With the Spartan Race World Championships taking place on the Moreeb dunes of Abu Dhabi this year, the nuance associated with running through sand is on the forefront of many athletes’ minds. Whether you are competing in Abu Dhabi or planning a beach holiday and are determined to stick to your training plan, sand running can be a great training tool IF implemented correctly!
Before we dive into the tips and tricks of running in the sand, it’s important to understand what makes sand running so different from running on a harder surface like pavement. During running, energy is transferred through your body and into the ground. The force between your footstrike and the ground is what propels you forward. When running on pavement, lots of energy is rebounded with each step - this is why you feel “springy”. However, on a soft surface like sand, elastic energy stored in your tendons is absorbed rather than returned. Think of trying to bounce a ball on pavement versus sand - there’s a reason why basketball isn’t played on the beach! The same thing is happening with each step you take and the net result is a need to generate more force to move at the same speed on a softer surface.
Another notable characteristic of sand running is that terrain is often very uneven, almost like a technical trail. Running on uneven surfaces requires foot, ankle, and core stabilizing muscles to work significantly harder to maintain balance.
Because sand running presents unique challenges, it can be a great way to spice up your running. As with any new stimulus, it’s important to build up your sand mileage gradually to avoid injury as your ligaments and tendons become stronger. We’d recommend starting with about 10-15 minutes of sand running and build by about 5 mins/session. If you’re on vacation, avoid doing absolutely all of your runs on the beach right off the bat as this can be too heavy a shock to the system and lead to an overuse injury.
Another tip: check the tide - a low tide creates the most level, hard-packed surface for running. That said, beaches are sometimes very sloped, especially at low tide. If you find yourself running on an angle, make sure you run in both directions to allow both legs to manage the unevenness.
As often happens, added work comes with rewards! Here are some benefits of running in the sand:
Running in sand can feel very slow and awkward. How can you become more efficient? The greatest difference in energy cost between sand and firm surfaces occurs at slower running speeds where your ground contact time (the length of time your foot is touching the ground) is longest. The more time in contact with a surface, the more energy the surface can absorb (meaning an energy loss!). Play around with shortening your stride and increasing your cadence to reduce your ground contact time with smaller, quicker steps. There is a degree of technique to sand running - play around and try to find a gait pattern that feels good for you.
If you are racing in Abu Dhabi or are planning on running any sandy race, we strongly recommend training for this variable. If you don’t have sand available, embrace similar footing in snow, mud, thick grass, and technical trail. Consider doing strides across a beach volleyball court to touch on sand running technique. Hit the gym and strengthen your ankle and core stabilizers and research ideal gear for your race like footwear, socks, and gaiters. Sand running is a unique challenge, and a little preparation goes a long way!
Article written by:
Jessica O’Connell – Olympian, Exercise Physiologist and Coach @grit_coaching
Faye Stenning - BKin, Pro Obstacle Course Racer and Coach @grit_coaching