The Best Recovery after a Long Run: Get in the Pool!

Do you frequently find yourself sore after a long run and in need of a quick recovery without sacrificing your fitness?  I’ve found the BEST way to recover AND get in a great workout that may surprise you.

In general, light cardio activity in a pool can greatly support and enhance the recovery of sore muscles from running.  Swimming provides a low-impact exercise with lots of variety for customizing an aerobic workout at the same time.  Besides promoting blood flow, the cool temperature of the water can provide additional anti-inflammatory support for your body.

Runners tend to only want to run which is why getting in a pool is often overlooked for running recovery.  I am no different, and it wasn’t until recently that I discovered how incredible a pool can be for recovery and running performance.  Read on for more motivation on how a pool can help you recover more quickly.

How exercising in a pool aids recovery

There are many reasons why using a pool after a hard run is great for recovery. The below list includes just some of the many benefits. These are not the only ones as you may find out for yourself.

  • Reduces pressure on joints and spine  – The buoyance of the water reduces amount of pressure on the joints and spine.  It’s been estimated that being in water up to your neck reduces weight pressing down on your body by up to 90%. 
  • Reduces swelling – The pressure of the water helps to move fluid from injured areas back into the body. 
  • Reduces pain and stiffness– Cool and cold water promotes increased circulation to deep tissues aiding in muscle recovery.  It also reduces inflammation and thus can reduce pain and stiffness.
  • Low impact activity – Anything in the water is gentle on the knees, joints, and bones making it an excellent way to stimulate blood flow.  In addition to getting needed blood to tired muscles, it doesn’t add any additional stress.
  • Good cardio workout – Water workouts tend to be ideal for low heart rate training.  Even when you feel like you aren’t working very hard, you are usually still in an ideal heart rate zone.  See my article here for more on heart rate training and recovery.
  • Can work other muscles while resting running muscles – I find the breaststroke is the best for working the exact opposite muscles of running.  As both the arms and the legs move side to side instead of front and back like running.  It’s been an awesome recovery workout if I don’t swim too hard.

When and how to use a pool for faster recovery

How soon after a hard run you get in a pool will affect the kind of activity you will want to do.  For the fastest recovery, the sooner you get in the pool after a long run the lighter the activity should be. 

Below are different types of workouts to do for the different times you are able to get in a pool.  Incorporating all three would be ideal, but any one of the following will provide great benefits and enhance recovery.

Immediately after a long run

Immediately following a long run, jumping in a cool pool feels amazing and can be a lifesaver in summer months!  There are a few things I’ve found running in the Florida heat that can greatly enhance your recovery.

As tempting as it may be to just lie there, you want to keep the arms and legs moving for a gentle cool down.  As you probably already know, it is recommended to gradually bring the heart rate back to normal (see here for more on the need for a proper cool down). 

Also, by suddenly stopping all exercise, the muscles are more likely to seize up which can lead to muscles cramps and stiffness.  The colder the water, the more the blood vessels on the surface constrict which can stimulate better blood flow to deeper tissue.

If you just completed a hard workout your muscles will be tired.  Trying to do too much can lead to cramps.  I’ve had this experience when treading water a little too vigorously.

I’ve found that walking in the shallow end to be the gentlest and most rejuvenating activity immediately after a long run. Besides being low impact and promoting blood flow, the cooler water is refreshing to the entire body. 

Later in the day after a long run

Going for a swim later in the day after a long run is a great way to do some active recovery.  A few hours after your long run it is best to keep moving to encourage good blood flow.

After a few hours your muscles will be tired, but doing easy laps is great for the muscles and joints.  While any gentle activity is good after a hard workout, a pool puts a lot less stress on the body.

Be conscious not to swim or work the muscles too hard for good recovery.  The goal is to stimulate blood flow and stretch out tired muscles and joints.  It is not usually beneficial to get another “workout” in unless you are a very fit athlete.

The day after a long run for your morning workout

After 24 hours the body is more recovered and can usually handle a bit more activity without adverse effects.  A pool recovery workout is a way to maintain fitness and encourage faster recovery of the body.

Listen to your body and tailor your pool workout depending on how sore you are and how fatigued you feel.  As long as you don’t push yourself too hard, your body will likely respond well to the all the benefits a pool workout affords. 

If you’re looking for more of a cardio workout to support your running, then try aqua running.  For more information on how to do aqua running, see my article here.

Swimming is also a great cross training workout and can support recovery if done at a lower intensity.  Swimming can be an intense workout so be sure to keep the activity refreshing and not exhausting.

My experience adding pool time to a training block

I first joined a gym with a pool when I started having issues with shin splits.  I was scared I would lose fitness and running performance and knew aqua running to be a good alternative to running.

I ended up only missing a few runs thanks to a great 5-minute exercise I explain in another post linked here.  However, I found that my body really seemed to respond to the pool workouts I was doing and I felt great!

I found I was not as sore, and I was able to keep a high level of running without negative side effects.  I had not previously experienced these kinds of gain without some nagging ache, pain, or other breakdown of the body.

I personally find doing the breaststroke and back crawl to be best activity the day after a long run.  These strokes are the exact opposite motion of running with legs and arms out to the side instead of moving front and back. 

In addition to the breaststroke, I do incorporate aqua jogging into a weekly routine for the cardio workout.  Even when I am not injured, I have found doing these two activities enables me to add higher mileage and intensity each week without injury. 

I’m working my way up to my first ultramarathon and I feel the pool workouts are instrumental in helping me.  Not only do I feel refreshed, but I can’t believe I’m injury free with how hard I’ve been pushing my body.    

How to use a pool when you don’t have one

There are two main ways to access a pool depending on where you live and the convenience. Joining a gym is great no matter where you live.  Another option is an adult baby pool in the hot summer months as described below.

Join a gym

Joining a gym that has a pool is probably the most efficient way to get a pool workout in. It’s convenient, can be used all year round regardless of outdoor conditions, and usually has other gear and options that can be helpful.

There are so many benefits of joining a gym with a pool, besides the fact that they have a pool!  Most have additional equipment and classes to provide additional motivation and variety.

The only limiting factor for a gym with a pool may be gym hours and other swimmers.  Many gyms require swimmers to reserve a lane.  This can be excellent for setting a schedule and keeping motivated to stick with it. 

Setup an adult baby pool

This may sound strange to most people, but an adult size baby pool is perfect in the hot summer months.  An inflatable pool just deep enough to submerge your body can be all that is needed.

I first heard of an adult baby pool from several locals when I first moved to Florida.  It may sound a little off, but it is a great alternative to an inground pool and provides a lot of benefits.

Living in Florida is brutal for running at least six months out of the year, especially after a long run.  An adult baby pool is a simple and affordable options for cooling down and doing some low impact exercises. 

Don’t knock it till you try it. You may be surprised how much use you get out of it. In the afternoon heat, I frequently jump in with my running clothes with the long sleeve shirt and then go mow the lawn. I stay cool for a long time, and it feels great after a long hot run.

Key Takeaways

A pool is a great aid in recovery after a hard run. There are so many benefits to swimming, walking, and running in water. The key is to keep moving, but not too vigorously.

I’ve seen amazing benefits mostly in quicker recovery time and have been injury free. While it’s not a panacea, it’s worth trying it out, especially during a tough training block. Your body and running will thank you.

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