Soft-Surface Running: The Good, The Bad and The Extreme

It has been snowing like crazy in Northern Italy!!!  Hats off to Mother Nature and her ability to keep us on our toes!  I LOVE the snow and how it pushes me to get creative with outdoor urban workouts.  Last weekend, I ventured out for snowy runs on multiple occasions and I could not stop thinking about how running in the snow feels similar to running in the sand….. only, typically…. much colder.   As someone who has competed in “soft-surface” (super sandy) endurance races which required cold winter training, I personally find the snow to be a valuable training tool.

Soft-surface training, however, has been a    controversial topic in the running world!  There is ongoing debate about whether or not training on soft and sandy surfaces is injury-preventing or  injury-provoking.

Proponents of sand running cite benefits such as ease on joints and improvements in cardiovascular fitness and leg strength.  Anti-sand sentiments seem to rise mostly from the claims that soft-surface running increases the prevalence of ankle injuries such as sprained ligaments and achilles tendonitis.

What actually IS agreed upon is WHY sand running is so taxing and what happens on a physiological level to make it so challenging.  Why is running in the sand so hard?? …Research has shown that running on sand requires 1.6 times the energy expenditure of running on a hard surface at the same speed.  This increase in energy cost is primarily due to two things:  1) increased mechanical work done by the muscles in unstable terrain and, 2) decreased muscle efficiency due to some of the eccentric loads getting lost on the sand instead of stored in tendons and muscles for concentric push-off.   In short, your body is working really hard to maintain upright, forward and efficient movement in an unstable environment when you run on the sand.

Whether or not soft-surface running is actually GOOD for you or BAD for you is a tough question to answer because the physiological events that take place in sand running are not all that simple!   As with any new training tool or activity, the keys to a healthy approach lie in proper application and specificity to match personal goals.  For instance, an occasional road runner who has never truly ventured off-road might want to incorporate soft surfaces solely for fitness and fun.  A good training approach for this type of individual may be to start with 10 minutes of soft-surface running 2-3X/week and increase 3-5 minutes per week.   In addition, a new sand runner should implement some targeted ankle strength/balance exercises to avoid the potential pitfalls of running on less stable surfaces.

But what about the extreme runners out there who want to go for endurance adventures in exotic desert terrain??  For seasoned runners who want to actually race in the sand, putting some effort into addressing the specific challenges is paramount for improving sand running efficiency while at the same time avoiding injury.  5 years ago I signed up on whim to run my first 100 kilometer Sahara desert foot race, “the 100km del Sahara”.   The bulk of my subsequent training was admittedly focused on running miles of pavement and packed trail, but I didn’t feel that I had the time or energy to incorporate sandy runs or strength training to prepare my muscles for running miles of sand.  What!??  I was so consumed by “getting in the mileage” for my first major endurance event that I didn’t even consider a sand strategy!  Now, 4 endurance desert adventure runs later, I have a much greater understanding of  why it is so challenging and how certain training approaches can GREATLY improve sand running efficiency.

If you are someone who wants to go EXTREME in your soft-surface and sandy running, here are some tips on improving your sand efficiency to execute your adventure race in STYLE…

1. Pump up the Plyometrics: Working plyometrics will improve efficiency in muscular shifts from concentric-eccentric-concentric action.  Add in some double and single-leg jumps for height, distance and speed a few times a week when you are in the thick of your training.

2. Anchor your Upright with Ankle Strengthening: Single-leg heel raises, jumprope, and single-leg disc balances exercises will make you foot-strong and more adept at handling unstable terrain.

3. Clean up your Abdominal Activation:  Working your core with endurance planks and lower abdominal exercises will keep your posture solid so that your legs can do their job of locomoting you forward.

4. Get Eccentric: Working your legs (especially quads and calves) in an eccentric fashion will help prevent muscle injury and make concentric-eccentric muscle activation transfers more efficient.

5. Work on running drills that will improve your sand technique:  increased forward body position, solid fore-foot push-off and engaged arms in a pendulum arm-swing.   Drills are a great way to reinforce the neuromuscular aspect of running.

6. Make the most of the environment you live in to simulate off-road:  If you live near the beach, incorporate sandy training runs.  If you don’t have sand, but you have hills, incorporate off-road hill repeats.  If you don’t have sand, but you have snow, lace up your trail shoes or cleat shoes and get out for a run in or on the snow!


SusanSoft-Surface Running: The Good, The Bad and The Extreme

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