Pool Running Is The Coolest Way To Do Cardio

Play mermaids but make it exercise.

All the benefits of running in a pool.
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Now that summer is in full swing — and The Little Mermaid has everyone craving a dip in the sea — it feels like an ideal time to move your weekly jog into the water for a refreshing pool run. Not only will pool running keep you cool during your workout, but experts say it also brings you special benefits you won’t experience on a tread.

You can do a pool run in one of two ways. Your first option is to pop into the deep end with a special flotation device, like a wet vest or waist belt, and run while your body hangs in a relaxed position with your head out of the pool, says Steve Victorson, a professional water instructor. This is the ideal way to do the fitness modality, but it’s also OK to stick to waist- or chest-deep water and push your feet off the bottom.

Pool running involves a lot of the same mechanics as outdoor running, but with the added element of H₂O, says Christine DiBugnara, a certified personal trainer and run coach. The water works to add resistance while it simultaneously takes a load off your joints — and it makes for a really unique workout.

According to Kevin R. Stone, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon and founder of The Stone Clinic, pool running is a good choice if you have injuries, like arthritis or knee pain, and want to stay active. It’s ideal for preventing injuries, too, since you’re floating the entire time instead of pounding the pavement, which is something any runners’ joints will appreciate. Read on for what know about pool running, the most mermaidcore workout you can do.

All The Benefits Of Pool Running

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It’s Low-Impact

The water will completely alleviate wear and tear on your joints in deep water, and greatly reduce it in shallow water, says Victorson. As you make your way across the pool, you’ll get all the benefits of a run, minus the impact associated with jogging outside or on a tread — all thanks to the wonders of buoyancy.

It’s Great For Athletes

Pool running is ideal for athletes or anyone else who’d like to be nicer to their knees. According to DiBugnara, a pool run greatly minimizes the amount of force generated during your foot strike compared to outdoor running. “This will take noticeable pressure off your joints including your ankles, knees, hips, and spine,” she tells Bustle.

It Builds Strength

Fun fact: “Running in the pool will challenge all the same major muscles used in outdoor running, like your hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, and calves,” says DiBugnara. The only differences are the load and time under tension for your muscles and joints when you’re in the water, she notes, so don’t be surprised if you notice an increase in your strength and power during your outdoor runs. If you can slog your way through chest-deep water, running on land will feel like a breeze.

It Improves Your Run Stride

Since your running pace slows way down in the water, DiBugnara says pool runs can be used as a way to focus on improving your stride. And a better stride could help prevent repetitive injuries caused by outdoor running — and make you go a whole lot faster.

According to Victorson, running in a pool can also improve how you pump your arms on land. “Once the basics are learned, water running has the potential to become a routine that keeps runners running longer and stronger and with fewer injuries for the rest of their careers and lives,” he says.

It Boosts Your Cardio

It’s tough enough to wade through water, so imagine running through it. This is why pool running is excellent for your cardio health, says DiBugnara. The extra resistance makes you work even harder, which is why it’s a great conditioning tool.

You’re also able to work longer and harder in a pool, since the water temps keep you cool. “You can perform high-level HIIT routines, virtually injury-free,” Victorson says. “A pool heart rate of 130 is equivalent to a 140 or so heart rate on the land. With the right pool-based program, the runner is able to ‘increase mileage’ in a safe environment versus increasing mileage on the land and risking the potential for an overuse injury.”

It Improves Balance

Adjusting to the way it feels to run in water also serves as balance training, says DiBugnara. While you obviously won’t fall over, running through liquid will force all the stabilizer muscles in your body to work overtime. “Moving forward in the water is like running into the wind,” Victorson adds. “It makes you stronger.”

It Spices Things Up

If nothing else, a pool run will definitely spice up your usual workout. As DiBugnara says, “It’s a great way to mix up your outdoor running training to avoid the boredom of ‘same place, same pace.’”

What To Know About Pool Running

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When comparing pool running to running outdoors or on a treadmill, the most noticeable difference is speed, DiBugnara tells Bustle. Your run will be much slower in the water than it would be on land, but the pool makes up for it by challenging your balance and working your muscles in a brand new way, she says.

To make the most of your pool run, DiBugnara recommends hopping in with a fitted bathing suit or tight-fitting clothes, like compression shorts. “Loosely fitted clothes, like an oversized t-shirt, will quickly become an obstacle in the water,” she says. You can also add a swim cap to keep your hair dry.

Once you’re in, focus on your form as you go. Instead of wading through or swimming, “practice driving your knees up as you turn over your feet,” she tells Bustle. “Pump your arms as you lean into your stride, as this will naturally make your legs move quicker.”

Keep in mind that you don’t need to mimic your land workout. “The point of pool-based exercise is to use the benefits offered by the water and to not try to make it like the land,” Victorson adds. “For example, in the pool, the body is constantly working against resistance.” He recommends runners spend one day in the pool during their training week.

If you like, add a buoyancy belt into the mix so you can fully suspend into the water and give your body a break. This tool will help you float a touch higher in the water and it’ll also help you maintain an upright form as you jog.

25-Minute Pool Running Workout

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If you’re new to pool running, DiBugnara recommends trying a timed workout that involves running laps across the shallow end. This 25-minute routine incorporates cardio, strength, and power training, so you’ll emerge from the water stronger than before.

  • Start with a 5-minute warm-up by doing an easy jog in the water.
  • Run for 1 minute across the shallow end at a medium intensity/exertion. You should feel breathless by the end, but not exhausted.
  • Run for 30 seconds at a higher intensity. This should be your best effort.
  • Rest for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat this interval 5 times.
  • Do high knees in the water. Quickly run in place and lift your legs up and down.
  • Do high knees for 20 seconds at a medium/high intensity.
  • Rest for 10 seconds.
  • Repeat this interval 10 times.
  • To finish, run back and forth across the shallow end for 10 minutes. Maintain a steady exertion/medium intensity.
  • Cool down with a stretch.

Studies referenced:

Lo, G. H. (2020). Evidence that Swimming May be Protective of Knee Osteoarthritis: Data from the Osteoarthritis Initiative. PM & R : The journal of injury, function, and rehabilitation, 12(6), 529.

Roper, JA. (2013). Acute aquatic treadmill exercise improves gait and pain in people with knee osteoarthritis. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2012.10.027.


Steve Victorson, professional water instructor

Christine DiBugnara, certified personal trainer, run coach

Kevin R. Stone, MD, orthopedic surgeon, founder of The Stone Clinic