Soft Sand Running Misunderstood

20th February 2014

By Jock Campbell

With the majority of Australia’s population living on our magnificent coastline, we have free access to the sand and the sea like nowhere in the world. With the massive growth of exercise and particularly running over the past 20 years soft sand is a great option if you want to look after the long term health of your joints, want to use a more challenging surface and vary your training.

Yes, it’s more physically demanding than running on a hard surface and you shouldn’t base your whole training on it,

Surf Life Saving competition has always had a component of soft sand running in their sport, from sections of the Uncle Toby’s Ironman racing through the 80’ & 90’s, as well as having a 2km soft sand race in the World Titles and now in local, state and Australian carnivals. Beach flags and the beach sprint have been staples of Surf Life Saving since it’s inception, but we’re more interested in the distance soft sand running in this edition. Over the past 10 – 15 years soft sand races have popped up all over Australia, with Sydney hosting the Bondi Barefoot, manly Soft Sand Classic, our own Wanda Extreme 6 & Jane McGrath Classic on Australia Day.  A great way to test the water is Wanda Surf Club’s Spring Beach Classic, in October, which is a combination of soft and hard sand over 8 kilometres out to Boat Harbour and back.

Growing soft sand fraternity 

With the lessening of impact on the joints, the feel of soft sand between the toes and the great location of running on Australia’s magnificent coast line, the prevalence of soft sand runners and racers is booming. Cronulla is no exception, although a mere ghost town in comparison to Bondi Beach at 7am in the morning where they need traffic wardens to avoid collision.

My beloved and famous Wanda Sand hills, 20 years ago used to be pretty quiet on a Saturday morning, where you’d occasionally bump into one other person o the dunes with their dog, now particularly in the summer, it’s teaming with activity. It’s not uncommon to see 3-4 NRL footy teams out there smashing out some hard pre season training amongst at least 5 fitness groups. What’s so great about the sand hills I hear you say? It’s a simple, a great way to massively increase the intensity of your training without the increased impact on your joints of a hard surface, and all that with the magnificent scenery of the hills, the bush and the ocean. Why don’t you come and try our free Jock Athletic Saturday morning 7am session that’s been running for 23 years, it’s physically and mentally challenging and only for the positive mind – no whining allowed and don’t be late.

Research

There’s been a little research done on the effects of soft sand running which dispel many of the old wives tales. Energy cost is a good one I think everyone will like, with for the same distance as running on the hard surfaces soft sand requires around 1.6x the energy cost. Yes that means more calories burnt for the same distance covered. In other words, yes it is harder on the soft sand – boohoo, nothing worthwhile in life comes easy!  You think walking makes it easier, I tell you no, it came out 2.6 times the energy cost of walking on hard surfaces i.e. you burn 2.6 times the amount of calories walking the same distance on sand.

Ground reaction forces, measured in the amount of your own bodyweight going through your foot on impact with the ground on the soft sand are less compared to the hard surfaces (concrete footpaths). In jogging on soft sand around 1.8 times your bodyweight, whereas on the hard surface around 2.2 times. This doesn’t seem like a large difference, but when you times that by 5000 to 10000 steps it does add up significantly. What does this mean? yep; you guessed it less impact and jarring on your precious joints, whilst increasing intensity at the same time.

Those are a few myths about soft sand, mostly old wives tales, here’s the truth:

Slowing down leg speed – With regard to athletes I’ve heard many football coaches, sprint coaches and Physios say soft sand running slows down leg speed.  I’ve often asked to see the research on this or proof. Maybe if you ran on soft sand alone this may happen, but a well balanced plan that includes track speed work, tempo runs, hills and over speed work will certainly ensure this doesn’t happen. The message is to always have a rounded plan, and no one training mode has all the answers.

Soft sand is unstable and leads to injuries like sprained ankles – totally the opposite in fact, the forgiving nature of the sand shapes to your foot landing and in 30 years of training and coaching on the soft sand I have never seen someone go over on their ankle -  that’s been confined to gutters, edges of athletics tracks, potholes etc and I’ve seen plenty there.

The mechanics of soft sand running

Is slightly different to running on other surfaces, where the push is what propels you forward and gives you a solid surface to push off and a rebound from the surface that helps bring your leg back through. With soft sand all much of the drive force from your foot into the ground is dissipated, similar to cycling lifting the foot out of the sand becomes a large part of the technique. This also helps you not to sink into the sand and spend as little time on the ground as possible. The hip flexor becomes more of a prime mover in the technique, and requires more flexibility work to stop it tightening, glut strengthening to maintain hip muscular balance. It’s very similar to swimming, in that the more you do of it; the more efficient you become at it and get the “feel” for the sand.

The great coach Percy Cerutty knew the benefits of it, Olympic legend Herb Elliot used to train in the sand hills, I even travelled 3 hours drive from London to Wales with Sebastian Coe and Tamsyn Lewis when she was at her peak to train in the Welsh sand hills and Aussie legend Alby Thomas in his late seventies still runs the Wanda sand dunes and swears by them, there must be something to it!

Tips:

  • Introduce sand running gradually
  • No more than 2-3 sessions per week on the soft sand
  • Think light on your feet
  • The compressed sand of tire tracks or someone else’s footprints make it easier to run on
  • Your calves will definitely be tight and sore after your first 1 – 2 sessions, but they will get used to it quickly
  • Be consistent and you will quickly improve
  • If you want to race, join a Surf Club and let the games begin
  • Enter a fun run and have a go at it, life is for doing, not sitting on the side lines
  • Enjoy the beach, we have a beauty right here in Cronulla

Jock’s suggestion for a great local option:

The Spring Beach Classic in – 8km combination of hard and soft sand fun run. Challenge yourself and race it, or just aim to finish it for first timers.
Where: starts Wanda Surf Club (organizers) out to Boat Harbour and back!
When: Sunday 13th of October at 9am
More details: www.wandasurfclub.com

If you want some practice beforehand why don’t you join us for a free sand hills session on Saturday mornings 7am rain, hail or shine.


Jock Campbell is a Sports Scientist, Elite Strength & Conditioning Coach & Level 3 Athletics coach with over 25 years experience training and coaching surf life saving athletes, including beach flaggers, sprinters and 2km beach runners. For more on Jock, see About Us.

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