Running on Sand Can Ease Pain, but It Can Also Cause It If You're Not Careful

As your feet thump to the ground during a road run, you might find yourself starting to wonder if all of that pounding is going to affect your health. Unfortunately, the answer is usually yes. Running on hard surfaces, such as asphalt and concrete, takes a toll on the body. And when your joints start asking you to give them a break, it's important to listen. Running on sand is one way to take the pressure off your body, but before switching surfaces, there are a few things you need to know. We asked experts to weigh in on what to be aware of before taking your sneakers down to the shore.

The Benefits

"All running surfaces stimulate different stresses and different adaptations on our body," said Zack Papalia, MPH, a National Strength and Conditioning Association certified strength and conditioning specialist. "In general, running on a slightly softer surface is going to be better for our joints and bones and for exercise longevity. Running outside on concrete is definitely the most demanding and physically stressful."

When your feet sink into the sand during a run, the ground is acting as a cushion, giving your joints some stress relief. Jill Garrigan, a fitness coordinator at Penn State University, told POPSUGAR this surface has other plus sides as well. "If you know what you're doing, it's good core training, and it's good for your balance because you're landing on an unstable surface, so your ankles can become stronger."

What to Be Cautious Of

There's one key thing to remember when doing any workout on sand: it's not as stable as harder surfaces, such as concrete and turf. Garrigan said sand can lead runners to alter their natural gait, which typically strikes the ground with the ball of the foot first, then the toe, and lastly the heel. "On the beach, a lot of people run heels first because they want something stable to hit the ground heavy and hard. They want each step to be sure-footed," Garrigan said. Though changing gait doesn't automatically mean injury, she explained it makes it harder to maintain balance, which could result in a sprained ankle or knee.

"If you run on something like sand, it's not as stressful on your joints . . . but it's much more stressful in terms of stability and coordination," Papalia said. "You're going to fatigue a lot quicker running on sand because you're not just propelling yourself in a straight line; you're compensating with every single step for the instability of the sand."

How to Run on Sand

Like many things in life, Garrigan recommends easing into exercising on new surfaces. "If you go out and do 45 minutes straight on sand, I think you would get injured because you're not strong enough laterally," Garrigan said. "I usually tell people at the beginning, try to find packed sand that you don't smush into, or start with your shoes on."

Garrigan suggests running for two minutes on packed sand with your shoes on then two minutes on soft sand with your shoes on. Following that, try both of those surfaces for the same amount of time with shoes off. After this experiment, choose which style works for you and gradually increase your running time. "Usually people will know what they enjoy and can do," she said.

If you decide to keep your shoes on, make sure you're wearing the right type. Papalia recommends a lightweight, minimalist shoe. "That kind would work well on sand or a really soft surface because it reduces the amount of stuff in the way of the connection between your foot and the ground," he said, "So when you're trying to stabilize, you have direct contact with the surface, and you're not having to fight an inch of foam on the bottom of your normal running shoe as well as the sand."

If you decide to run barefoot, Papalia cautions that it's important to start slow because it will affect the gait and leg differently than sneakers do. Giving your body time to adjust will help prevent injury.