Aquatic Therapy and Deep Water Running

How to use aquatic therapy and deep water running for injury rehabilitation and fitness.

by Brad Walker | First Published May 21, 2001 | Updated April 29, 2020

It’s been called everything from deep water running to aquatic therapy and water aerobics. However, it’s more than just kicking up and down the local pool or spending some time in a hot, bubbling spa.

Used correctly, aquatic therapy is a marvelous tool to complement your regular training or maintain fitness. It’s also beneficial for assisting recovery from hard training or serious injury.

Aquatic therapy and deep water running for injury rehabilitation and fitness

What is Aquatic Therapy?

So what is actually meant when someone talks of aquatic therapy? In its broadest sense, aquatic therapy can be any activity that is performed in water. However, I like to break these activities into two major areas that relate specifically to sport, exercise, fitness and health.

Firstly, aquatic therapy is any exercises done in water to complement and enhance your regular training and exercise. Secondly, aquatic therapy is any activity performed in water to assist in rehabilitation and recovery from hard training or serious injury.

Features of Aquatic Therapy

One of the main features of aquatic therapy is that it allows you to exercise without the jarring and jolting experienced when training on land. It is estimated that body weight is compounded up to five times during the heel strike when running or jogging. This does not occur during deep water or aquatic exercise. The buoyant properties of water mean that you are able to perform exercise without any significant impact at all.

This feature alone makes aquatic therapy stand out from a number of other recovery and rehabilitation exercises. When injured it is extremely difficult to find exercises and activities that allow you to maintain your current level of fitness without the risk further injury. However, the use of aquatic therapy and deep water exercises put the body in a near zero gravity environment. Meaning there is virtually no impact or jarring on any of the body’s joints, muscles, ligament, tendons or bones. This is where aquatic therapy can assist by helping recovery without any loss to your training schedule.

Another important feature of aquatic therapy is that water increases the resistance experienced while training. The great thing about this increased resistance is that it’s variable. Meaning, the faster and harder you work against the water, the greater the resistance you encounter and the harder the work out. So, if you’re injured or looking for an easy work out, you can take it slow and gently move your limbs against the water. However, if you want a tough work out, go as hard and as fast as you can, the water will always return an equal resistance.

Benefits of Aquatic Therapy

From the two features mentioned previously, you can see that aquatic therapy is a very safe and beneficial form of exercise. As well as a number of cardiovascular and respiratory benefits, aquatic therapy also helps to:

  • Increase and maintain muscular flexibility, mobility and range of motion;
  • Increase muscular strength; and
  • Improve coordination, balance and postural alignment.

Other benefits include:

  • A high calorie consumption;
  • A massaging effect on your muscles;
  • The ability to train during very hot weather, (using an outdoor pool or freshwater lake;
  • The ability to train during very cold weather, (using an indoor heated pool);
  • A great supplement or alternative to regular training;
  • Is usually pleasurable and very relaxing; and
  • Because your body is supported by water your heart rate is slightly lower, meaning aquatic therapy is relatively safe for obese individuals, pregnant ladies and those suffering from hypertension and heart disease.

What Equipment Do You Need?

Besides from a pair of bathers and an open expanse of water, the only other thing you need is a float of some sort. There are specially designed float belts and vests that you can buy, but any old life jacket, ski belt or floaty will do the trick as long as it keeps your head above water. Just make sure it doesn’t interfere with the movement of your arms and legs too much.

To the right are a number of superb examples of professional flotation devices designed specifically for deep water exercise. The first is a flotation belt which fits around the waist and connects at the front. This will provide ample buoyancy to keep just about anyone afloat. The second picture shows one of the flotation vests which is very similar to a life jacket, except that it provides a greater amount of freedom to move around.

If you don’t have access to one of these professional devices, don’t panic. For years I simply stuck an old swim floaty down the front of my bathers. It wasn’t pretty, but it did the trick. You can do the same, an old piece of foam or float tied around your waist will keep your head above the water.

Aqua belt
Wet vest

Your Position in the Water

You want to position yourself in a similar posture to that of running on land. Keep your head up and your shoulders back. Your torso should be relatively straight with a slight (very slight) forward lean. Do not bend forward at the waist and alternately do not lean back into a sitting position. In this position you should be free to move your arms and legs in all directions. Refer to the picture for a visual example.

Underwater position of deep water running

Sample Aquatic Therapy Routine

There are dozens of movements or actions you can perform while doing aquatic therapy. The standard is the running motion. This should be performed as you would run on land. Make sure you have long strides, fully extending your legs, thinking smooth and long. Don’t forget your arms, move them back and forth, keeping your shoulders relaxed.

Or, try cross country skiing; keeping your arms and legs straight, moving them back and forth like a cross country skier. Or try over exaggerating your stride, like a runner over hurdlers. The choices are endless, so feel free to make up some of your own or watch the videos below for a few ideas.

A word of caution! Before going straight into a serious work out, spend a couple of sessions concentrating on your technique and getting comfortable in the water. I can guarantee you that the first time you try this sort of exercise, it will feel very strange and uncomfortable. After a few easy sessions you’ll start to get the hang of it. Then, once you’ve mastered this new form of exercise, you can move onto a more structured work out like the one below.

Warm Up: Run or stride easy for 10 to 15 minutes, gradually increasing the speed and intensity. Do a few stretches to loosen up the muscles and finish the warm up with a few short, fast sprints.

Main Set: Alternate between running and cross country skiing for 3 minutes at a moderate o hard pace, then 1 minute at an easy pace. Repeat this 5 to 10 times, depending on your fitness and goals.

Or: Run or ski;

  • First 2 minutes easy.
  • Next 2 minutes moderate.
  • Next 2 minutes hard.
  • Next 2 minutes moderate.
  • Last 2 minutes easy.
  • Repeat the above 2 to 4 times.

Or: Simply run or ski at a moderate intensity for 30 to 40 minutes. Remember to keep your heart rate at a steady, consistent level; don’t go too hard too soon.

Cool Down: Run easy for 10 minutes gradually decreasing the intensity. Finish with a good stretch and you’ll feel great.

Next time you’re laid up with a minor injury or looking for something a little different to beat the boredom of your usual workout, remember to give deep water running a try. You’ll be surprised at the great workout you can get! 

Research and References

Brad Walker - AKA The Stretch CoachAbout the Author: Brad Walker is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon (author page) has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 1,000's of verified customer reviews. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.

Disclaimer: The health and fitness information presented on this website is intended as an educational resource and is not intended as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult your physician or physical therapist before performing any of the exercises described on this website, particularly if you are pregnant, elderly or have any chronic or recurring muscle or joint pain.

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