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By Carl Valle
The efficacy of sand training is always a training question we hear during the summer, but it’s now a real option for athletes. Coaches tend to fall into three camps: love it, hate it, or just don’t know whether it makes a difference. Personally, I don’t find the modality especially exciting. But I do feel that it has value, especially in the return to play arena.
If you are on the fence about using sand training to improve athletes, you are not alone. I have found the practice of training in sand to be more about logistics than benefits, but I do admit the modality is growing on me. Currently, I still keep the sand training to a minimum, mainly because the information on it outside of some research just isn’t there. This article may not address every question, but it does review what you need if you want to add sand training to your program.
I cover everything sand training related, from the sport science to the actual monitoring of the training. What concerns me is not that coaches are just blindly adding the sand training without a plan, it’s that the science is often promoted without reading the full studies. I am not against sand training, but I won’t claim it has made such a difference in athlete performance that I am having Caribbean sand shipped to the facilities I train at. Sand training has some unique properties that are worth trying, but it will take a while to know if it’s truly indispensable.
Should We Rethink Sand Training Now?
Every summer, we see videos on Instagram and other social media platforms of athletes training in the sand, like some badge of courage or message that they have discovered something special. Sand training is not new, but the science is getting better at really zeroing in on its benefits. I grew up on the East Coast and spent every summer on the beach, but I never trained on it except for a casual run or two, mainly out of curiosity. I distinctly remember the soreness, especially of the stabilizer muscles below the knee. Years later, I recall getting spooked by sand training after the running back from the New England Patriots, Robert Edwards, tore his ACL, and it took me about 10 years to try sand training again with any real gusto.
The grind never stops. June 8, 2019
What triggered this article wasn’t the video of Tom Brady training on the beach or the University of Miami football team doing agility—it was the increase in coaches asking about adding sand training areas to their facilities. Simple questions like the dimensions and type of sand they should use sparked my interest in the subject again. I suspect coaches are looking to sand now to find a way to overload the body and rest the joints and tendons. In fact, I think some of the barefoot hype from a decade ago is resurfacing.Sand training isn’t new, but the science is getting better at really zeroing in on its benefits, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
It seems like when coaches get a little bored, they start itching for something new or something old that feels new again. Sand training, like fashion, comes and goes, but each time it becomes trendy it seems to stick around longer because someone either gets hurt or a star athlete makes it popular again. I don’t think sand training makes athletes, but I do think it’s great for some lower-extremity injury problems.
What also made me want to write something up on sand training was that the research now is at a level we can’t ignore. Sand training is a medium with properties worth exploring, of course, and now we are seeing a lot of good research on the topic. If you are looking to create a holistic program and want to maximize all resources, the science is now at the point where we have enough information to make fair conclusions on sand training’s value.
What Does the Science Say About Sand Training?
The research on sand training is enough to merit an entire section, as it serves as a guide to training and rehabilitation suggestions later. I have purposely removed speed and agility training from the article, as it overlaps the science section too much and would be redundant. If you wonder what benefits sand training may have, here are a few points to think about, and a great sand training review from a few years ago. In fact, you can make a case that this section is a Cliff’s Notes version of the review article.
Here are the four key areas that may be interesting for coaches and sports medicine staff.
- Increased metabolic demand of training
- Reduction of eccentric load and soreness
- Potential stiffness adaptations for athletes
- Injury risk management qualities
Expect the studies to support what we already know—sand training has enough of an effect on the body to merit special attention. It’s fair to summarize that the differences between asphalt, rubberized track, trail, water, and grass are important for coaches to consider. In the review below, I also add my own perspective on both the science and the application.
Metabolic Demand Changes
The metabolic cost of training in the sand increases immediately just from switching from grass. Straightforward changes in lactate and aerobic responses occur with routines; thus, the interview with coaches. While I am a fan of challenging athletes, it seems that many in training are addicted to making things harder rather than making the athlete better. Sure, overload matters, but the way we strain the athlete has details to consider.
Just trying to increase the physiological demand of training without considering the biochemical and neuromuscular benefits seems misguided. I do think it is a potentially good fit to add sand training to early training phases or transition periods. What we don’t know is whether the trade-off for more demanding exercises and theoretical speed drops has any bearing on long-term development.
