A common question I like to ask athletes is, have you ever tried aquatic training? They usually respond with "Oh, like aquafit? The stuff my grandma does?" Let's be honest, there are two images that come to mind when you think of aquafit: 1) Your grandma and her bingo buddies leisurely walking up and down, discussing the latest gossip from coffee time. 2) That resort instructor trying to direct a group of burnt vacationers splashing around to tropical music while balancing a piña colada. While both provide social entertainment, aquafit can really be utilized to really push your training program. My goal is to educate and hopefully interest you on the many benefits of aquatic training. From athletic conditioning to rehabilitation, aquatics can really make waves of improvement.
Dipping Your Toes In
There are many myths about aquatic training. Coaches and athletes feel they may not achieve a proper workout in comparison to land based training. Many are also hesitant to try aquatic training due to the typical association with age, fitness level and swimming abilities of participants. Just because a 65 year old is doing the same exercises as you does NOT define your fitness level. Many older adults participate in aquafit because it's a form of exercise they can do. It's easier on joint pain and reduces risk of falls or injury. Worst case, you lose your balance and get your hair wet. As a side note, please be careful when entering or exiting the pool deck as you are most at risk of injury during transition. You may not believe me but let me tell you, my oldies can push it to the max. Being able to get in the water and move in ways you may not be able to move on land is such a rewarding feeling. I challenge you to go out and see just what grandma is doing in the pool everyday. When you're done, eat your words and praise her for putting in effort to get fit. As for all the athletes out there, the intensity of aquatic training is dependent on how much effort you are willing to put in to each exercise or session. To be blunt, don't dog it.
A Splash of Science
Buoyancy moves in the opposite direction of gravity. Gravity pushes down, buoyancy pushes up. Pool depth, body mass and even pool equipment are all affected by the properties of water. Buoyancy provides a form of assistance by pushing limbs towards the surface which improves flexibility and range of motion. This assistance is the reason why there is less stress placed on the joints and why we feel so much lighter in the water. Depth determines the amount of resistance and contact with the pool floor. Running in shallow water can be very difficult as there is more body weight placed on the joints and a solid surface to generate power. Deep water running (no contact with the pool floor) has limited resistance as the body is moving in a fluid environment. The fact that you are treading water can turn it into a more endurance or aerobic based activity. In terms of body mass, those who have a larger amount of lean body mass (typically athletes) tend to sink while those with greater fat mass float. Buoyant properties are determined by density which is a factor of volume and mass. An athlete who has less fat and a higher density will have difficulties staying at or above the water's surface. Individuals who are less dense have less trouble staying afloat. This is great for trainers to keep in mind as an intensity bonus when programming deep water exercises.
When planning an aquatic training program, you must consider the type of equipment you want to use. Equipment is used in the water to move against buoyancy and is challenged by multi-directional resistance. The deeper you push a buoyant object, the harder it is to keep it below the surface. A great example is attempting to sit on a flutter board in the pool. You fight hard to keep it from slipping out and smacking your friend in the face (maybe you could've fought harder). Training equipment such as aquatic noodles and dumbbells provide a variety of resistance levels to tailor to individual strength.
Other objects, such as paddles, have vents that adjust to how much water passes through. A completely closed vent is the highest level of difficulty while an open vent allows water to pass through. This also applies to our hands in the water. Fingers together would replicate a closed vent (hard) and fingers apart replicates an open vent (easy). A great piece of equipment for individuals with arthritis is called a "happy face". This piece of equipment allows the hand to rest in it's handle without having to squeeze tight to hold it under the water.
Heart rate differs when compared to dry land training. Studies have shown heart rate to be lower in cooler water (usually between 18-25°C) when compared to warmer water. This drop in heart rate is caused by the enhanced heat-dissipating quality of water. Water acts as a temperature regulator, allowing the body to dissipate heat more effectively. When exercising in the pool, a lower heart rate does not necessarily correlate to lower intensity. Vasoconstriction of the peripheral arteries forces blood central of the body to enhance venous return and increase stroke volume. This allows higher exercise intensities to be conducted at lower heart rates. Because of this, perceived exertion is the best way to determine intensity. Rating how a client or athlete feels during different intensities gives the coach a better understanding of measured work. These factors should be considered when introducing a client to aquatic training or creating a program.
Athletes have very busy schedules. When injuries occur, they want the quickest path to recovery. It is imperative to ensure the quality of rehabilitation and other aspects of recovery. The common procedure for a full recovery consists of improving range of motion, strength and proprioception before returning to play. With gradual progression and pain-free improvements, optimal recovery can be obtained. Aquatic therapy can assist in all recovery aspects with a bit of creativity. Range of motion can be achieved just by placing the injured area in the water and letting buoyancy do the work. The properties of water reduce the effects of gravity putting less weight on the joints, particularly the hips, knees and ankles.
Deep water walking can be a great primer for full weight bearing activity. As you move closer to the shallow end, more weight is placed on your joints. It's important to slowly progress when performing injury or post operative rehabilitation. Strength training resistance relates to how deep you are in the water. It is a lot easier to complete a squat in waist deep water instead of ankle deep water. With a little creativity, aquatic training can really have unlimited levels of progression. It's important to remember to strengthen above and below the injured area in order to decrease the risk of re-injury.
As mentioned earlier, proper progression and type of equipment can really aid in sufficient recovery. Proprioception and balance need to be restored prior to return to play. Proprioception is the body’s sense of orientation in relation to space or objects. A great way to begin is balancing on the injured leg and progress as needed. Start with skulling (a push-pull motion with the hands to help stabilize or stay in one spot) and improve to a single leg position with zero assistance from the upper body. This might take a few attempts but it is important to activate the muscles in the lower limb and the abdominals whiling balancing. If you really want a challenge, have a friend push water towards you to knock you over. Adding some friendly competition can help keep you motivated and sessions more relaxed.
Final point for returning to play is replicating movements within your athlete's sport. This can include agility drills or plyometrics within the water. Like I said, you will want to try your exercises first before prescribing them. Sometimes trainers prescribe exercises that seem enticing yet lack practicality. Trust me, I learned the hard way attempting the Cha Cha slide in water. Practice what you preach.
Try This Workout
I've included a sample workout you can try on your own in a pool setting. Bring a friend or two and take a dip. CLICK HERE TO GET GOING.
I could go on for hours about all the amazing things that can be done in water. This article just gives you a taste of a few benefits when considering aquatic training. My #1 recommendation: jump in and try it for yourself! As a trainer, I would go in on my own time to see what exercises worked and which exercises didn't play out the way I thought they would. It might make sense on land but in the water it can be completely different and even target a fitness component you hadn't considered. Follow the steps of recovery (ROM, strength, proprioception & return to play) and utilize the properties of water. In the end, your goal as a coach or trainer is to introduce a new concept of fitness that will better your athlete and their performance.
At Iron Athletics Canada we make it our goal to provide the best form of training to get you to the next level...even if that means putting on a bathing suit. If you have any questions or want to learn more about aquatic training, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or subscribe to our newsletter.