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Using the Pool To Improve Athletic Performance and Recovery

Rich McLoughlin
Jun 27, 2019

With the summer months upon us, the sun is shining, the weather is warm, and it is officially off-season training time. Coaches are back to the drawing boards coming up with energizing team workouts, grueling conditioning sessions, and new creative methods for optimizing the few months to prepare for the upcoming competitive season. If you’re lucky enough to have a pool on campus, or don’t have one but have a local aquatic center nearby; then you need to be utilizing it. Even the neighbor’s backyard pool can work, just make sure you ask first.

Not only does a trip to the pool offer a performance benefit, but it can also be an effective method when you have an athlete coming off of injury or administering return-to-play protocols. Additionally, a break in the typical monotonous practice and training regimen will offer a psychological relief.

The aim of this article is to provide you with some brief evidence-based rationale for using a pool to improve athletic performance in your training this summer as well as give you some examples of pool workouts you can use in an individualized or team setting.

The Magic Water Holds

Water offers a unique experience. Having a general understanding of the properties that make up this uniqueness – density and buoyancy, inertia, hydrostatic pressure, and eccentric reduction – will allow you to provide a more effective training session.

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Density and Buoyancy

No secret here: that floating sensation you feel is acting as a counterbalance to the force of gravity. Applying the Archimedes’ principle, the physical law of buoyancy, when a body is immersed in a fluid there is an upward force exerted on that body equal to the amount of fluid that the body displaces.

This counterbalance effect lessens the impact your joints are accustomed to when out of the pool. This is why utilizing a pool can be beneficial for an athlete returning from an injury, surgery, or even for the overweight population getting back into exercise. Generally unknown, this same buoyancy principle can also relax joint capsules, allowing for a greater range of motion and flexibility, making it highly effective for improving athletic recovery. Try altering an athlete’s use of their own body weight by having them submerged to differing depths. (Reference submersion guidelines).

Submersion Guidelines

- Hips off-loads ~40%

- Belly-button off-loads ~50%

- Chestor Xiphoid off-loads ~60%

- Shoulders off-loads ~85%

Water’s Inertia

The same idea that allows you to float in water also governs the increased resistance you experience when trying to move against, or with, water. This increased resistance requires greater effort. A study done in 2009, showed that when comparing exercise performed in the pool and on land, horizontal movements performed at submaximal effort in water resulted in oxygen uptake (VO2) and muscle activity being greater than when performing the same movements at the same speed on land.

Hydrostatic Pressure

H2O has an incredible effect on the body when we are immersed in it. When depth increases so does pressure. This increase in pressure improves blood flow to muscles causing more oxygen to be delivered and a greater circulatory force.

The change in pressure is responsible for an improvement in cardiac output, increased blood flow to muscles, and a greater workload demand of the respiratory system. For facilitating conditioning sessions, hopping in the pool should be a no-brainer for maintaining fitness and improving athletic performance.

When you’re looking to speed up recovery following a tough practice or game, hydrostatic pressure may also help to maintain both the oxygen supply to muscles and their contractile functions.

Eccentric Reduction

Due to the density and buoyancy principles of water, the body is able to still exert a high amount of concentric force while significantly reducing the eccentric forces usually found on land. Researchers in 2004 compared high-intensity land- and water-based plyometric programs and found that training in water produced significantly less inflammation and muscle soreness, making it an excellent option for improving athletic recovery.

Get Creative

The world is your oyster. Well so is the pool. We’ve used the lane lines painted on the bottom of the pool as pseudo-agility ladders. Throw a basketball, volleyball or football in there and get “sport-specific” with movements. Paddle boards can be a great tool for getting an athlete to use their legs more. The relay races I’ve seen in a pool were far more intense than those I’ve seen on land – splashing helps.

Jump In!

As with any new training program or exercise, careful consideration must be taken into account. A proper warm-up must always be performed to ensure the body is adequately ready for activity. Having an understanding for progression and regression in regards to the exercise being performed and the volume that it is being performed with is just as important in the water as it is on land. Progressing too quickly, too soon, could negate the awesome benefits of H2O.

Lastly, it can’t go without saying, land athletes don’t compete in the water. Whether it’s for performance gains or rehabilitation purposes, the goal should be to get the athlete back to land with improved abilities.

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