There’s a reason when you’re running slowly you joke that it’s like running through sand. Because running through sand is always tough and always slow.
The beach may look soft and inviting, but don’t let that fool you. According to one study, running on sand requires 1.6 times more energy expenditure than running on a hard surface. Part of it is the extra mechanical work you have to do stabilizing yourself in the sand. But you’re also not getting as much forward momentum from your push-off, because your foot sinks and doesn’t propel you forward as easily.
“On the road you can run faster, but it’s harder on the legs,” says John Honerkamp, a coach, consultant for running companies and former professional runner.
Soft sand might be easier on your legs, he says, but you’ll run slower—and your body is under extra stress from the uneven surface. All those little muscles in your feet and calves work overtime on the beach.
How to Get Started
Mason actually advises people to simply walk on the beach their first day to get used to the sand. When you’re ready to run (a day or two later), start easy with just 20 minutes. If you do 10 minutes out and 10 minutes back, that also helps ensure you don’t end up running tilted in just one direction since beaches are often cambered with the water lower than the sand berm.
Adames actually cautions against running on the hard-packed sand next to the water. It might be easier to run on, but the sand right next to the water is often on a tilt or incline. And running in too much deep, soft sand too quickly puts more stress on your calves. It’s a balance.
Slowly work your way up with beach runs two times per week. If you’re going to be at the beach for a month or longer (lucky you!), then you could work up to an hour of running, says Honerkamp. But you have to be cautious because those same things that can be benefits—strength, speed training and developing muscle stability—can also turn to injuries if you ramp it up too quickly.
It’s all about adaptation and adjustment. In the sand, you’ll want a shorter stride, quicker turnover and more arm pumping to stay balanced, says Honerkamp. In order to still be getting a benefit and building ability, you shouldn’t be straining and should feel relaxed. Once you get to your goal workout, don’t keep increasing the length or effort.
“Train, don’t strain,” says Clarke.
Shoes or Barefoot?
Honerkamp says, “Either is fine.” But Mason suggests going with what you’re used to.
If the sand is compact enough, you could find it more pleasant to run in shoes. But if the sand is deep or soft, then most people find it easier to run barefoot. However—and this is a big caveat—if you haven’t run barefoot before, then that’s another new stress you’re adding.
Don’t overdo it and hurt yourself. Build up with some shoe running and some barefoot, or transition from heavier to lighter or thinner shoes.
Adames does most of his beach running barefoot, since he’s used to it. One of the biggest risks he sees frequently is stepping on things in the sand, especially if the beach isn’t clean or if there are bees near the water line. “I’ve stepped on quite a few bees,” he says.
- Sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses
- Morning and late evening mean fewer crowds
- Sand can get burning hot in the afternoon sun
- Remember landmarks and where you started—all those towels can look the same
3 Beach Workouts
Sometimes, even on vacation, it helps to have a specific workout. Here are three ideas to make it fun.
HILL SPRINTS—Find a sand dune you can run up (note that some dunes are protected, so make sure you’re allowed on it). Start with four 10-second bursts, and gradually build up to 10 of them. These short bursts uphill can build power and strength, says Honerkamp.
STRIDES—Many runners will do light strides barefoot or on the grass for those same foot-muscle benefits. You can get that, plus the speed bonus, with 5–10 strides on the beach after your regular workout. Build your speed and intensity over 40–100 meters and then slowly decelerate. Give yourself time to recover before repeating (either by standing, walking or jogging).
EASE INTO IT—If you’re more prone to injury or running in sand is very new to you, the first day, take a walk. The second day, just run 10 minutes, or walk one way and jog back. Then a few days later, run 10 minutes out and 10 minutes back. Easy running will build up your calf muscles and endurance.