Whether you’re looking to change up your regular running routine or just sneak a workout in during your next vacation, running on sand can strengthen your feet and ankles, not to mention increase overall aerobic conditioning. You expend at least 150% more energy and burn more calories running on sand than on hard surfaces—and it actually makes you faster. “Your body has to work harder to get over it,” says R. Amadeus Mason, M.D., assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Emory Healthcare and a physician for Georgia Tech’s track and field team. “It adds resistance and fires muscles you’re unaccustomed to using. Think of it like putting weights around your ankles, or running with a parachute on.” But beware of doing too much too fast—here’s how to ease into beach running.
1) Start by wearing shoes
You’re essentially introducing an entirely new set of mechanics to your feet, ankles, calves, and hips, and predisposing them to injuries like tendonitis or plantar fasciitis. So start by wearing shoes.
“It sucks, since you’ll get all this sand in them,” Mason says. “But shoes take away the toe splay and stabilize the ankle.”
2) Add a sand session to your road run
Most runners, when faced with exciting new terrain, will attack it and end up hurting themselves. Think instead in terms of progression. If you’ve got only a weeklong vacation, you’ll probably want to wear shoes the entire time.
When including a beach run in your regular routine, begin with short distances, adding five minutes on wet sand to the end of a pavement run. And come off your normal road pace just a bit to give your body time to react to the new surface. Again, don’t push yourself.
3) Stick to the shoreline at first
“You don’t want to take away everything your body’s used to all at once,” says Mason. Stick to the hard, packed sand down by the water, as it’s a closer approximation to the running you’re used to.
Gradually raise your wet-sand time from five to seven minutes, then from seven to 10, and so on over the course of several weeks.
4) Then go barefoot
After a week, ditch your shoes but stick to the wet sand. A couple of weeks later, begin transitioning to softer sand, which is where the real benefits of beach running are found. Sand grips your foot, forcing your Achilles and calf muscles into overdrive, strengthening muscles that have all but atrophied from years of running on asphalt.
Start with short runs of five to seven minutes, then gradually up your soft-sand time to 10 to 12 minutes as your body adapts to the surface. You may still notice some mild fatigue in your Achilles, feet, and calves, but don’t worry—keep to a reasonable pace and mileage and you’ll be fine.
5) Adjust your pace
Decrease your time expectations but not your intensity level. If you’re shooting for, say, an eight- or nine-minute mile on a flat surface, aim for running a 10- or 12-minute mile on sand. Once you get comfortable and there are no aches or pains, you can dial in your intensity and distance on wet or dry sand.