Aquarunning: Why aquarunning didn't work for these inexperienced athletes.

You've started a running programme and everything is going well. Your endurance is improving, you've lost weight, your muscles are firming up your body in formerly flabby places, and then - disaster. An injury pops up suddenly, and it's impossible to train while you're on the mend. You don't want to lose the fitness you've gained or gain back the fatness you've lost, so what should you do?

One common recommendation is to climb into the pool for some aquarunning. That makes sense, since aquarunning is a non-impact activity which mimics fairly closely the leg motions required for dry-land running. Research has also shown that experienced runners may be able to maintain performance capacity in the pool for up to six weeks - without doing any regular running at all.

However, the picture may not be so bright for inexperienced runners. In a very recent study carried out at the University of New Hampshire, relative newcomers to running found that they were unable to maintain their fitness by aquarunning. In the New Hampshire research, seven previously untrained women embarked on a 10- week running programme, during which they trained four times per week for 30 minutes per session. During the first three weeks, the females trained at an intensity of about 60 per cent of maximal heart rate (MHR). For the subsequent three weeks, they worked out at 70 per cent of MHR, and they were at 80 per-cent MHR for the final four weeks.

To simulate a situation in which a running injury might lead to a one-month stoppage of normal training, the women then quit their normal running and began a four- week programme of aquarunning. In the pool, the women again trained four times per week for 30 minutes per session, but since aquarunning often produces heart rates which are about 10 beats per minute lower than similar efforts on dry land, the women trained at 80-per-cent MHR MINUS 10 beats per minute. For all workouts, the women used a high-knees running motion which included steady arm swinging.

The females' fitness levels climbed steadily during the initial, 10-week running programme but sank like stones during the four weeks of aquarunning. The 10- week programme advanced V02max by a satisfactory 8 per cent and tended to trim body fat, but the four weeks of aqua-effort failed to maintain fitness. In fact, the runners' aerobic capacities plunged back to the levels observed before the 10-week running programme even began. Basically, the athletes were back at ground- zero after only one month without regular running, even though they had been running in the pool!

What went wrong? Well, to put it simply, the runners' aqua workouts were not optimally planned. The mere fact that heart rate is lower during aquarunning than regular nunning does NOT mean that athletes MUST maintain lower-than-usual heart rates when they run in the pool. In fact, it's wise to do some intense interval training during part of an aquarunning workout - to make sure that actual heart rate reaches levels normally attained while running. This will usually require a greater mental effort, compared to dry-ground running, but it will pay dividends by helping to preserve the fitness gained during regular running workouts.

Also, it's nice to remember that while large doses of high-intensity regular running can easily cause ath letes to fall victim to the overtraining syndrome, it appears that high-intensity work in the pool is less likely to produce overtraining, possibly because less muscle damage occurs during pool running. Setting your aqua- workout intensity at 80-per-cent MHR minus 10 beats per minute probably means that you're working too lightly to maintain fitness. If your goal is to preserve your aerobic capacity, you should have at least a couple of aquarunning workouts per week in which your heart rate goes higher, at least for a portion of the training session.

In addition to relying on interval work during aqua training, it's advisable to use other intense efforts. 'Fartlek aquarunning,' during which you speed up your efforts spontaneously for varying amounts of time, should work very well, as will 'tempo aquarunning,' in which you increase your heart rate to 85 per cent of dry-ground maximal for four to 10 minutes at a time.

In short, aqua workouts represent an opportunity to work fairly hard. Don't be discouraged at all by the recent New Hampshire research. If you're hard-nosed about your pool running, it can be an excellent way to maintain fitness when you're too hurt to run. ('Physiological Effects of Deep Water Running Following a Land-Based Training Program, ' Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, vol. 65(4), pp. 386- 389,1994)

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