Aquatic Exercise Program as an Effective
Alternative Method of Cross Training for Cross Country and Track Athlete
By Michael Mandas, P.T.; Andrew R. Einhorn, P.T.
C.S.M.T.; Jon Ellertson, B.S., P.T.A.; Shawn Hickling, B.S. Exercise Physiology; Kirsten
Pieters, B.S., Athletic Training; Michael Quinn; Gilbert Orbeso
of Los Alamitos Orthopaedic & Sports Physical
Cross country and track athletes require extensive conditioning and
training to reach their highest level of performance. Unfortunately, this training is
performed on surfaces that can lead to injury. Hard surfaces combined with the frequency
of training lead to a variety of "overuse syndromes." This can halt tha training
of an athlete and jeopardize his or her ability to compete. Many times, the athlete is
advised to seek out an alternative source of conditioning while recovering from injury. An
aquatic cross training program can provide treatment for the injury, maintenance of
aerobic capacity and sport specific cross training.
The properties of water provide support, resistance and assistance in
the athlete's training session. Buoyancy devices can further reduce the undesirable
effects of weight bearing on an injured extremity. At the same time, athletes can increase
the work expenditure during exercise and maximize the cardiovascular conditioning required
An aquatic training program can decrease compression forces, vibration
forces and torsional forces that an athlete may endure while training on land. The effects
of gravity play a significant role in the overuse syndromes athletes suffer; gravity can
also limit and slow a well-designed rehabilitation program for the injured athlete. Pain
is something many athletes learn to ignore, however, pain from injury should rarely be
ignored, since it can lead to longer disability.
Rehabilitation is much more effective when early intervention is
available. Properties of water make an aquatic training program center extremely important
when it comes to early intervention following injury. Early intervention in the athlete's
injury can mean a speedier return to competition. Many times, a nagging injury is ignored
by an athlete simply because there is an inadequate system delivering appropriate care. In
many instances these nagging injuries can be treated immediately with an aquatic rehab
program thus, shortening the period of time where exercise performance is less than
It has been well-documented that performing certain structured
therapeutic exercises in water can be used successfully when treating injury.
Physiological effects include increased circulation to muscles, increased joint
viscoelasticity and decreased joint pain. Muscles can get stronger with less strain and
cardiovascular training is accomplished. The physical properties of water have been
utilized in aquatic therapy to decrease gravitational forces placed on a weakened
extremity and increase body movements. All of this can be extremely helpful to the cross
country and track and field athlete when it is combined with known exercise programs, such
as open and closed chain exercises. These aquatic exercise programs can produce rapid
results in an athlete where land activities are aggravating the present symptoms. Shallow
and deep water training can produce sport specific results which can easily carry over to
land-based activities or more traditional exercise formats.
Conditioning and Exercise Tool
An aquatic training program is an effective form of cardiovascular
exercise combining both deep (gravity eliminated) and shallow (buoyancy assisted) water
exercises. This unique workout greatly amplifies the natural resistance of water, while
maintaining a "target heart rate." Deep and shallow water exercise accommodates
high intensity cardiovascular trainng, while reducing the risks that accompany high impact
loading (See References 2, 4, 11, 12, 17).
Buoyancy Assistive and Resistive Exercise
Training in water enables the athlete to improve upper or lower body
strength and cardiovascular endurance while utilizing buoyancy to decrease weight bearing.
Standing in neck-deep water reduces lower extremity body weight to about 10%. Standing in
chest-deep water reduces weight bearing to 25-30% of body weight. Standing in waist deep
water translates to a 50% reduction in the athlete's body weight. (9) Buoyancy allows the
athlete to exercise while reducing the effects of gravity. (1, 10, 13) In addition,
buoyancy assistive devices (vests) can be used in shallow water to reduce body weight or
in deep water training. Buoyancy resistive devices (cuffs or fins) may be used to create
additional resistance and increased cardiovascular intensity.
Water provides an accommodating variable resistance which automatically
adjusts to the degree of force applied. The degree and resistance encountered during
aquatic exercise is directly related to the speed and direction at which the equipment is
moved through the water.
Aquatic exercise provides a true form of isokinetic resistance
proportionate to the square of the velocity during movement. For example, moving an
extremity at three times the speed generates nine times the resistance. (8)
Cross training exercises are conducted in both deep water (6 feet or
more) and shallow water (3 1/2 - 4 1/2 feet) levels. A five minute deep water warm up is
conducted prior to stretching exercises. The quadriceps femoris muscles, hip
flexors-extensors, gastrocnemius, lumbar spine flexors and extensors all require
Open and Closed Chain Aquatic Exercise
Both open and closed chain exercises are conducted in deep and shallow
water respectively. Open chain exercise would be illustrated by knee extension. The
purpose of this exercise is to strengthen the quadriceps femoris muscle group. During open
chain exercise the body is fixed in the machine as the feet move. Open chain exercises
tend to isolate an individual joint or muscle group. Closed chain exercises are conducted
in the shallow water. (14, 15) A squatting type movement would represent an example of
closed chain exercise. The athlete's feet are fixed as the body is moving. Closed chain
exercises represent functional type movement patterns that dissipate stress over several
moving joints and muscular groups.
