What's it all about?
Aqua running - also known as aqua jogging or deep-water running - is a totally impact-free workout. You clip a flotation belt around your waist to help keep your head above water (it's always good to avoid drowning during exercise) and jump in the deep end of the pool. You then 'run' laps in the slow lane, without your feet touching the floor, turning back when the water gets too shallow. There are various kit additions to add variety: shoes or dumbbells to add resistance, or a tether to keep you in one place.
What claims does it make?
It gives you the same cardiovascular workout as a conventional run, with the associated fitness and weight loss benefits. However, there is no risk of stress injuries, as your body is totally supported by the water. It will also improve your balance and agility as you engage your abdominal and lower back muscles to keep yourself upright.
What does the kit look like?
The foam belt is blue with a high area in the back. This supports and strengthens the core area. The belt narrows around the front to fit under your rib cage, allowing you to move freely. The shoes I used - AQX aquatic training shoes - are available in three colours: sky blue, dark blue or pink. To me, they look like normal trainers - except for the "hydro-dynamic polyurethane fins running along the side for correct, subtle plane of motion resistance" and the "strategically placed drain ports for superior drainage", otherwise known as flappy bits and holes in the soles.
How hard is it?
It is quite difficult to get the hang of in the beginning. You are given a DVD (featuring hilarious moustachioed 80s-style blokes) that shows you how to hold your body and the movements you should be making. So far, so easy - but when you get in the pool and try to recreate what you've seen, it's not so simple.
Disregarding the embarrassment factor, the tether caused problem number one: namely what to attach it to once you're in the pool. I plumped for the ladder in an attempt to stay out of the way of other swimmers, but an old lady swam straight into it and loudly complained that she couldn't see it in the water. The solution? Attach it to the floating divider line between lanes.
This helped me to avoid cantankerous elderly swimmers, but also led to problem number two: how to run straight without colliding with the lane divider. There was no obvious answer to my quandary, so I ran at a strange angle and just put up with it.
Problem number three involved the belt - it rides up and supports you in all the wrong places if you don't have it very tight. Pulling on it till I could pull no more, I got back in the pool and started again. Now everything was fine but compared to running on land I wasn't getting nearly so out of breath and my heart rate wasn't increasing enough for a decent workout. What was I doing wrong?
Is it easy to get help with?
I decided it was time to call Terry Nelson, head trainer for aqua-running.co.uk. The great thing about this exercise is that you can do it alone, but there's a helpline (0151 482 2008/2026) with experts on the other end if you run into trouble. Terry quizzed me on what I was doing and (after expressing shock and horror at my technique) advised me to lose the tether and try running laps of the pool. He also suggested trying some other moves such as cross-country skiing, which involves a scissoring motion with the arms and legs.
Can you feel a difference?
Yes, with a little time and effort to get it right, success can be yours! You get a really satisfying workout that leaves you feeling great. The water cuts out all the post-exercise pain you'd get from the impact of a conventional run - although when I stretched afterwards my muscles felt tight. It's refreshingly different to be in the water, and it seemed to keep me a little cooler than normal. Afterwards, I felt energised and strangely relaxed at the same time. Brilliant.
What are your tips for success?
If you feel like you're not getting enough of a workout, wear the shoes - they add two to three times more resistance, depending on your speed. Be careful not to bend at the hips too much, and tilt forward slightly. Stomp your foot down and draw it through the water in a circling motion while pumping your arms hard.
Who is it good for?
It's good for anyone who wants to take the impact out of running; those who are recovering from surgery or an injury (sports or otherwise); pregnant women; those suffering with back or joint pain, including arthritis; old people, young people ... anybody and everybody really! Even if you're not a confident swimmer, the flotation belt keeps your head well above water so there's no fear of sinking.
Best avoided if …
You can't take a few odd stares from curious swimmers.
How much will it set me back?
The shoes cost around £60 and the belt £35, and come with an instructional DVD and a paper manual. Both are available at aqua-running.co.uk. Then you just pay for a swim at your local pool.