Retired Huntington Beach firefighter Robert LaFever, 61, and his wife, Gaye, 57, a retired dental hygienist, wanted to stay fit with daily swimming and water running, but didn't like the heavily chlorinated water at the gym and didn't have the budget and backyard space for their own full-size pool. The solution? Last year they got a swim spa -- essentially an elongated hot tub with a current emanating from one end. Already popular with dedicated triathletes and swimmers, these so-called swimmer's treadmills aren't cheap, starting around $20,000 for a vinyl-lined model and going to $35,000 or more for a fully molded fiberglass pool, not including installation and remodeling costs. But they eliminate the need to drive to a public pool, can be used at any time and double as a hot tub when company's over. The LaFevers just had 12 of their kids, grandkids and friends in it at once.
Endless Pools: Modular, flexible-sized pool -- roughly 8 feet by 15 feet, with steel-panel and vinyl lining -- that uses a 5-horsepower engine (6- and 7.5-hp optional) and 16-inch propeller to create a current.
Likes: Smooth, consistent, turbulent-free current about 3 feet wide. The current does not peter out near the back end (as in the AquaPro and H2X, at right), as the water is drawn toward rear ports that then send the water back to the front in side pipes. To take a breather or swim slower, you can angle slightly off to the side, out of the narrow current, then duck back into the full stream when you're ready. Pool can be set up at any depth. Includes retractable security cover. Much lower-priced than solid fiberglass spas; in fact, if you already have a pool, Endless Pools' add-on Fastlane device provides the same current for $5,900, a relative bargain.
Dislikes: Vinyl sheeting may not be as resistant to scuffs or tears as a hard fiberglass pool, a consideration if it may be used as a conventional spa. The effect of regular water running on the vinyl sheet is unknown. Hydrotherapy jets are an option, not standard.
Price: $20,400 for complete system. (800) 732-8660; www.endlesspools.com.
SwimEx 500: Fiberglass swim spa with a current, driven by a paddle wheel, that is the width of the pool, not a narrow stream. Pool is 18 feet by 7 1/2 feet, and 50 inches deep.
Likes: Smooth, consistent 6-foot-wide current allowed me to drift a bit from side to side during my pleasant 20-minute swim. Speed is easily adjusted by buttons at the edge of the pool. Nonslip bottom is fine for barefoot running in water. The 50-inch depth is also fine for running, although my hands came up out of the water a bit (an optional 1- or 2-foot-deep well box for runners is $3,200 or $3,700 more, respectively, and the 5-foot-deep 600-S model runs $41,250). Built-in bench seating on each side accommodates 10 to 12 as a spa. Built-in entrance steps with handrails.
Dislikes: Hydrotherapy jets are an option, not standard.
Price: $26,900. (800) 877-7946; www.swimex.com.
Nautilus in a pool
Aquatic Fitness System AquaPro 19: Fiberglass swim spa that combines a 5-horsepower engine and six water-current jets with built-in stretching and strength attachments, such as resistance cords, a fitness bar and ankle cuffs.
Likes: A full-body water workout. As directed by a trainer, I swam, ran, did curls, overhead presses, lunges, leaping twists and other exercises, all made possible by a logical design that allows you to clip stretch cords and press bars to built-in attachment points. Sixteen jets make for a good after-swim spa massage.
Dislikes: Current is a bit rougher and more bubbly than in an Endless Pool or SwimEx, so the swim workout is not as enjoyable or natural. Water is shallow, like the H2X (below), so upper body is largely out of the water during running.
Price: Three models, including this one, $25,995 to $34,995. (310) 876-1052 or (800) 530-8036; www.AquaticFitnessSystems.com.
Many uses, low power
H2X CrossTrainer: Acrylic-fiberglass swim spa with swim current, spa seating for six and numerous attachment points for stretch-cord exercises. 14 1/2 feet long.
Likes: Lots of variety. Like the AquaPro 19 (above), it can be used for swimming, water running, resistance exercises (including an innovative rowing function), and conventional spa-style relaxation. Superb strength exercises via a variety of stretch cords that attach around several metal bars at poolside. An optional mp3-player audio system ($1,200) has pop-up speakers. The acrylic surface is impregnated with an antimicrobial substance the company says inhibits growth of algae and reduces cleaning requirements.
Dislikes: The current is a bit rough and underpowered, sloshing the water around like a storm but only fast enough for good swimmers to do a moderate-paced breast stroke, not the crawl. I'm slow-to-average, but out-swam the machine at its highest setting. I was told that the speed can be ramped up by adjusting internal engine settings. Water running was fine, although the low water height (3 feet, 4 inches) left my arms in the air.
Price: $25,000 to $35,000, depending on accessories. (260) 436-9100 or (800) 860-7727; www.h2xswimspa.com.
-- Roy M. Wallack
Irvine-based Roy M. Wallack writes about health and fitness. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.