How Swim Workouts for Runners Work

By: Dave Roos
If you'd like to get a good no-impact workout and rest your feet at the same time, hit the pool.
Erik Isakson/Getty Images

Running is brutal. Just try to find an avid runner over the age of 20 who doesn't have chronic knee, hip, shin, ankle and muscle aches. That's because running is essentially jumping from foot to foot for minutes, even hours at a time [source: Burfoot]. Every time those feet hit the pavement, the body has to absorb the impact. This places tremendous stress on bones, tendons, muscles and other tissues, which can break down over time.

That's why many top runners, including several world-champion marathoners, are big believers in pool running. Pool running, as opposed to pavement running, is virtually "no impact." But pool running isn't only for injured or recovering runners. Pool workouts offer the same aerobic and anaerobic benefits of land workouts -- sometimes even more so -- with the added perks of increased motion resistance and keeping the body cool. Runner's World magazine calls pool workouts "hands-down the best cross-training for runners" [source: Wischnia].


Water exerts 12 times more pressure on an object than air, so the body has to work harder to move in the pool. A study by New York's Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine found that simply walking through water at three miles (4.8 kilometers) per hour burns twice as many calories than keeping the same pace on land [source: Bloom].

Keep reading to hear more about the benefits of pool workouts for runners and then learn the best techniques for maximizing your speed and stamina.


When Runners Should Swim

Pool workouts make such effective cross-training tools for runners -- and all athletes, really -- because they apply resistance to every motion. On land, your muscles work hard to raise your legs and arms, but gravity does most of the work on the way back down. Since water pressure is 12 times greater than air pressure, you'll work muscles in the pool that don't see much action on land. The result for runners is greater overall strength and fitness, which translates directly into increased stamina and speed.

Writer Marc Bloom says that water workouts provide the "resistance to stress the body and the liquid density to protect it" [source: Bloom]. There are no jarring movements in a pool. Everything happens in relatively slow motion. Since the body weighs only a fraction of what it does on land, there's less shock to absorb.


Running in hot weather is exhausting, even dangerous. After 15 minutes of summer running, your body temperature raises five degrees. Add humidity into the mix and your sweat can't evaporate quickly enough to cool you down, leading to heat exhaustion and even heatstroke [source: American Council on Exercise]. But things are always cool in the pool. The cushion of cold water means less sweat, less water loss and almost no risk of overheating. For many runners, the cool water also has an invigorating effect, especially on days when they don't feeling like working out [source: Wischnia].

Pool running is perfect for athletes recovering from a chronic or acute running-related injury like shin splints, stress fractures and plantar fasciitis [source: Wischnia]. This enables serious runners to stay in shape, while giving their sore bones time to fully mend. Runners should note, however, that some injuries can be aggravated by pool running [source: Bloom]. As a general rule, if your injury still bothers you in the pool, stay out of the pool and off your feet.

Since pool workouts are lower impact than street running, it offers an excellent supplement or running alternative for older runners who suffer from arthritis. It also works for pregnant runners.

To get the most out of your pool workout, you have to learn the right pool running technique, which we'll talk about next.


Swim Workouts for Runners Technique

An Aquajogger makes it much easier to keep your head above water as you work out in the pool.
Tracy Frankel/Getty Images

For the lowest impact and most effective pool workout, you should never let your feet touch its bottom. Instead, you need to invest in a flotation device that keeps your head above the water while you run in place. There are custom-made devices like the AquaJogger that strap around your waist. Some runners use life vests, kickboards and even pool "noodles."

Pool running should be done in the deep end where you can easily float with the water at shoulder level [source: Burfoot]. The key to water running technique is to keep your head up and back straight. Your center of gravity is different in the water; many beginners tend to lean and bend forward to adjust [source: AquaJogger]. Instead, pretend that there's a string tying your head to the ceiling that keeps your posture straight. Try not to bob up and down while pool running; keep your motion even.


The ideal pool running motion is actual quite different than land running. Instead of bending your knees and raising them upward, experts recommend that you "sweep" your legs forward as if you were using a cross-country skiing machine [source: Bloom]. Lead with the toes and sweep the rest of your leg forward and backward. This works the maximum amount of muscle groups at once, including quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes [source: Burfoot].

You should bend your arms at right angles and pump them straight up and down, without crossing your chest. Raise your arms until your thumbs are two inches (5 centimeters) below the water's surface.

Another common beginner's mistake is to hold your breath. Since you're in the pool, you might have to overcome the natural swimmer's instinct to be able to breathe normally [source: Burfoot]. Don't worry, you'll get used to it.

Once you have the technique down, you're ready to try some great pool workouts for both speed and stamina. Read more on the next page.


Types of Swim Workouts

If you're already an experienced runner, you'll have no problem adapting your land workouts to the pool. One thing you'll have to get used to is the pacing; after all, everything is slower under water. Try counting your "cycles" per minute -- that is, how many times you kick your right leg in a minute of pool running. A pace of 60 to 70 cycles is a light jog; 70-80 is a brisk run and anything over 80 is the equivalent of your top speed [source: Barker].

If you're primarily interested in boosting your stamina, then try to maintain a steady jogging pace for 30 to 45 minutes. Concentrate on your form and your posture, keeping your back straight and head up. If you usually alternate sequences of running and walking on land, do the same in the water.


Milers and other fast long-distance runners like the fartlek technique, a training method than combines aerobic and anaerobic workouts for both stamina and speed. Fartlek means "speed play" in Swedish and requires alternating sequences of intense and light running. A common fartlek sequence is to run at top pace for five minutes, then five minutes of light running, followed by four minutes of fast, four minutes of light, all the way down to one minute of each [source: Saunders]. You can replicate this easily in the water.

Of course, pool running isn't the only kind of water workout for designed for runners. There are all kinds of pool workouts that target specific muscle groups and contribute to overall strength and fitness. For example, if you stand with your back against the pool wall, supported by your arms, you can do 90-degree scissor kicks that work the legs and abs [source: Saunders]. The same applies to bicycle motions. If you're a sprinter and want more explosive power off the blocks, move to the shallow end of the pool and jump out of the water in three reps of 15 [source: Barker]. The water provides excellent resistance and cushions your landing.

For more health and exercise information, look at our helpful links on the next page.


Lots More Information

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  • Why can a trained athlete run a marathon, but a couch potato cannot run half a mile?

More Great Links


  • American Council on Exercise. "Beat the Heat Before it Beats You"
  • Aquajogger. "Water Running Handbook"
  • Barker, Jill. "Cool down your workout by taking it to the pool." National Post. July 7, 2010
  • Bloom, Marc. "Water Workouts"
  • Burfoot, Amby. Runner's World Complete Book of Beginning Running. Rodale, Inc. 1997
  • Saunders, Chris. "Cross-Training Alternative: Pool-Running." January 26, 2004
  • Wischnia, Bob and Bloom, Marc. "Head for the Pool." Runner's World. September 5, 2003,7120,s6-238-263-266-5536-0,00.html