Eccentric Load Reduction
I understand why a health magazine would promote sand training, mainly sand running, as a way to exercise hard without managing the aches and pains of delayed onset muscle soreness later. Burning fat and elevating heart rate are perfect for those looking for fitness for health, but with sport we know that taking away eccentric loading has its drawbacks. In my experience, you add concentric-biased training into a program to manage the stress of the other elements—it’s more complementary than a direct boost. Often, those who do sand training are chasing the metabolic load while decreasing the strain on the legs. Sand may be a nice surface when aquatic training isn’t viable, but it still induces mechanical strain.Sand may be a nice surface when aquatic training isn’t viable, but it still induces mechanical strain, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
Potential Training Adaptations
Some coaches have the theoretical idea that a combined program utilizing different surfaces will help athletes run faster in due time. A combined program of various exercises may result in a favorable long-term improvement, provided the right sequences and dose of training are tailored to the athlete. As of now, it looks like having sand training (beach volleyball competition) in the off-season, even high doses of it, is fine for volleyball, but again, land sprinting is far different than just jumping or early acceleration.
Sand does have some potential issues with athletes acutely, as it tends to reduce peak power (not a perfect metric) with volleyball players. With other forms of training integrated into a program, it’s hard to truly evaluate the magnitude of sand training. Chronic sand-running athletes are interesting test cases, but more research on grass and hardwood athletes is needed.
Injury Reduction and Risk
So far, the research isn’t conclusive on whether sand will decrease or increase injuries, so it’s likely that sand training won’t be a problem unless you are unprepared. Too much of any type of training is a problem, so fears that running on the sand a few times will cause an injury to an athlete who is in great shape are exaggerated. Unfortunately, some athletes may not respond well to sand training, and one study saw a relationship with Achilles tendon problems at the “insertion” location. Ironically enough, another study recommended sand for some cases.
Generally speaking, sand is an option that may not work or transfer well, depending on the specific variables, and it must be individualized to the athlete. Even the right exercise for the right athlete at the wrong time could be problematic, so definitely have a plan, as the research is a bit conflicting.
If you notice, I don’t list speed and power development because a sandy surface, especially soft sand, is lousy for speed training. True, it may not interfere with a program over the course of a season, but it won’t give any athlete a powerful edge for speed development. While you can make an argument that slowing down a sprint with a weight vest or sled has benefits for speed later, the issue I have is that the research with sprint training on sand, led by Alcaraz, is about how much speed is lost training on the surface.
Theoretically, some coaches have found grass to be valuable in offloading the stress from a track, but sand reduces speed so severely, it’s not worth it. A counterargument can be made for the use of sand as a replacement for grass during the general preparation phase, but the sand training study on 20-meter speed still included grass one of the three days and was a short training period. It may not prevent development for a short session, but variables like weights and seasonal changes need to be factored in.
The science of sand training will get more granular and specific in a few years, as basic responses such as physiological demands and simple speed differences don’t help with exercise prescription and programming the sequence of training. Hopefully, scientists will do more research on areas that can lead to nearly an immediate adoption or subtraction of sessions based on their findings.
Sand Training for Rehabilitation
I don’t believe that sand training prevents or reduces injuries. I am also not saying that sand training is safe. Sand training is a form of unstable surface training, but it’s also slow enough (retards contraction speed demands) to not have me lose sleep. Still, I believe sand training has value because it has some risk of instability, especially soft deep sand that is dry.
In my experience, sand training can be used with great success as a way to help bring an athlete back from lower body surgery or ankle pathologies that are properly diagnosed. Sand training is not a panacea, and I have seen athletes take it too seriously and come inbound with sports medicine baggage. So, the secret to return to play is more about purpose and sequence of training than adding a dash of sand to the rehabilitation program.The secret to return to play is more about purpose and sequence of training than adding a dash of sand to the rehabilitation program, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
I see five areas where sand has advantages I like for athletes. I have only done sand training a few times with rehabilitation, mainly because I wasn’t confident that adding it would make a difference. When I included it a few times because it was prescribed, the script made sense and it worked like a charm. Here are five rehabilitation perks that coaches and sports medicine professionals may find useful based on my observation, and they are mainly psychological.
- Confidence: Athletes have found that if they can tackle sand, regular surfaces feel easy. Due to the challenge of sand, those who are injured feel when they are on regular surfaces that they are mentally and physically prepared by doing the extra work needed. The mental side of rehabilitation is not to be undervalued, and this must be carefully navigated by coaches or it could backfire.
- Time to Learn: Sometimes slowing things down is good for athletes to explore and build efficient patterns. Most of the time, I am not interested in slowing things down, just speeding up the comfort of performing tasks explosively. Adding a wider time frame for sand training may help some learners perform better in the long run.
- Muscular Efforts: Resting tendons and joints is important with veteran athletes or early stage training. Due to the contractions using potentially less tendon contributions, the alternative sand session can theoretically be a welcome break from heavy training periods where tendinopathy is common.
