Water Running – an under-utilized form of cross-training

By Kristen Marchant, Recharge With Milk Ambassador Team

Water running is perhaps one of the most under-utilized forms of cross training. As a zero-impact activity, it can be a great way for injured athletes to stay in shape, or a great supplement to a training program for healthy athletes.

I wish this is what I was talking about.

Water running is the closest form of cross training that you can get to running, mimicking the same arm and leg movements as you would do running on land.  Also, due to the fact that there is zero-impact (you do this in the deep-end) it is possible to do many interval workouts on successive days, whereas on land this would significantly increase your risk of injury and lead to increased fatigue.

One of the most important things to focus on when pool running is proper form. It is easy to over-stride with a low cadence which won’t raise your heart rate, or to lean forward such that you don’t need to work as hard. It is important to keep the back straight and drive the knee up and then the foot down- it may feel more like cycling than running but that’s okay. Many articles will tell you to use a floatation belt, which is probably a good idea if you are new to water running or don’t find yourself to be particularly buoyant- personally I basically have a built in floatation belt (if you know what I mean 😉 ) so don’t bother, but it is really about what works for you.

One of the key things with water-running is that it is supposed to be hard. Due to the fact that there is no impact, air resistance, hills, etc. it is very easy to get in the water and barely raise your heart rate, which provides little to no training benefit. One of the best things to do is to bring a workout with you. This doesn’t have to be much different than what you would do on land either. You can vary efforts between tempo, hard, and sprints, just as you would on land, although in the water there is not as great a need for long rest periods- your heart rate will be lower while water running than it would be running on land, although very likely close to heart rate levels for cycling. Having a workout helps to keep you focused on what you are doing (as it is easy to lose focus and find yourself not working very hard) and makes the time pass more quickly.

Here are some workouts that I typically do. Since I can only go on my lunch hour, the workouts are 50 minutes or less, although it is possible to do longer workouts if you have the time.



5min WU

6x(2.5min hard/30sec easy)

2-3min easy, repeat intervals

5min WD



5min WU

Ladder intervals (1,2,3,4,5,4,3,2,1) with 1min easy between each

5min WD



5min WU

6x4min tempo, 1min easy

5x1min very hard, 1min easy

5min WD


As a triathlete (as opposed to a pure runner) I found that the best way to institute water running when I was injured was to just replace some of the run sessions I would have done with the water running. Pure runners often find that they will do more water running sessions than they would land running sessions, but then again, they aren’t trying to swim and bike too. Obviously this is also a function of when you can get to the pool. Working at the University of Waterloo right now allows me to go on my lunch hour during the public swim, however those without such easy access to the pool may find it easier to do some pool running immediately following their swim workout.

I can’t sell this form of cross training on how much fun or how interesting it is because, quite frankly, it is BORING. If you can get others to accompany you it might be better, but I wouldn’t know since whenever I ask someone they look at me like I’m crazy, laugh, and go for a run outside. If the pool you’re at plays music it is much more bearable, if not maybe you can bring your own music? Regardless, if you can’t run, this is the best cross training you can do and will likely maintain your run fitness for at least 6 weeks of no running outside. Some athletes even find they are faster after taking time off for an injury and water running (although I’m sure there are several factors at play in these cases). And for those looking to increase their running volume, this can be a great way to log more “miles” without the increased risk of injury.

Keep up with Kristen at her blog.