All of her adult life, 49-year old Michele Chudik tried to find a type of exercise she liked enough to stick with it. She’d tried just about everything, she thought, when a stress fracture in her foot forced her into the pool to try water running. Six years later and Chudik is still at it.
Water running, for the uninitiated, originally came about as a way for injured runners to keep in shape while they can’t get on the road. Research, in fact, finds that it’s one of the best substitutes for the real thing. But as Chudik proves, water running isn’t just for runners — it’s a great way for anyone to stay in shape. With no impact, water running is suitable for almost anyone: those suffering injuries, seniors, and those with arthritis find it a good alternative to their normal routine, or like Chudik, a favorite workout.
Using a special flotation belt, you get into the deep end of the pool and “run,” mimicking the motion you’d use on land. While it’s effectiveness as an alternative to running is known, most runners will complain that the trade off is lack of mental stimulation. Staring at a pool wall for 30 or 40 minutes or longer isn’t the most exciting way to go.
The good news is that water running has evolved over the years and there are now ways to make it more exciting. Waterproof headphones, for one, can help. Adding intervals and following a program with specific workouts is another way to shake it up. And if you’re lucky enough to be in the right location, there are even classes that provide coaching and the camaraderie of fellow classmates.
The New York Road Runners club, for instance, offers up a seven-week deep water running class directed by a certified trainer. Over the seven weeks, class participants go through varied, 45-minute sessions that include a warm up, cool down, and approximately 30 minutes of intervals, sprints and even simulated hill training.
Chicagoland residents can tap into a class called Fluid Running created by Jennifer Conroyd, a 53-year old runner from La Grange, Ill. Conroyd first turned to water running to help her reach the start line of the Chicago Marathon in 2010, when a calf injury prevented her from training on land. “I was six weeks out from the race and came across a nine-week plan for injured runners,” she says. “I reached out to the coaches who developed the plan and they helped me dial it in for the time I had left.”
Some of Conroyd’s sessions lasted up to three hours in order to mimic the long runs she otherwise would have put into her preparation. On race week, she did a two-mile test run on land and felt good enough to try the marathon. She finished out feeling unexpectedly good. “I couldn’t believe I wasn’t hitting a wall,” she says. “I also wondered why more athletes didn’t use water running.”
Her positive experience led Conroyd to become certified to coach water running and begin teaching one-on-one sessions. Today, she leads classes several times a week at her local gym.
Chudik is one of the regulars in Conroyd’s classes and goes two to three times every week. “It’s a great cardio workout and I never get bored,” she says. “We get a big mix of people in class in all age ranges and abilities. It’s a safe space for everyone.”
Jennifer Govostis, a 48-year old non-practicing physical therapist, also attends and even coaches the classes at the Chicago-area gym. “I started taking the classes three years ago due to injury,” she says. “I was totally skeptical and didn’t think I’d like it.”
Today, Govostis has used water running to train for three marathons and gets in the water twice a week for sessions. “I do my speed work in the water instead of on land,” she says. “I keep getting faster at my races and I’m not increasing my mileage. I think it has allowed me to continue running without injury.”
For those who aren’t local, Conroyd created a Fluid Running H2Go app, which users pair with a flotation belt, tether and Bluetooth waterproof headphones that are part of the package. Conroyd says that users tend to skew toward general fitness buffs versus runners at a ratio of 75 percent to 25 percent.
Some people attempt water running without a flotation belt, assuming they will get a better workout that way. Conroyd dispels that: “The belt is critical for maintaining upright form,” she explains. “You won’t get as good of a workout if your form is off.”
Doing some sort of intervals is important as well, as it is more difficult to get your heart rate high in the water. Keep in mind, however, that your heart rate will always run lower in the deep water. “Expect it to be about 10 to 15 beats lower at a comparable level of exertion,” says Conroyd.
The nice thing is that water running can be tailored to your needs and fitness level — similar to a spin class, says Conroyd. “You can work as hard or as easy as you want,” she says.
For her part, Chudik is thrilled to have found the workout she loves and will do several times a week. “Once you hop in the water, there’s a magical quality to it,” she says. “I leave class feeling amazing — it’s the best part of my day.”