Top Ten Tips for Running in Sand
Running in Sand
There is no doubt in any runner’s mind that running in sand is more challenging than running on just about any other type of terrain. In fact, science tells us that running in sand takes 20 to 60 percent more energy than running on firmer ground. But why is this?
Why Running in Sand is Hard
Soft sand absorbs some of the energy from your foot strike instead of pushing you forward and forces you to activate more lower-leg muscles to stay upright. Also, lactate levels (a measure of anaerobic fatigue) spike two or three times higher in sand than on firm surfaces.
No wonder you get out of breath after just a few minutes of running in sand!
Add to all of this a few uphills and downhills and it’s easy to understand why running in sand can be so challenging.
The Perfect Sandy Race Venue
If you’ve ever visited Jupiter Ridge Natural Area, just south of US Highway 1 in Jupiter, FL, you’ll undoubtedly understand why we love the Sand Spur series of sand races…
The Ridge, as local runners affectionately call it, protects 274 acres of Florida’s scrub habitat. According to the county, “Scrub habitat is one of Florida’s most endangered natural communities. Scrub communities formed on old dunes, which became inland ridges as the sea level fell. Because lands with scrub vegetation are typically high and dry, they were the first to be developed. As a result, less than 2% of Palm Beach County’s original scrub remains.”
My Top Ten Tips for Running in Sand
And since we’re quickly approaching the second running of The Trident, the Sand Spur’s half-marathon sand race taking place in August at high noon at Jupiter Ridge, I thought I would share my top tips for running in sand. You see, I’ve not only run in every Sand Spur event that has taken place since the winter of 2017, I was recently informed that I am the only person who has earned a podium spot in all three of the events. Now I’ll be the first to tell you that some of it had to do with plain ‘ol good luck, but my training plan leading up to the races played a small part in my achievements. So without further ado, here’s my best advice for running in sand!
Tip #1: Walk Before you Run
Running on sand may be a new thing for you, and I wouldn’t attempt trying to run on it before I tried walking on it first. If you’re training for an upcoming sandy race, add some all-sand walking into your training plan before you attempt to run any distance, to ensure your muscles get acclimated to the uneven terrain and lack of traction you’ll experience.
Tip #2: Land in the Middle of your Foot
When running on sand, you want the largest surface area possible to avoid slipping backward (think “snowshoes”). Instead of trying to land on your toes or your heels, you should try to land on the middle of your foot to increase the surface area under your foot so you don’t sink into the sand as much. Check out these two videos to see how much more efficient a midfoot strike is than running on your toes (which a lot of people do when running in sand).
Tip #3: Take Advantage of Firmer Sections
No matter where you do your sand running, some parts will be firmer than others. If you pay attention to the ground several feet ahead of you, or you’re able to practice running on the same course you’ll be racing on, plan on altering your running form depending on the firmness under your feet. When the sand is firmer, you can push off harder with your back foot when it leaves the ground. And when it’s soft, you can ease up a bit to ensure you don’t lose so much energy sinking in that you get overly tired too quickly.
Tip #4: Increase your Leg Turnover Rate.
There are two main components to running fast: your leg turnover rate (cadence) and your step/stride length. The most significant factor in how far you can travel with each step is how much you can push off from the ground behind you; since your push-off will be compromised by the lack of traction you can get on sand, the length of your stride will suffer. Therefore, increasing your cadence is one way you can try to counteract this. The best way to work on improving your cadence is to first, figure out what your current comfortable running cadence is, then monitor it over the course of a few runs, and then manage it. How do you “manage” your cadence? Well, that’s what my Off to a Running Start Training Program is all about!
Tip #5: Shorten Your Stride
In combination with increasing your cadence, you should also be conscious of shortening your stride. It’s gonna happen anyway so you might as well do it deliberately…
Tip #6: Protect Your Feet
Since running in sand can be uncomfortable for many reasons, try to keep your feet as happy as possible. This means not letting those tiny granules of sand anywhere near the baby skin of your tootsies. Wear gaiters to keep sand from getting in your shoes.
And sand can be hot in the summer-protect your feet and toes from blisters with lubricant and high-quality running socks (avoid 100% cotton–you’ll thank me later!). And plan on wearing comfortable lightweight shoes.
Tip #7: Protect Your Eyes and Skin
Since sand is light in color (sometimes even bright white!) heat will reflect off of it while you’re running like nobody’s business. In fact, many people who run on sandy courses think that wearing a hat with a wide brim is enough to protect their faces from the scorching sun but I warn you…if you don’t wear sunscreen on your face, it will still burn from the reflection of the sun on the sand beneath your feet. This is one reason I never run without my blue mirrored prescription Revo sunglasses…they add one additional layer of protection to my already vulnerable face.
Tip #8: Learn How to Run Uphill
The main principles for running up hills are the same, whether you’re running on firm ground or on loose sand, so learn how to run uphills in general to prepare for running on terrain such as sand dunes. For example, we know intrinsically that running uphill is harder than running on a flat road. This is partially because gravity is pulling against you and partially because your footstrike is altered (you’ll land more on the mid- and forefoot). As a result, your lower legs/calves have to do more work-more energy goes through them, so they get tired faster. Here are my tips for running uphill. CLICK FOR VIDEO
- “Stand tall” with a slight forward lean at the ankles (not the waist).
- Extend your hips as much as you can when you drive your legs back.
- Lift your knees up high to take advantage of the additional power generated at your ankle.
- Keep your torso centered over your pelvis.
- Run in others’ tracks to hit slightly firmer sand. Trying to follow in someone else’s footsteps will reduce the amount of energy that you’re losing and allow you to summit the dune a bit quicker.
- Don’t bend at the waist: don’t look at your feet; set your gaze several feet ahead.
If your glutes and hamstrings (back of the leg) are weaker than your quads as mine are, you’ll definitely have to add some strength training into your weekly routine to be able to summit steep hills fast.
Tip #9: Learn How to Run Downhill
A downhill allows you a “free” increase in running speed (since gravity is giving back all the energy you spent going up the hill), so you generally want to take advantage of this.
- Try not to shift your weight backwards when running downhill, even though it’s a normal reaction, since it slows you down.
- A downhill forces your foot to strike the ground more towards your heel. This by itself increases braking forces, and a backwards lean magnifies this effect.
- Bend your knees to keep them from absorbing too much of the impact.
- On the way down a hill, gravity is helping you along, so don’t be afraid to “lean and go” down the hill, again keeping your torso centered over your pelvis (relative to the slope of the hill).
- As your speed increases, you’ll need to quicken your cadence to keep your feet underneath you.
- Once you’ve reached the end of the downhill, you can still “coast” for a bit on the speed boost you’ve gained, but do take care to slow to your normal effort eventually.
Tip #10: Have Fun
You wouldn’t be running in sand, or have signed up for a sand race, if you weren’t up for a good challenge. Relax and enjoy every moment of it. There’s nothing quite like the feeling you’ll get when it’s all over and you realize what you were able to accomplish!
LEAVE A COMMENT!
I’d love to hear from you so please let me know what you think about running in sand and any questions you have or experiences to share.
- Podium Runner: Everything Your Need to Know About Running in Sand
- Red Bull: 7 Excellent Tips for Running Over Sand Dunes
- RunnersConnect: The Proper Technique for Running Uphill and Downhill
- Runner’s World: Just Dune It
- Runner’s World: Three Tips for Running Downhill
Keep running to the beat!