1984 was going to be a big year for me. My final year of school, my running was reaching new levels of success, life was good! My school mates were also hitting top form as one of my class mates and early running heroes, Riaan Strydom, ran a scintillating 1m49s for 800m. And that on a grass track! Such performances were not due to me though as disaster struck when just suddenly I found myself unable to run. Almost overnight I developed a dull pain on the bottom of my right shin and putting any weight on it was near impossible. As runners we were used to discomfort but this one was new and unlike anything I had experienced before. It was as if my body totally prevented me from stepping on that leg. A visit to a top local physio in South Africa confirmed what I suspected – my life was over! I had a stress fracture and was out for a mandatory 10 weeks of no running!
The chairlady of our local running club, Vreni Welch, suggested I do some pool running! I had never heard of it before but she confidently recommended it as a healthy alternative that would keep me from losing my fitness, and my sanity! One of her sons was an avid rower and she loaned me his lifejacket and soon I was doing laps in the deep end of our pool. Not the most exciting activity I was counting not only the minutes but eventually even the weeks until I was allowed to make a very gradual comeback to running starting off with some short training stints on a grassy field. Low and behold she was right – I was far from a beginner and able to slot into some regular sessions much sooner that I had expected!
When I met Merle late 2014 this robust fifty-something year old lady impressed me with her determination to train for her first ultramarathon, and even to tackle the might Comrades marathon that following year. She had a history of stress fractures, and we were quite careful in putting together her training program. Despite all reasonable care, we were both equally distraught, when almost out of the blue she presented with stress fracture number seven! Merle was undeterred in her desire to keep training for the Comrades marathon later that year, so we made some drastic changes to her preparation schedule. Running training was reduced to three sessions per week, supplemented with two cycling outings, and three aqua runs each week. Not your average preparation for a 90km run! Over the months to come she showed her mettle and was often spotted all alone in the deep end of our sports clinic pool, doing her one hour run in the water!
When the time came for her to do her qualifying marathon, I don’t know which of us were more surprised at her excellent time and energy as she finished in just over 4 hours! Recovery from the race was quick and she was back in the pool to keep training for her next big stepping stone which was a popular 50km race in the South African low-veld. Once again she triumphed with a positive and inspiring 5h24min for the race!  Needless to say, Merle kept plugging away and just over a month later she ticked off another big item on her bucket-list when she completed the Comrades marathon in just over 11 hours!
A lot of scrutiny has made aqua running one of, if not the, most popular supplementary exercise for top runners. It is by far the most running specific cross training activity and the ratio to running with regards to benefit is 1:1 in terms of time spent in the pool. To injured runners it even feels like you are doing the real thing as the exaggerated arm and leg action, even if a bit slower due to the resistance of the water, is a welcome reminder of your preferred activity. Aqua vests are now readily available to make it even more comfortable doing this weightless activity, and since there is zero impact you are able do to far more than a stress fracture, neuroma, or other impact-related injury would normally allow you to do on the road.
The initial benefits of aqua running may even be greater than regular running since the resistance of the water will result in increased lactic tolerance benefits even though the heart rate could be about 10% lower than an equivalent session on land. With continued sessions efficiency will improve and you get used to the challenge of the water resistance and able to increase volume incrementally from week to week.
To make sessions even more effective some great variations include interval training sessions. My school friend Riaan, who is now coaching his talented young son, revealed to me how much success they had in the pool with a wide variety of interval sessions. For the slightly shorter intervals they would reduce the running action to resemble a sprinter with a quick and vigorous action. Recovery would be very similar to that on the track. For longer intervals the action might be slightly slower, and recovery about half of what one would have needed on the track.  He did point out that they made a classic pool conditioning error. While his son’s pool training was so effective and his fitness at such a high level, after he had recovered from the series of injuries, the return to the track was a bit ambitious and despite running amazing times, re-injury occurred and they were back in the pool.
It is critical to remember that with no-impact water-based activities, there is no new bone formation and bone mass is likely to reduce during that time period. For that reason, is it vital to do about four weeks of land training, and ideally including some gym work as well, before getting back to former levels of conditioning.
More than thirty years later and a lot has happened since my tibial stress fracture! Like many runners I have had my share of impact injuries, and many a time ventured to the deep waters of a swimming pool to maintain my fitness levels and to feed my endorphins. Aqua running, or deep water running, has become a staple for a lot of professional runners, and many an injured runner has become aware of the powers of aqua running to not only maintain fitness when injured, but also so supplement regular training in a far more forgiving environment and in doing so adding to the weekly training volume. Sports medicine has also taught us that 10 weeks is the top end of such and injury and some stress fractures heal a lot quicker. And finally, common sense has taught us that an injury is not the end of the world but rather an opportunity to not only do things differently, but perhaps even better the second time around!