Fitness Makeover: Try Aqua-jogging for Non-impact Recovery

Now in my third year of writing the Fitness Makeover columns, I've noticed that the letters and questions that pour into my mailbox come in trends: one month they're about wanting to lose weight; another, about staying motivated; the next, about getting faster or developing better endurance.

This month was no exception, as there were several readers who wrote with a debilitating running injury wanting to know what they could do to stay in shape while their ailments healed.

Nelly Galdindo, Katarina Schmidtova, Kathleen Manning and Cici Ross are just a small sampling of active athletes who have recently been sidelined by a foot surgery, a torn Achilles, chondromalacia, and torn knee cartilage, respectively.

They all have in common a love of running, and are anxiously waiting for their injuries to heal in order to get back into it.

Of primary concern to them all was what they could do to maintain their running conditioning while obeying their doctor's orders to stay off the trails and treadmills.

This running-injury theme must have been in the cards this month, for another reader wrote in with a Makeover suggestion (rather than a question) that addressed this very concern and offered a compelling solution.

Megan Melgaard is a former U.S. National Swim Team member and current triathlon junkie who ended up with a bum knee after a minor freak accident involving a 50-pound weight and the ability to drop it on fragile parts of her anatomy.

Always one to think out of the box, Megan decided to give aqua-jogging a try, having heard that friend and pro triathlete Bill Schultz came away from a serious injury to win the St. Anthony's triathlon in Florida this year after resorting to the exercise therapy for several months.

"Deep-water running is a super, no-impact cross-training activity for anyone who wants to build or preserve leg strength," Megan says.

"Because it uses the same muscles as running on land, it's especially appealing to runners who are prone to or recovering from shin splints, stress fractures, and hamstring or lower-back injuries."

Aqua-jogging requires little (if any) swimming skill. Most runners who might be uncomfortable in the pool can either jog in waist-deep water or invest in a flotation vest (indeed, such a vest is also recommended for those athletes whose buoyancy may be questionable). An Aqua-Jogger vest can be purchased at almost any fitness-gear retailer.

Megan opts to go sans vest in the deep end, since it is more difficult to keep your head above water without the flotation device. She concentrates on good form and a long stride, but cautions that one can get fatigued quickly:

"Being in the water creates more resistance than running on land, and I can sure feel it in my legs!"

Other than good form (which is essential underwater, or else you end up flailing and tilting uncontrollably), focus on getting your heart rate up by being forceful and fast, yet smooth in your movements.

Mimic the body's running motion on land while you're in the water. Keep your feet flat, as if you are running on the ground, making sure not to pronate or turn your feet outward.

You will realize that while your heart rate escalates, the low-impact nature of the activity should have no painful side effects (however, check with your doctor before attempting to Aqua-jog, as certain knee injuries may require complete immobility in order to heal properly).

Hal Rothman, well-esteemed long-distance running coach and producer of the TV program Saucony Running and Racing, suggested the following workout to Megan in her quest to maintain her running physique while being sidelined in the pool.

Aqua-jogging Workout

10 min. warm-up
(light aqua-jogging in shallow/deep water)

10 x 25 @ 15 secs rest
(in shallow water, alternating high knees and fast feet)

15 x 1:00 (40 secs sprint/jog, 20 secs treading water/rest)

10 min. warm down
(light jogging, shallow water)

Approx. duration: 55 mins.

The main set of 15 x 1:00 is challenging because it follows the theory of incomplete recovery (in that you are still moving during the "down" time rather than completely resting).

If endurance running is your strength, you can opt for a 45-minute session of aqua-jogging with no rest, increasing and decreasing levels of intensity throughout the workout. Approach the 45 minutes as if it were a typical training run, starting out smooth and picking up the pace to your aerobic threshold capacity for the last 15 minutes before warming down for 5 or 10 minutes.

Shallow-water aqua-jogging has additional benefits. High knee movements and shallow steps in waist-deep water will increase your foot speed on land while really putting the burn in your quads. Consider wearing a pair of water-shoes (Speedo has a line of "Surfwalkers" and "Aqua Fit Trainers") for traction as well as added protection from sandstone pool bottoms.

"Whatever running one does on land may be adapted to the pool," Megan says. "Degrees of exertion, duration in the water and stride can all be altered based on your ability, endurance, and performance goals."

Done steadily and vigorously, high returns are possible from aqua-jogging. In one study Megan found that maximal oxygen consumption, lower extremity concentric muscular strength, and endurance in well-trained male runners remained unchanged during a three-week deep-water training program similar to the one outlined above ("Effect of Water Running and Cycling on Maximum Oxygen Consumption and 2-Mile Run Performance," The American Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 21(1), pp. 41-44, 1993).

Too often, passionate runners and triathletes aren't willing to allow enough time for their injuries to heal properly, which results in more serious disabilities and compounded frustrations later on. It is encouraging to note that Megan is offering a solution that allows runners to continue their training without suffering from the high-impact side effects of the sport.

In the long run (pun intended), aqua-jogging just might be the compromise between doing nothing and over-training to the point of serious injury.


A former swimmer at Stanford University, Alex Kostich has stayed strong in the sport at the elite level even while maintaining a day job. The three-time Pan-American Games gold medalist still competes in and wins numerous open-water races around the world each year, as well as competing in the occasional triathlon and running race.

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