Everything I Know About Beach Running
I feel somewhat qualified to speak on the subject of beach running seeing as one of the two triathlons I ever won overall was won on the sand. Literally, the Sandman Triathlon. My second qualification is that I’m Australian which automatically qualifies me to speak with authority on the subject. From the traditions of surf life saving competitions from the legendary sand dune hill repeats prescribed by legendary Australian distance running coach, Percy Cerruty which forged Olympic champions.
In fact, sand running is not something I personally do a lot of and usually only when on vacation even though I live 10 miles from the beach. Why? Well, it works the muscles differently which can often not be worth the effort if it leads to injury or sore muscles the next day if you’re not preparing for a sand run specifically. In 2005, I did the Bondi Barefoot Soft Sand Run and I rate it as one of the most excruciatingly painful 46 minutes of my life. I collapsed at the finish line which you can do quite comfortably in the soft sand. Not only was it painful while it was happening but for the next few days my calves were screaming. I was kind of an exceptional race in that there was no option to search for harder packed sand as there is in most races along the beach.
Which leads me to my first tip, which is pretty obvious, look for the harder packed sand closer to the water if the course allows. Even if you have to dodge the incoming surf occasionally it’s still going to be faster. The 10K soft sand race I did was probably 10 minutes slower than I was running 10K on the road at the time. Whereas a hard pack sand is probably fairly close to a road or path speed. In some cases, where you’re forced to cut across soft sand from the shoreline (Morro Bay Triathlon springs to mind) you are better off staying on the hard pack as late as possible rather than taking a shorter in distance route on soft sand.
Another trick, used often by surf lifesavers, is running in the footprints. A runner in front of you can pack down the sand with each step and if you run in their footprints you can often save energy. Obviously you don’t want to adjust your stride too drastically to step in the prints of others but most times this is an energy saving tactic.
Onto probably the biggest question when it comes to beach running. Shod or not? I would say if it’s mostly soft sand you’ll be running on, go bare feet. You’re cushioned from the impact that you would usually experience on a path or on the road and unless you step on something sharp the extra weight of shoes is not going to add to anything.
I should mention at this point that it is against the rules to run without shoes in a triathlon. This rule is not particularly well known as was evidenced one year at the Sandman triathlon when an official started enforcing it. Don’t risk removing your shoes in a triathlon no matter how tempting.
But if it’s not a triathlon and you’re faced with a hard packed shoreline run like we’re doing this weekend it’s a harder decision. If your feet are used to running in shoes it’s probably worth keeping them on for a random beach run event just to limit the risk of injuries for the rest of the season. But if I was serious about a beach run I’d probably try to get regular barefoot practice on the sand because A) shoes = extra weight and B) feet are waterproof. If you miss timing an incoming wave to try and run the hard sand you could end up running with some heavy, soggy and blister inducing shoes. Up to you.