It happens to just about everyone at some point – you get excited and run too much one day, or you push yourself too hard for that PR. That’s right, we’re talking about the “I” word – INJURY. Or maybe it’s getting too cold for you to run outside, and you are looking for an “alternative” workout–especially to cold barefoot runs! Well, guess what? Your local pool isn’t just for swimming – it’s a great place to run too! Long distance runners are using it more and more during the winter months or even just to get in an extra workout to get hours in without impact or injury.
So how does it work? There’s two main ways to do pool running: ‘floor’ running and ‘float’ running.
Floor running is just that – your run on the floor of the pool. Unless you are very tall, you will need to stay in shallow water, although don’t be afraid to get in up to your chest. Some pools have teaching lanes (or even pool running lanes) that stay about 3’6” deep, and these are perfect. You don’t need lanes – the more you change direction, even if it’s zig-zagging around other pool users – the better!
Start with a decent warm up, such as swimming a few laps, before you get started. Start off by walking, but try to avoid taking big, sweeping strides or using your arms to push you through the water. Try to mimic your barefoot stride on solid ground as much as possible. You will need to put considerable effort into pushing yourself through the water, but at the same time it’s hard to get traction on the pool floor. That means you may find that even if you’ve been putting in plenty of barefoot miles all summer, your feet may get sore from the pool floor. In the water, the soles of your feet will soften, and the friction against the floor can get sore if you aren’t careful with your form.
Aim for quick, short strides – think ‘strut’ rather than ‘walk’ and ‘jog’ rather than ‘run’. Chances are you will naturally lean a little forward and shorten up your stride as you push against the water – exactly what you are looking for in good barefoot form!
Moving into deeper water – above your waist and even up to your chest – will encourage you to focus on your balance too. This will build up your core muscles, and condition your upper body for the very movements you need when you are back out barefoot running on dry land!
Some pool runners prefer to keep their feet entirely off the pool floor. By wearing a special pool running flotation vest, you can avoid the friction of the pool floor, and really work on speeding up your cadence. Pool running vests are designed to strap around your ribs and chest, and they will keep you suspended in the water at about shoulder height. Many pools have the vests that you can use – they are becoming increasingly common for water aerobics classes – but most swim supply shops and online retailers will have them too. It can take a few tries to get used to the vests – first you have to trust them to keep you afloat (and they will), but also you will need to work a bit to keep your balance and stay upright, which brings in those all-important core muscles again!
Float running is a bit different from floor running and definitely different from pure barefoot running. These differences are talked about in more depth in the running barefoot book, which details other cross-training alternatives too. Your aim is to mimic your running stride as closely as possible, but while using your arms as well. You can really pick up the cadence with float running, and even work in intervals or ‘sprints’ where you really ‘run’ hard. You don’t need to actually go anywhere, although most pool runners find they tend to drift a bit and do cover some ground. I’ve seen some real die-hard pool runners tether themselves to the side of the pool with a bungee cord so they can pull against that too for added effort without worrying about where they are going or bumping into swimmers!
When you first try it out, you may think you aren’t working that hard – you won’t sweat as much in the pool, and you don’t have the measure of distance to show what you’ve achieved. But wait for it – when you get out of the pool and your legs feel like jelly you’ll know you’ve got it right!
Whichever method you choose pool running pays off during injury, or even when the temps get a bit too cold to handle the outdoors! You’ll keep your running fitness, you’ll maintain your barefoot form, and you’ll strengthen your core muscles for better running balance. Best of all, you’ll have fun, and finish your workouts tired but feeling refreshed!