- Natural Feedback: The foot, shod or bare, is extremely sensitive to changes, due to the proprioceptors of the body. You don’t need to use cues to teach how to accommodate unfamiliar forces, the brain just finds a way. Sand does the talking with dynamic balance and change of direction work, but again, it’s not a game changer for agility.
- Variety and Novelty: Sometimes a respite from the hardwood or even grass is welcomed by an athlete who needs a break from the game. Sand training can be done anywhere with the right facilities, including indoors, but nothing beats a beautiful seascape. I think the trade-off for a great view and a change of pace is worth short expeditions to the beach if you can, and the refreshing break away from a sterile gym may be everything to an athlete wanting a change.
Some coaches have made claims that sand training is great for recovery. I don’t believe sand training is great for athletes in season, as the modality isn’t proven to make a difference with recovery without compromising the training effects of practicing on grass. Eccentrically, sand may be easier on the body on paper, but in reality, chronically training on sand isn’t really clear outside of 12-week studies without matched controls. Time will tell, but I am confident that different surfaces will add up better in a combined fashion than one surface alone.
Utilizing Sand Conditioning for Team Sports
One area that is promising but severely limited is early preparation training. Here is the compromise, though: Due to the SSC (stretch shortening cycle) having little to no influence on the contractions during the sand session, the athlete is technically less efficient and slow. While this may help increase the demand, the movements are now a bit sluggish, defeating speed development in the long run.
Coaches always claim they want to work on speed, but are geniuses in self-defeating approaches that make sprints slower by either adding resistance or unnecessary challenges. If a coach does sand running or training for a few weeks of a long season, I have no issue, but for extended periods we need to think about what we are teaching the body to do with sand training. A great movement and speed program won’t be helpful when you literally add speed bumps with sand dune runs and change of direction drills.I recommend that early-stage return to play phases and GPP periods use sand training: sand hills in the fall for sprinters, sand drills for team sports, sand exercises for injured athletes. Click To Tweet
Sand training should be done far away from competition, unless you have a super resilient athlete who can gobble up any type of training like a goat. When a foreign surface is added to the equation, the change can sometimes be too much if the athlete is motivated and aggressive. Therefore, I recommend that early-stage return to play phases and GPP (general preparation phase) periods use sand training. Sand hills in the fall for sprinters, sand drills and games for team sports, and sand exercises for injured athletes. Beyond that, I have to see something extraordinary to become a believer that more is better.
Monitoring and Testing Sand Training Adaptations
The final area that connects everything together is, of course, evaluating sand training and rehabilitation. In no way am I advocating timing speed or agility training, but I do think it’s appropriate to test changes over time and monitor conditioning. Sand training can be evaluated qualitatively and measured quantitatively, if needed. I prefer to not place training into distinct artificial categories, but rehabilitation, conditioning, and power all can be observed with simple testing.
Most of what I use sand for is based on learning from Håkan Andersson and sports medicine experts, so I test lower-extremity symmetry patterns and how an athlete is prepared after a full general preparation phase. It’s not much, but heart rate monitoring, pressure mapping, and jump testing are good enough to confidently know if the hours in the pit paid off. Tests I like are the Reactive Strength Index, simple TRIMP scores, and CoP (center of pressure) evaluation to foot strike analysis in the sand.
Endurance athletes can treat sand running like trail running, and just a switch in surfaces should show up on the heart rate monitor. However, running mechanics may look different, such as cadence and ground contact times. Adding a heart rate monitor is interesting for team sports, but I feel that most of the priority should be on muscle strength below the knee and how the reactive qualities of an athlete are migrating. I have not seen any positive effects from high-volume sand training with athletes I have tested.
Again, doing testing as a service allows me to observe any changes with programs that are not as conservative as mine. I have tested plenty of athletes and not one outlier with stiffness has shown up from sand training programs. If you are using sand training extensively, testing more often makes sense.
I am cautiously optimistic about the benefits of sand training. The logistics of doing a sand workout always seemed more of a pain, but if it’s a short drive or you can use the jump pit, try it, especially for ankle rehabilitation. Most of my recommendations are on monitoring training and testing the program later to see if anything surprising surfaces, no pun intended.The logistics of doing a sand workout always seemed to be a pain, but if it’s a short drive or you can use the jump pit, try it, especially for ankle rehabilitation, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
I changed my mind over coaches considering the option of sand, but I will not go on record saying you must use it or you are missing out. Have a plan and try it yourself before having a team or group of athletes start doing something foreign. Sand training is popular and trendy, but if you are not excited about integrating it, feel free to skip the modality for something more conventional. The lure of sand training will always be there for new coaches, but make sure not to get overzealous and take things too far.