Tips For Running On The Beach

Sand provides terrific strength and stamina training for runners, thereby combining one of summer’s timeless pleasures with a way to shave seconds off your race time. If you’re a coastal runner or are simply planning a beach vacation this year, here are a few things to keep in mind as you opt for the scenic beauty and fresh sea air as the backdrop to some of your runs.

Prepare for increased work
Just how much more challenging is running on sand vs. pavement? In 1998, researchers examining this exact question published their findings in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Using “force platform and cinematographic analyses,” they determined the mechanical work performed by subjects during walking and running on sand and on a hard surface. The researchers used oxygen consumption to also measure the energetic cost of walking and running under the same conditions.

Walking on sand is harder in proportion to walking on pavement than running on sand is to pavement running:

  • Sand walking required 1.6 to 2.5 times more mechanical work than walking on a hard surface at the same speed
  • Running on sand required only 1.15 times more mechanical work
  • Walking on sand required 2.1 to 2.7 times more energy expenditure than walking on a hard surface at the same speed
  • Running on sand required 1.6 times more energy expenditure

The authors explain the increase in energy cost as due to two effects: the mechanical work done on the sand, and a decrease in the efficiency of positive work done by the muscles and tendons due to the sand’s unpredictable surface.

Beach factors to consider
When choosing where and when to embark on a beach run, it’s a good idea to give some thought to the following:

Beach length. Try to find a beach that has at least a mile of uninterrupted shoreline. An unanticipated jetty or cliff around the bend can terminate a run too abruptly.

Beach slant. A too steeply beveled beach surface will make running unpleasant and increase injury risk. The flatter the beach, the better.

Surface condition. Running barefoot on the beach, as a good many if not a majority of beach runners do, means taking into account whether there are excessive seashells, rocks, or (far worse) broken glass or other hazardous debris. If you are venturing into unknown surface conditions, it is worth taking your shoes with you just in case.

Type of sand. Depending on the tide cycle, you may have multiple surfaces to choose from. Soft, dry sand is the hardest to run on because it gives a lot more underfoot than wet sand. Wet, packed sand is what’s left behind as the tide recedes. It’s much more firm than soft sand. If you’re new to beach running, start on the wet sand. If you want to do a soft sand run, get ready for a great workout.

Tidal patterns. Do check the tide chart so that you ensure:

  • You get the type of sand you want
  • You do not have too narrow of a sand strip to run on (that you’ll also be sharing with walkers, swimmers, and sunbathers)

Low tide or a receding tide is the best bet for accommodating the above. Free tide charts by state can be found here: http://www.freetidetables.com/.

Physical challenges
Calf and ankle strain. Like hill running, the calf and Achilles bear a lot of the brunt of running on sand. If you choose to go without shoes, do so with caution. You’ll have to acclimate quickly to running without an elevated heel, and fatigue can befall you rather quickly if you’re new to beach running. Don’t push the intensity your first time on the sand. Make it an enjoyable workout. Keep your mileage low and allow yourself a slower, more relaxed pace. And while the ground force impact of running on sand is softer than on pavement, the uncertain surface makes it easier to twist or sprain an ankle.

Bright hot sun. At least 20 minutes before setting out, always lather sunscreen on all of your exposed skin, in generous amounts. You might want to wear a cap and sunglasses are a must.

Physical benefits
Lower body strength. When the sand moves beneath your feet it engages your ankles, arches and calves and causes them to become stronger. Another 1998 study, this time published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looked at the adaptations from running on sand in high school- and college-aged males as compared both to road runners and controls. After six weeks, calf circumference increased significantly in the sand runners. And while both road running and sand running groups increased in vertical jumping ability and thigh circumference, the sand runners underwent the greatest physiological and performance changes.

Calories burned. In 1992, researchers in Europe found that people who walked or ran on sand burned between 1.2 and 1.8 times more calories per mile, which equates to between 20 and 80 extra calories This matches what researchers reported six years later, with a 1.6 times energy expenditure on dry sand.

J. Exp. Biol., 1998, Vol. 201, No. 13, pp. 2071-80, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9622579

Running Competitor, “Beach Running 101: 7 Tips For Running On Sand,” by Ryan Wood, July 16, 2014,
http://running.competitor.com/2014/07/training/beach-running-101-7-tips-running-sand_107580

Live Strong, "What Are the Benefits of Running on Wet Sand?" by Betty Holt, March 13, 2014, http://www.livestrong.com/article/425926-what-are-the-benefits-of-running-on-wet-sand/

J. Strength & Cond. Res., 1998, vol. 12, No. 2, http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/1998/05000/A_Comparison_of_the_Endurance_Training_Responses.3.aspx

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