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Australian National Champion Power lifter, in consultation with SHONA HALSON, PhD, Head of Recovery, Australian Institute of Sport AND PAUL HAINES, Head Fitness Coach for the Gold Coast Suns.
We’ve all seen it on the TV sports news – athletes and footy players walking, running, jumping and swinging their limbs away in the pool or at the beach. Here we address the big questions about this type of recovery training.
Soccer, rugby, Australian Rules football, American football and even track athletes have all turned to the water for recovery workouts, especially during the relentless in-season competition cycle.
“Most of the suggested benefits are related to hydrostatic pressure, water temperatures and the ability to be active and stretch in a non-weight bearing environment,” says Shona Halson.
AFL side, the Gold Coast SUNS, use pool recovery and/or pool sessions for conditioning as a significant part of pre-season and in-season training periods.
“Pool recovery sessions are a great way to get the body moving again following a match and/or hard training session,” says Paul Haines.
Here’s how it works: the atmospheric pressure increases as water gets deeper, so when you stand in deep water the blood in your feet is at about three atmospheric pressures and the blood in your chest is at about 0.75 atmospheric pressures. Consequently, more blood gathers in the chest area, which then requires the heart to work harder to pump it, making water walking, running and jumping a good cardio workout even though there is less stress on the muscles and other soft tissue. At the same time, the increased pressure of the water against your legs as you run through water helps flush wastes from the muscles ― so it’s like a massage while you do your cardio.
However, this is a relatively new area in exercise science and Shona warns that “there is very little scientific information on the use of pool sessions, despite their popularity” ― so keep your eyes out for new information and developments in this field. Two years from now we might find out everything we know is wrong… but hopefully not!
You mean aside from TV sports news showing gratuitous topless shots of footballers prancing playfully up and down a pool?
“Pool recovery sessions are a great way to get the body moving again following a match and/or hard training session,” Paul says. “The water minimizes bodyweight and is a therapeutic way to recover with a combination of swimming, mobility, deep water running and shallow water wading. It’s a perfect way to get bruised and fatigued bodies moving again with very minimal risk of injury.
“The pool workout can also ‘offload’ the weight on a strained or injured area while still allowing a player to train at the required intensity through a combination of swimming and deep water running drills.”
A study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport looked at the effects of pool recovery sessions on muscle soreness, power and flexibility levels in the 48 hours after an AFL game. The study concluded that it didn’t matter if the session was done immediately after the game, the next day or 48 hours later ― there were no significant differences. Another study, published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, found that deep water running the same day or the day after (i.e. within 24 hours) showed restored strength and reduced soreness following a heavily plyometric activity. Shona sides more with this team, and she advises that the day after a game/match is the optimal time to begin being active again as this will help reduce soreness and stiffness.
“We’ll often use the beach the day following a match (i.e. within 24 hours of the match), with players doing performing a variety of walking drills, as well as some light swimming,” Paul says. “The goal of that session is get the whole body moving again through full range of movement with minimal load going through the fatigued bodies.
“From 24―48 hours post-match, we prefer the pool. Often the players still can’t run well due to the bumps and bruises often associated with an AFL match.
“For the remainder of the training week, if the High Performance Team are concerned with a player’s ‘running load’ and believe a player is at risk of a soft tissue injury through running and football training, the pool can be used as an alternative training tool to make sure their conditioning is all ‘ticked off’ in preparation for the next match.”
Despite common news footage of AFL players violently shivering away in the Antarctic waters Melbourne residents refer to as a “beach”, icy water itself is not essential for water recovery sessions.
A study published in Physical Therapy in Sport found that ‘cool to neutral temperatures’ may produce the best response from water recovery sessions.
“A cooler temperature may aid recovery from muscle damage, but there’s a balance between the temperature of the water and the ability to stay in it long enough to get the benefits,” Shona explains.
There is very little hard evidence to suggest any benefit salt water may have over fresh or chlorinated water. Often the convenience and social factor is a big point in favour of doing some water recovery sessions at the beach ― that and the fact that 18 or more large men ploughing through the water at a local pool can scare the kiddies away.
Athletes doing drills where their feet are in contact with the pool/ocean floor generally aim for water depth between waist and mid-chest high.
“The greater the depth, the greater the hydrostatic pressure, which may aid in increasing blood flow and reducing swelling,” Shona says.
“Our players complete a range of full-body mobility drills and start jogging through waist-deep water,” Paul says. “This mirrors the demands of running without the eccentric load often associated with running at full bodyweight. This helps the body prepare for running in the following 24-48 hours of the training week. Pool sessions often increase in intensity as the recovery time increases following a match.”
Some other water drills you can use are:
Stand in waist-high water. Bend your knees at a 45-degree angle, and jump up as high as you can. When you land, repeat it straight away ― repeat 15 times. This exercise will help build strength and explosive jumping/acceleration power in your legs.
Grab the underside of the starting blocks, with your back to the end of the pool. Pull yourself up so that your feet are off the bottom of the pool. Point your toes, then lift your legs so your body is forming the letter “L”. Hold this position for two seconds. Return to the starting position. Repeat 15 times.
Do all these exercises in deep water ― your feet shouldn’t rest on the bottom.