Want To Aid Recovery? Hit The Pool!

By Greg Werner, MSCC, Head Strength & Conditioning Coach, Virginia Tech Women’s Basketball

As strength and conditioning coaches, we speak to our athletes about the values of working hard and always giving 100 percent. We stress effort and coach them to lift heavy, jump explosively and sprint fast to overload their bodies and force them to adapt and become stronger, faster and more agile. We’ve learned the benefits of foam rolling, stretching, cold and hot baths, wearing compression garments, deep tissue massage, and drinking recovery shakes in the name of muscle recovery.


Yet, how often do we design dedicated active recovery sessions into the training plan, to aid in the adaptation and recovery process, for entire teams?

Some of the most popular excuses I hear when I ask other strength and conditioning coaches if they program and utilize active recovery sessions include

  • We don’t have time.
  • My athletes don’t like the pool.
  • My head sport coach says yoga might make the kids soft.
  • And a whole lot of other excuses.

One way to think about it and present the rationale behind utilizing dedicated recovery days to your sport coach is from a building-and-rebuilding perspective. If we were to construct buildings the way the human body’s training overload and adaptation processes work, we would need to employ three crews to increase the speed and efficiency of the processes: a demolition crew, a clean-up crew, and a building/rebuilding crew.

When we’re training hard, we first utilize the demolition crew within certain volumes and intensities, and then the clean-up crew comes in to haul out the mess and waste created, and almost simultaneously, the building/rebuilding crew goes to work in building the structure back up to a new stronger level of development. So if we expect to push hard in order to overload and break down the athletes’ systems – which creates damage and a buildup of waste byproducts – we optimally must utilize recovery sessions to aid in the cleanup and building/rebuilding processes.

The research is growing daily on effective and efficient methods to aid in the recovery of trained body systems (structural, chemical and mental). One such method is active recovery work in a swimming pool.

A 2010 study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, looked at the performance of nine high-level triathletes. The athletes performed an interval run training session comprised of 8 x 3-minute runs at 85-90 percent of VO2 peak velocity on two separate occasions. Ten hours after the runs, they either swam 2,000 meters (active recovery) or laid down (passive recovery) for an equal amount of time. Fourteen hours after that, the subjects performed a high-intensity run to fatigue to assess how well their running performance had recovered from the previous day’s interval sessions.

The results showed the athletes had a 14 percent improvement in their run time to fatigue after the active recovery swimming compared to the passive rest (13:50 versus 12:08). In addition, the active recovery swimming resulted in a decrease in the levels of c-reactive protein, a biomarker for inflammation. These results suggest that active recovery swimming enhanced subsequent run performance by abating tissue inflammation caused by initial exertion, as well as benefitting from the hydrostatic massaging properties of water.

It is apparent to conclude that using swimming (or treading water) as an active recovery method is the way to go for swimmers, triathletes, and runners based on the study mentioned. But could swimming pool recovery work also be applied to other field and court running sports?  Since active recovery swimming is a proven method for improved running performance due to attenuation of tissue inflammation, it is only logical that recovery swimming and/or treading water could universally apply to any sport that causes tissue inflammation upon exertion.

I have used recovery water workouts with great success in training multiple sports (football, basketball, soccer, field hockey) the day after a game or a hard workout. Here is one such recovery session I’ve used with them all. The water depth should be comfortable for the athletes. Those comfortable with swimming can go in deeper water; non swimmers stay in water no deeper than shoulder depth.

  1. Easy swim with whatever stroke the athlete feels comfortable with for 5 minutes (non swimmers use float boards and/or float belts).
  2. Jog forward (laps in water at chest to shoulder depth) 3 minutes.
  3. Jog backward 2 minutes.
  4. Shuffle laterally 2 minutes each way.
  5. Repeat No. 1 for 2 minutes.
  6. Multiple stretches in the water 3 minutes.
  7. Water treading using arms and legs wearing an aqua jog belt or holding float boards, 1 minute work followed by 30 seconds of rest (hold poolside) for each:
  • Running motion — 1 minute.
  • Scissor kicks — 1 minute.
  • Split kicks — 1 minute.
  • Running motion — 1 minute.
  • Running in circles clockwise — 1 minute.
  • Running in circles counterclockwise — 1 minute.

Int J Sports Med. 2010 Jan;31(1):26-30. doi: 10.1055/s-0029-1239498. Epub 2009 Nov 11. Effects of a recovery swim on subsequent running performance.  Lum D,  Landers G, Peeling P.

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