The best thing about being a runner is that you can do it pretty much anywhere. Whether you're in your hometown, exploring new streets while on the road for business, or hitting the treadmill at a gym, your familiar stride is still the same. But what about when you want to hit the sand for a beach run – is it the same?
If you’ve heard that it's not a good idea to run on sand, that may not actually be the case. "I wouldn’t say 'never' because there are very few hard and fast rules in running," explains Jason Fitzgerald, USATF certified coach, 2017 Men's Running Magazine's Influencer of the Year, and creator of Strength Running. "It has its benefits and drawbacks."
Sand, unlike concrete or a track, is not a firm surface, especially when it's dry and soft. Therefore, it causes an unstable foot strike and landing.
"This requires more muscle engagement and overall core engagement due to the constant surface change," explains Luke Lombardo, RRCA running coach, master instructor of Lagree Fitness in LA, Ironman triathlete and sub-three-hour marathon runner. "Plus, because the beach slopes towards the ocean, this creates a leg length discrepancy, so one side of the body bares more of the pressure." You lose some push off, too, which makes it a little more difficult to propel yourself forward.
The sand can also cause possible injuries if a runner isn't strong enough to absorb the stress. "Running in the sand affects more than 20 muscles in the foot, including those that help extend, flex at the joints and contract or expand to impact movement," explains Yusuf Jeffers, USATF L1 certified coach, coach at Mile High Run Club and Tone House in New York City
If you want to run on the beach, it's not something you should just jump into for long distances. "A 15-miler on the beach isn't a good idea if you've never run on the beach before," says Fitzgerald.
Instead, it's best to attempt running for short periods of time, and gradually easing into it, all three coaches agree.
"Just like with running on a flat surface, there should be a gradual, progressive introduction to this type of training," says Jeffers. "Because of the reduced traction and unstable surface, running in sand will fatigue your calves and other muscle groups faster than running on a solid surface."
Even strong runners need to take it in stride. The best way to lower risk of injury and to make running on the beach easier is to try doing it when the tide is low, and the sand is firm, suggests Fitzgerald. And there are actually some benefits you can get out of running in the sand, once your body is strong enough to handle the conditions.
For starters, sand is low impact overall, so it does decrease the impact on your body during a high impact activity, like running. "Many studies point to the fact that it actually reduces muscle damage in comparison to pavement running," explains Lombardo.
Barefoot running also utilizes smaller stabilizing muscles in your feet that don't get as much action when you're wearing shoes. Plus, it's a core workout because you're working those muscles constantly to stabilize and stay balanced on the uneven ground.
"I tend to think that it's useful to differ stimuli to help with progressive athletic adaptation and if done properly in correct conditions, running in sand can help," says Jeffers. "The shifting surface reduces impact as sand shifts around the foot. Calves and muscles in the foot also become stronger as they are forced to work harder to create a stable base from which to push off."
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