Life’s a Beach…Run It! The Pains & Gains of a Beach Run

If you want a hardcore way to improve your fitness levels, as well as your wellbeing, try running on the sand. This is the mantra of Mike Musso, a lifeguard in North Wildwood who’s aiming to run his first marathon this autumn in two hours and 45 minutes (if you don’t run marathons, believe me, that’s a good time). According to Musso, speed work on the water’s edge is an integral part of his training and wellness and he’s not wrong – beach running isn’t easy!


Beach running is like ‘running with weights on your ankles,’ explained Dr. R. Amadeus Mason, a team physician for USA Track and Field and an assistant professor of orthopaedics and family medicine at Emory University. Whether you go barefoot or wear shoes, Dr. Mason notes ‘it’s harder to get your foot planted into the ground, and it’s harder to get your foot up off the ground.’ Dr. Thierry M. Lejeune, of St. Luke’s University Clinics in Belgium and lead author of a study on beach running that appeared last year in The Journal of Experimental Biology, to run on sand you need 1.6 times more energy than you would to run on a hard surfaceyou’re your ‘muscles perform more mechanical work when running or walking on sand than on a hard surface.’


When running on a hard surface, it’s most likely that you’ll hit the ground with your heel first, as this is what most runners do. Your momentum and forward-moving weight then causes your foot to go flat, then forward to the toes, which pushes your body up off the ground and into the next stride. However, the soft and shifting beach surface means that your foot has to work hard to displace the sand, and so your muscles can’t work as efficiently. Dr. Mason says, ‘When you’re on soft sand, your heel strike doesn’t come down and hit that firm surface.’ As a result, your body relies on the small ankles around your ankle to keep your foot steady, and your calf muscles come into play because your foot can’t go flat on the sandy surface.


As your calves work so hard to normalise this motion, and then get the toes up off the ground again, you may notice they’re more sore than usual after your run. Dr. Mason comments, ‘When you go for toe-off, some of the sand gets on top of your muscle and you’re not able to bring that toe up as easily. That’s where the calf muscle starts to work more, because you have to lift your toe up as you’re doing your normal toe-off.’ Even if you usually strike the ground first with the middle or front of your foot, you will still have to work harder to gain a solid footing. ‘The sand will cause some spreading of your toes, and that can be uncomfortable,’ Dr. Mason points out.


So if it brings so many aches and pains, why on earth would runners like Mike Musso bother training on sand at all? While the side effects are there if you’re not used to it, these are often temporary and can translate into a faster time. Dr. Mason asserts, ‘There’s more drag on your feet as you’re doing that training, so when you’re in an environment where there’s not that drag, your legs will not fatigue as easily. When beach runners get on the normal pavement, they move even more quickly because there’s not that kind of impediment.’ Musso can attest to that fact, as he notes, ‘I’ve been getting faster every year.’

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