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The lifeguards on Baywatch made running out to the ocean look easy, gliding across Los Angeles’ beaches with perfect form, even in slow motion. Yet anyone who has run in sand knows that the struggle is real. Nearly two decades ago, Belgian researchers found that running in sand takes 1.6 times more energy than running on a hard surface. But sand running is far more than a calorie torcher.
Targets tiny (but mighty) muscles
While big muscles like hamstrings, glutes, quads and calves obviously get a bigger workout with the sand’s added resistance, there’s more to it than that, says Sean Ryan, a triathlete, physical therapist, and owner of Positive Energy Physical Therapy. And he should know—his offices are located less than a mile from the soft sand of Redondo Beach, Calif., a city lining the very same bay that David Hasselhoff once fictionally guarded on TV. “Greater muscle demand equals greater strength building potential,” Ryan says. “Without a stable surface to push from, the feet and hips have to work harder to create drive and body propulsion.” In other words, the sand is like a natural wobble board, making you engage stabilizing muscles you didn’t even know you had.
Builds a bomb-proof lower half
Sand running can help prevent injuries simply by strengthening all of the muscles, big and small, in your core, legs, ankles and feet. However, Ryan says to use sand sparingly, in case the thing designed to make you stronger hurts you instead. “Nearly all running injuries are the result of recurrent microtrauma which generally occurs in the presence of instability,” he says. Because sand is an unstable surface, microtrauma can occur faster than normal. So Ryan recommends treating sand runs like hill reps or track repeats, breaking up the time spent on sand with rest or breaks on hard surface. Start out with shorter, high-intensity runs twice a week at no more than 10 to 15 percent of your total weekly volume, building up to no more than 30 percent of your total mileage.
Fixes your form
“Just like our form changes at different speeds and grades, our form will change while running in the sand,” Ryan says. The idea is that any faults in your stride will become magnified under sand’s tougher conditions and will therefore be more obvious to fix—and improved form leads to better efficiency which leads to you running faster, longer and without expending as much energy. “Run like a cheetah—fast and powerful. Not like a giraffe—long, lengthy or stumbly,” he says. And while you may never need to sprint across the beach to save a drowning vacationer like in Baywatch, a little work in the sand will give you a better chance of outkicking Lieutenant Stephanie Holden at the end of your next tri.
What you wear on your feet can make a big difference in the sand.
Go barefoot if …
You struggle with balance or coordination
You’re not running too far (hot sand can cause burns, and rocky sand can scrape feet raw)
Wear shoes if …
You already have tight calves or are just getting started on the sand
The surface is rough or could have dangerous debris
You’re looking to put in serious mileage
No sand? Go for snow.
In the absence of beaches, Ryan says hard-packed snow can provide a similar effect. “If the snow is soft, deep and/or loose like sand, it will be more demanding on the body,” Ryan says. “Pace will be slower and effort will be higher—consider a shorter run in these conditions. On the flip side, if the snow is hard and firm with a good predictable surface, push the pace and go longer.”