Off the Deep End to the Trill of the Yellow Warbler
by Lili Hrabchak, Ed.D.
Accustomed to winters that begin before the solstice and linger past the equinox, I belong to that rugged breed of Canuck martyrs. Unlike my compatriots who winter in Florida, I’m a sand bird, an oddball, residing in Toronto where I teach, but spending summers in Florida. Faced with southern sultriness, my signature hardiness wilts. I cannot tolerate running outside in the heat and humidity, and since two months without running is inconceivable, I’m left to choose between the two sinister sisters: treadmill running or pool running.
Last July, when my husband and I returned to Florida, he joined my gym. Previously, I exercised there alone. Since we have only one vehicle, differences in the duration of our workouts meant giving up my treadmill run after my strength workout. In order to maintain a running program, I devised the No Choice Pool Running Program. My backyard pool became my track.
Those earliest watery runs mirrored a lack of savvy. Placing a fun-noodle under each armpit, I ran suspended in the deep end. Since arm movements are critical to proper form, I abandoned that method, instead clasping the floats in each hand. Dissatisfied with that, but reluctant to expend $27.80 for an aquabelt, I purchased a $4.00 life jacket. I felt like a trussed turkey. After one uncomfortable, unproductive session, regretting the time wasted in experimentation, I bought the real thing and got serious.
Road running is simple. Just place one foot in front of the other and let the body take over as the steps speed up. It’s the same when running in water. However, if you don’t keep your legs and arms moving in synchrony, you will either take in a lot of water or bob about like a disoriented jellyfish.
Whatever running one does on land may be adapted to the pool. Degrees of exertion, duration in the water and range of leg motion are manipulable, specific to mind set. Done steadily and vigorously, high returns are possible from water running. Removing the aquabelt and running 10×1 minute hard intervals is as taxing as 10×400 meters on land. In one study, maximal oxygen consumption, lower extremity concentric muscular strength, and endurance in well-trained male runners were unchanged during a three-week deep water training program.
Inspired by this good news, I ran in my Florida pool four days weekly from one to two hours each time. The biggest challenge was to keep my brain from lapsing into a coma. To that end, as I churned the water, I solved problems, planned menus, drafted articles and relished the sensation of water stroking my skin. I stared with envy at the dragonflies outside the pool cage as they coupled acrobatically. When storms loomed, I launched a fear-filled acceleration, determined to finish my route before lightning transformed the pool into the fluid counterpart of Old Sparky and my hair into a Brillo pad. On the lanai wall in full view of anyone in the deep end hangs a birdsong clock. If I timed it right, I entered the water to the trill of the yellow warbler and emerged an hour later as the chipping sparrow peeped. How I cursed it on the days it appeared stuck: “Tick, damn it! Tick!”
Additional ideas for passing time came from Jim Graham, a New Hampshire journalist. Jim’s credibility derives from having trained for the 1996 Boston Marathon exclusively in deep water while awaiting knee surgery. He finished the marathon, something he might not otherwise have managed, and then had the operation.
Jim’s advice for alleviating boredom during water running is creative. With a caution about electrocution, he recommends playing a boom box at high volume or watching videos of past marathon winners. Motivation at a glance, if your eyes aren’t smoldering from the chlorine, is a pool side photographic display of elite marathoners at the finish line. Water running with others, “good luck finding them,” and visualizing runs on favored land loops are his other advisements. When the vapors from this load dissipated, the truth surfaced; “…the one I used most often and that worked best I’m not sure you want to know about. Nothing, except simple determination…Gutting out the endless minutes more or less in silence is what I ended up doing most often.” That proved to be the best advice. The rest, ironically, is too much work.
I love music, and though I had never run to it, except on the gym’s treadmill where there is no alternative to migraine-inducing classic rock. During my last weeks in the pool I ran to the oldies. Depending on the beat, my form resembled a spastic parody of a Watusi war dance. If I pressed myself hard, it felt as if I were extricating myself from almost-set jello. The all-over massage was wonderful, but thankfully no one watched.
When I resumed road running in Toronto as school recommenced, I missed the pool. I had discovered the liberation of running shoeless, just like the Kenyans. Wearing nothing but the aquabelt—just do this at home and alone, kids—two hours of pool running produced no chafing, and I ran steadily refreshed. Best of all, I felt neither the pain nor the stiffness that typifies my long road runs. Even for the most sadistic, however, I would not recommend daily pool running. It is, nonetheless, a worthwhile complement to a regular running program, and as a form of rehabilitation for athletes recovering from injury, there is little better exercise.
So, slip on an aquabelt, slide into the deep end and go for a run. Eventually you will become stronger, healthier, more confident and more patient, certain that the big hand does…inevitably…edge around. Be assured that your disciplined efforts will reinforce THE attribute you need most as a long distance runner, simple determination.
Lili is a 53-year-old runner, body builder and cyclist who believes that the secret to living long and strong is to keep moving.