feeling like I’d done a Fartlek set, I was a new convert. My knees — which had been a little grumpy due to an increase in hours spent running — thanked me, too.
It’s possible to try deep water running on your own, but if you have the chance to work with a coach who can help you master form and technique, it’s a great investment. A good deep water running coach will focus on building form and efficiency into your training plans.
Here are seven reasons runners should try deep water running:
1. IT IMPROVES YOUR FORM
When you’re in the middle of a run outside, Birrer says, it can be tough to really focus on your form. But the water offers the perfect chance to dial in — coordinating your arms and legs for max efficiency, and working on your strides. She focuses on three types of running in the water: mimicking downhill, endurance and uphill runs. Ankle flexion is key, and it only took one session for me to start seeing where I was losing efficiency. After she made some minor corrections, I took what she had told me onto the trail and immediately saw a difference, especially on the downhills. My upper body — who knew elbows mattered so much? — also got schooled.
2. YOU CAN SNEAK IN MORE MILES
If you’re trying to train for a marathon but you’re worried about injury, you only have time to run at night but hate treadmills, or you just don’t want to keep increasing your mileage on pavement, the pool is your answer. There’s an upper limit to how many miles we mortals can run outside during the week, but deep water running can sneak in some extra run fitness plus a bit of resistance training with almost zero impact to your joints. If you’re already running, say, 50 miles a week, but you know going up to 55 starts hurting your knees, adding a deep water running session might be the perfect solution: More time running, but no knee inflammation. It’s a win-win.
3. WATER ADDS INTENSITY
Running outside can feel brutal, but strangely enough, running hard in water doesn’t feel quite as painful, even though my heart rate showed a whole lot of spiking during our sprints. I didn’t seem to need the recovery time I normally would after a hard effort or workout either, and my long run the next day actually felt better than usual. Birrer says that’s not unusual: She finds that the more she gets in the water, the faster she is on land and the easier it feels to outrun her on-land running buddies.
4. IT WORKS YOUR UPPER BODY AND CORE
As runners, most of us tend to skip arm day at the gym. But with deep water running, though you’re still only mimicking the arm movements you would make on the trails, the resistance from the water provides a much more active workout for your upper body. It’s not so much that you’ll feel sore afterward, but enough that you can see some results and improvements in your upper body and core efficiency while running, and gain a bit of muscle tone as well.
5. YOU’LL RECOVER BETTER
Whether you’re recovering from injury or just need a recovery day in your week but don’t want to skip a workout, deep water running is a good alternative. It’s super low-impact, but helps you maintain your running form and fitness. Birrer says it’s been shown to maintain fitness for six weeks — that’s with no running outside — and she believes it can help maintain your body for even longer if needed. She sees plenty of clients come in with an injury sustained from running, like a stress fracture, and use deep water running as rehab and then keep coming to class long after they’ve healed because they enjoyed it so much.
6. IT’S FUN
To be honest, sometimes running can be a bit of a drag — especially when you’re putting in long hours or doing lots of intensity. Doing deep water running rather than an easy run or even breaking up a longer run day into two workouts — one in water and one out — can make running fun again. With music pumping in the pool, and while wearing a floatation belt, it honestly feels like you’re at a friend’s pool party. Remember those when you were a kid? Think of this as a fitness-based game of Marco Polo and embrace your inner child.
7. STAY COOL (OR WARM)
When it’s sweltering hot outside, some pool time sounds a lot sweeter than another sweaty session of pounding the pavement. You can do deep water running in your own pool (or sneak into a neighbor’s), since you don’t necessarily need to be going long distance to reap the benefits. For those in winter climates, it can be a better alternative to yet another hour logged on the treadmill or out in sub-zero temps.