Summer has finally arrived and this year, perhaps more so than any other, people are eager to get out of their homes and enjoy the great outdoors (so much so that some places have been forced to close their great outdoor attractions to the public). Crowds are flocking to national parks, hiking trails, and beaches. A specific type of crowd you may see flocking to the beach this time of year is made up of athletes and trainers- only instead of (or in addition to) partaking in the usual activities (tanning, swimming, etc.), they are working out in the sand.
Sand training has been around for a while now, and it seems as though every summer we see coaches and athletes alike promoting sand training as their innovative way to improve sport performance. Many coaches, fitness influencers, and media outlets advocate for sand training, claiming that it helps improve sport performance through improved “speed and agility”. The issue with this claim is that it isn’t true. In fact, replacing training on hard surfaces with sand training reduces athletes’ running speed and eccentric strength, and it hasn’t been shown to translate to performance on hard surfaces- which, unless you are (or are training) a beach volleyball player, is where you (or your athlete) will be competing.
Whether you are a coach, trainer, or athlete, you should be aware of how implementing training methods influence desired adaptations, so that they can be used safely and and actually improve upon the athletic qualities we are all seeking.
Breaking Down Speed & Agility
Running speed is recognized as the ability to get from point A to point B in as little time as possible. It is a product of stride length, frequency, and efficiency. Stride length is determined by the ability to propel ourselves forward, using the reactive force from the ground- or in other words, our ability to exert force into the ground. Stride frequency is determined by our power output (P = Force x Velocity). That is, our ability to repeat this force exertion as quickly as possible. Stride efficiency is achieved by using good technique, through the application of proper running mechanics.
Agility is our ability to change direction quickly. The speed in which we can change direction is dependent on how fast we can decelerate, come to a stop, and transition into acceleration in our new intended direction. Our eccentric strength (ability to absorb a load) determines the speed at which we can decelerate. Our isometric strength allows for a quicker stopping period between
decelerating in one direction and accelerating in the other. Our concentric power is what allows us to accelerate.
- – Stride Length = Strength Training
– The stronger we are, the more force we can exert into the ground.
– Ex. Squatting Heavy
- – Stride Frequency = Max Velocity
– To get fast, we must train fast.
– Ex. 5 reps x 30m flying runs
- Running Efficiency = Technique Training
– Reinforcing correct movement patterns
– Ex. A-skip, B-skip with focus on quality
- – Eccentric Strength = Force Absorption
– Using our muscles and tendons to absorb forces
– Ex. Depth Drops
- – Isometric Strength = Stopping, Deceleration
– Using our muscles and tendons to stop an external load quickly
– Ex. Contraction without joint angle change
- – Concentric Power = Explosive Training
– Quick and forceful concentric contraction
– Ex. Speed Squat
What Changes When On Sand?
When we replace a hard and flat surface with sand, our muscular demands change. We receive a smaller reactive ground force while running, thus decreasing our stride length. Additionally, by changing the surface on which we train, we alter our movement patterns to compensate for the change. The quality of our running mechanics decreases (exhibited by limited extension of our lower body joints and greater trunk lean), eliminating the transfer ability of sand training to a hard, flat surface. Sand training does not allow us to train fast because it decreases our force output by providing less reactive force and compromises our technique. These inhibitions reduce our ability to train fast- and to get faster, we must train fast.
Our eccentric muscle strength is pivotal in our ability to absorb load and decelerate (which is the first step in changing directions). When changing direction on sand, the external load is absorbed by both our muscles and the sand, which does not allow us to access or make use of our eccentric muscle strength. If the sand is doing the eccentric work for us, our muscles will get weaker eccentrically. If we don’t use our eccentric strength, we will lose our eccentric strength. It also slows the rate at which we can transition from eccentric force absorption (deceleration), to concentric force exertion (acceleration). By lengthening this transition time (known as the amortization phase), our change of direction ability slows down. We can’t change direction faster, if we don’t train to do so faster.
Are There Benefits To Sand Training?
The thesis is, it depends. There are some things for which sand training could be useful, provided the right context. One of the reasons why it’s so popular is because training on sand makes workouts “feel harder”. This is because sand training still does require more force production because much of the force we exert when training on sand is getting lost. This increase in metabolic demand makes you work harder to get from Point A to Point B. The issue is that, from a performance perspective, working harder and adding load in any way possible is not optimal when training for speed- especially at the expense of sacrificing power output (remembering, P = F x V) and technique.
Another reason why people are drawn to sand training is because they do not feel as sore after working out. By reducing the eccentric load on muscles in force absorption, sand training helps reduce Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). Sand training could be beneficial and enjoyable for people who want to “feel the burn” in a workout but want to avoid feeling sore the next few days. Sand can also be a useful rehab tool for people with ankle injuries. The variable surface helps re-train our balance by inducing stress on our proprioceptors. However, it is worth noting that high intensity exercises (those that improve speed and agility) should not be performed on sand when rehabbing, for risk of re-injuring the ankle. Low intensity balance exercises can help train proprioception without the risk of re-injuring a weakened joint. Sand can also be used to introduce variety to avoid staleness and prevent repetitive stress injuries like shin splints, but should not be a staple in a program, or leaned on too heavily when training for performance in sport.
Sand training will not help you improve sport performance by improving speed or agility if your sport is not played on sand, because of the loss of force, decreased movement quality, and lack of stimulus applied. As an athlete, you risk losing more than you gain from training on sand and should not expect to get faster or change direction quicker, just because you sprint and do cone drills or plyometrics on the beach. As a coach or trainer, you will struggle to get results by moving your workouts to the sand, and risk having your athletes fall behind their competitors by having them train “harder”, rather than optimally for the specific adaptations you are targeting. This is not to say that no one should ever train on sand. It is just important to know what is actually happening when you do, and if that aligns with what you are aiming to achieve.