Alyssa Schwartz fell in love with running on sand during her regular visits to her family's condo in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla.
"Running on the beach was a symbol I was on vacation and it was something I looked forward to," says the Toronto-based writer and digital consultant, who ran her usual five kilometres along the beach four times a week whenever she was there.
Schwartz enjoyed the picturesque change from her usual urban workouts, but after two years she developed Achilles tendinitis that her physiotherapist attributed to running on sand.
An injury like that could be a result of doing too much, too fast on a challenging surface, says Gus Tsiapalis, a Vaughan, Ont., chiropractor who is publishing a clinical guide to sand-based workouts for seniors later this summer.
"The idea of running a 10K in the sand is not the same as on pavement because it requires more energy," he says.
"I wouldn't encourage long-distance running on the sand."
While the beach may not be ideal for long-distance workouts, research shows that, when done properly, shorter training sessions on a sandy surface may be beneficial to your fitness routine. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences that looked at an eight-week conditioning program for female athletes found that substituting sand for grass increased exercise intensity and training load, thereby improving overall aerobic fitness.
"[Running on sand] will make you stronger because you're dissipating energy out into the sand and working harder to achieve the same speed [as on a solid surface]," says Greg Wells, assistant professor of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto.
"It's great for building muscle tone and fine motor control."
Sandy terrain can amp up your workout, because it takes almost twice the amount of energy to run on sand than on a flat surface, and three times more energy to go for a beach-side stroll. "Moving slower on sand takes more balance," says Tsiapalis.
"If you try to hold your bicycle still without pedalling, your core has to work pretty hard. It's the same principle."
Moving on the unstable surface of the beach engages core stability muscles, postural muscles in the back and small stabilizer muscles through the feet and lower legs.
It's also much easier on joints because sand absorbs the ground reaction force that usually travels back up through your body when your foot strikes a solid surface. (Though research suggests wet sand is about six times stiffer than the dry stuff, which results in greater impact.)
There may be other healthy pros to a beach workout, too. "We know that exercising outdoors has significant benefits beyond the physical ones," says Wells.
"There are molecules in the air that help us to be healthier and lower blood pressure." For example, research suggests airborne chemicals that plants emit to protect themselves from fungi and bacteria (called phytoncides) may increase our own disease-fighting abilities.
Scientists also propose that natural settings may help lower stress and increase mental wellness.
Beyond training, the low-impact and strength-building intensity of exercising on sand may help rehabilitate lower-body injuries and prevent degenerative joint diseases such as osteoarthritis. "Creating mobility in the knees, ankles, hips and low lumbar spine keeps the synovial fluid moving to lubricate joints so they will be less prone to wear and tear," Tsiapalis explains.
If you're keen to hit the sand running (or walking), take it slowly and don't try to compare your pace with what you can do on solid ground.
"Adjust your mental technique and keep expectations low," advises Toronto-based running coach Nicole Stevenson. "It may be difficult to get much knee lift, which will add to your workout but may induce frustration."
Wells recommends interspersing shorter bursts with other exercises such as lunges and squats.
And if you suffer from low-body pain or injuries, discuss concerns with your health-care practitioner before moving your workout to the sand.
While Schwartz has been advised to lay off the beach running while dealing with her injury, she misses the fun of ocean-side exercise.
"It's lovely to run through sand when the view is beautiful and you're working your body in new, challenging ways."
Sand at Hand
Exercising on the beach can amp up your workout: Just walking on sand burns 20- to 50-per-cent more calories than walking at the same pace on a firm surface, says chiropractor Gus Tsiapalis. If you're planning to move your fitness routine to the water's edge, these tips can help you stay injury-free.
- Go slow. “Avoid injury by introducing sand running gradually with a few minutes every other day,” running coach Nicole Stevenson advises. Increase your time as your body becomes accustomed to the new surface.
- Hydrate. Shade may be scarce; bring more water than usual.
- Warm up and cool down. Stretch calf muscles, spread toes wide and loosen up ankles by drawing the alphabet with your feet, Tsiapalis suggests.
- Watch your feet. Going barefoot can offer benefits to your overall balance, but beware of hidden debris. If you’re concerned, wear regular trainers or opt for the barefoot-style sport shoes.