Deep and Shallow Water Training
Initial deep water cross training exercises are conducted for one
minute. As the athlete's endurance and techniques improve, the exercise is extended for
five minutes. Buoyancy assistive and resistive devices are used to help maintain the
athlete above water and increase the exercise intensity. After completing a deep water
routine, shallow water exercises are performed. The shallow water exercises are typically
conducted for 30-60 seconds. Buoyancy assistive devices can be used if lower extremity
pain is present.
Track and Field Aquatic Conditioning
Track and field events provide a tremendous amount of impact on the
body. The use of aquatic cross training exercise enables the athlete to train at various
levels of intensity minimizing the effects of body weight and gravity. To decrease the
overall impact on the body, buoyancy assistive devices may be incorporated into the
shallow water regime. These devices include rubber flotation belts to foam dumbell buoys,
which reduce joint compression forces during closed chain activities. By providing this
reduced impact environment, track athletes are better able to perform sport specific
plyometric exercises at a reduced risk of injury. In addition, the water provides a more
true form of resistance and support which is unparalleled to land activity. This plays an
important role to the long jumper, who performs "Squat Jumps" to develop
explosive leg power.
In the deep water environment, resistive devices are used on the legs
to develop or maintain important speed and power in the legs. These devices include
buoyancy cuffs, fins, and resistive boots, which increase exercise intensity as the
athlete increases his/her speed of repetition. These devices may be incorporated in
circuit training to increase or develop the speed and cardiovascular endurance of the
training athlete. (5, 17)
Aquatic Exercise Equipment
Below is a list of the various equipment one might find in an aquatic
exercise program. There are three categories of Aquatic Exercise Equipment: Buoyancy
Assistance, Resistive and Buoyancy/Resistive
A. Buoyancy Assistance
1. Hydrotone Belts
- a) Designed to reduce the effects of gravity on the body, thus reducing
stress to the involved joints being exercised. These belts can reduce weight up to 50-70%
depending on the water level that is displaced.
2. The Float Cushion (Aquatic P.T. Resources)
- a) Useful in teaching proper postural techniques and proprioception.
Useful in developing strong trunk stabilizers.
- b) Used in conjunction with sculling of the hands to develop important
upper back musculature.
3. The Thigh Pillow
- a) Used with knee extensions through a limited range of motion. that can
be progressively increased with speed.
- b) In addition, the buoyancy of the pillow brings the adductor group
into play to keep the position of the pillow throughout the entire exercise.
1. The Hydrotone Bells
- a) The first of several upper body resistive devices designed to provide
smooth resistance as it is pushed, pulled or dragged through the water. The Hydrotone
Bells are exceptionally effective with traditional curls, rowing and horizontal
2. Aquaflex Paddles
- a) Designed to be fully adjustable to vary the degree of resistance.
These are a less aggressive alternative to the bells.
- b) The paddles work well in a deep water interval training program.
3. The Hydrotone Boots
- a) Lower extremity resistive device which adds increased resistance to
leg strengthening (walking, cross country, half jacks, Hip flexion/extension progressive
resistance exercise (PRE). As speed increase so does the resistance factor.
4. Fins (Zoomers)
- a) Specifically designed stout fin that provides exceptional deep H20
resistance. The fins can be very useful in ankle strengthening (dorsi/plantar motion) as
well as providing overall aerobic conditioning in the aquatic environment.
C. Buoyancy Assistive/Resistive Devices
1. Hydrofit Dumbbells
- a) Provides resistance (2.2 lbs. to 5.5 lbs. depending on size) during
upper body workouts.
- b) May be used to support lower body movements such as walking and
step-ups for athletes that present difficulty during full weight bearing activities. Acts
as a "water walker" emphasizing proper hip/body alignment.
2. The Wonder Board
- a) Made from a stiff foam, this device is used to develop proprioception
through balance and develop important abdominal musculature.
- b) When stood upon, this device can be used to provide resistance in
movements such as squatting. This movement is very dynamic in nature and requires
exceptional balance to perform.
- c) The Wonder Board can be used during push/pull movements to provide
3. Buoyancy & Resistance Cuffs
- a) Designed to add an extra degree of difficulty for deep H20
Part II will explore deep water and shallow water exercises.
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