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WASHINGTON –– Aquatic exercise programs are not just for grandmas riding foam floats. Water is good for athletic training, too, and experts say more athletes are making use of it.
Runners, tennis players and other competitors find that the resistance from aquatic training gives them more of a workout than using weights or treadmills, said researcher Mary Sanders of the University of Nevada, Reno.
Most aquatics participants are still "our traditional older women," but an increasing minority in both sexes range from the 30s into the 50s, said Laura Slane, an aquatics consultant for YMCA of the USA, the YMCA's national headquarters.
Retirees dominate pools in the daytime, and the working-age crowd typically takes over after 6 p.m. The national Y, although it is a leader in aquatics, does not keep track of the ages of participants.
Younger athletes also train in the water. Teenage tennis players at the Universal Tennis Academy, a club in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, Ga., practice in a pool.
"Tennis is about 70 percent lateral movement, so I have them doing quick change-of-direction drills," said trainer Bethany Diamond. Those drills are safer than they would be on land because players can't fall – they float – so it's very hard to twist an ankle, she said.
The players also practice their strokes in the pool, using old rackets they don't mind getting wet, Diamond said.
Diamond has trained with basketball players, who work on their jumps – the buoyancy of the water cushions their falls and protects their knees.
A person jumping in waist-deep water gets only half the impact that would be felt on land, and the impact is only 8 percent at shoulder depth, Sanders said.
Many athletes discovered the benefits of water because aquatic exercise was prescribed as rehabilitation after they got hurt in their sport.
But the benefits go far beyond rehabilitation, because the resistance makes working out in water harder than working out on land, Sanders said. For instance, a 130-pound person running an 11-minute mile pace would burn 8 calories per minute on land but up to 15 calories in deep water.
Studies have found benefits for aquatic training. In one new but small study in Finland, 11 women with an average age of 34 participated about twice a week in a 10-week program that used boots, which added resistance in the water.
The women improved their kicking movements by 26 percent, according to the study published in the December issue of the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
It's easy to vary the resistance in water – a person who wants a tougher workout simply works in the deeper end. Using paddles or similar equipment also ratchets up the resistance.
But it's also easy to relax: just float.
And while land workouts provide one form of resistance – against the pull of gravity – water workouts provide resistance in any direction. That's a tremendous advantage in sports training, Diamond said, because athletes strengthen their muscles in exactly the motions they'll need in their sports.