People love training on the beach. You get to be outside in the sun, the sand makes everything harder, the scenery is beautiful, and you can get a tan at the same time. What's not to love! Training in the sand can be great for many reasons, but it can also be potentially detrimental to your performance.
It all comes down to one question: What is your goal? This article highlights some pros and cons of sand training so you can make an educated decision next time you hit the beach.
Benefits of Sand Training
1. Change of Environment
The biggest perk of training in the sand is the environment. Getting out of your regular gym and being outside in the sun with the ocean at your feet and the sea breeze blowing can be extremely therapeutic. It's an excellent way to break up the monotony of a rigorous training program. Recovery workouts on the beach are a perfect re-set to get you physically and mentally prepared for your next workout.
2. Greater Demand
The second benefit of training in the sand is that it makes everything more difficult. If your goal is metabolic conditioning, then putting sand between your toes makes everything exponentially more taxing. Jumping, sprinting, shuffling—any type of movement—is more difficult in the sand. Also, moving in the sand challenges your body in different ways than a hard surface, forcing other muscles to work harder to move and stabilize your body. If you're looking to burn calories and increase your metabolic demand, adding sand into the mix will be an extra kick in the butt!
3. Low Impact
Sand is a soft landing pad. It gives out when you land, so the impact on your joints is minimized. This can be great if you are recovering from an injury or just need lower impact movements. Many elite coaches use sand pits for various jumping drills. It still allows you to explode off the hard ground but take advantage of the softer surface to reduce high impacts during landing. The lower impact also makes running on sand less stressful on your joints over time than the pounding of running on pavement.
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The Downside of Sand Training
1. Train Slow to Be Slow
Speed training in the sand makes you slower. You read that right. If you are an athlete whose goal is to improve speed and power, extensive sand training will be detrimental to your performance. When training for speed and power, a major goal is to improve the elastic properties of muscles and tendons, making you more reactive off the ground. Since the sand gives out when you push on it, the ground reaction forces are much reduced, thus slowing the rate of force development (RFD). Rapid use of the stretch shortening cycle and achieving a high RFD are primary adaptations of any speed and power program. Regularly training these qualities in the sand will actually be counterproductive to your end goal.
2. Reinforces Improper Mechanics
Sand training also changes your running mechanics. Newton's Third Law of Motion says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Applying this principle to ground forces, we know that proper acceleration mechanics require high levels of force to be exerted into the ground, resulting in high ground reaction forces that push you forward. This exchange of energy is also what allows you to maintain a proper 45-degree body and shin angle during the acceleration phase.
Given the relative lack of ground reaction forces in the sand, you are forced to change your mechanics and run more upright. If you run with proper mechanics, you will fall flat on your face. Running on the sand requires more top speed or upright running mechanics, since it is more beneficial to reduce ground contact time and try to run on top of the sand. This breakdown of technique reinforces the wrong motor patterns and leads to slower, less explosive athletes.
3. Increased Injury Risk
The sand is an uneven surface. The top layer is very dynamic and moves every time you step or jump on it. This can be dangerous for anybody with a history of lower extremity injuries or anyone with a lack of stability and joint control. If used properly and under the right supervision, this can challenge your stability and proprioception; but it can also pose a substantial injury risk without much (if any) extra reward.
The hard sand by the water is less dynamic, but it presents its own challenges. On most beaches around the world, the hard sand slopes down at various degrees of decline. Therefore, running on it creates an uneven surface, allowing one foot to hit before the other as if you were running with one leg longer than the other. This type of uneven impact can wreak havoc on the joints over time, particularly into the hips and low back.
As with anything, you have to weigh the pros and cons of sand training. I am a huge fan of training in the sand for the reasons I mentioned above. The purpose of this article is to shed light on the drawbacks of sand training, so you can make an educated decision on the right strategy. With any type of training, start with the end goal in mind. If your goal is to get a harder workout, burn more calories, and challenge your body in new ways in a different environment, then throw on some sun block and hit the beach. But if your goal is to improve sports performance through increased speed and explosive power, your best bet is to leave the beach for relaxing and recovery after a hard training session in the gym.
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