Sand running and foot health

Take a coarse on the grittiness of sand running


*Puns always intended.


Running is one of the simplest, yet most effective aerobic exercises that we can do to increase our health and fitness. At Fitness Select, we want the community to get the most out of each exercise, by staying safe, and avoiding injury. Is sand running better for you? Should you wear shoes whilst running? Today we cover these common questions, and more, so you can enjoy the fun side of health. 



Does running on the sand use more, or less, energy?


During summer, especially in recent years, beach running has become much more popular. This is great because it allows us to stretch our legs, feel the sea breeze against our skin, get some much needed vitamin D, and enjoy the atmosphere of a good beach day. For those running to burn calories, according to a study published within the Journal of Experimental Biology, those running on soft sand expends close to one and a half times more energy, than road or oval running. This is a fantastic way to exercise if you are short on time. However, if you live far away from the beach, I'd probably watch what route you pick.



Would running on sand increase injury potential?


Continuing over soft sand with its varying surfaces, may help burn more energy, a study at the Griffth University also added to the benefits, by concluding that each step increases collision time. With our feet taking more time to sink into the surface, this reduces the overall stress of our lower extremities. It also forces the quadriceps, hip flexors, and bum, all to engage much more than on harder surfaces like road tarmac.


However,  a different study through Griffith University, deduced that beach running allows pronation (natural side-to-side movement of the foot), to both occur earlier and later when our feet land. In turn, applying more pressure to the ankles and and knee joints, opposed to those running on an even ground. If you are more susceptible to ankle or knee injuries, until the smaller stabilising muscles are strengthened, running on sand may not be best. Increased pronation can also lead to posterior shin pain, commonly known as shin splints.  It has also been recognised that although running on hard sand with shoes , is softer on the joints and muscles, running on hard sand without shoes also increases injury risk due to the increased skeletal stress.


What can be done to increase stabilising muscle strength for beach running?


Much like anything new introduced to the human body, slowly building up your tolerance is a good way to start. Walking along the sand, is a great way to test if we feel any pain. If we don't, we can begin to slowly add light jogs to our routine, which would eventuate over time, into running. Although ankles would be thought to be at highest risk, Aidan Rich from the Australian Physiotherapy Association, says it is actually both our Achilles and Calves that are greater risk of injury. "Gradual introduction to this is needed to reduce injury risk". Avoid running on slopes, such as along the shore line. if it does slope too steeply, it can cause knee problems such as ITB syndrome, or, runners knee. If done correctly, and built up gradually, running on sand will strengthen your ankle muscles.


Shoes, or no shoes, that is the question.


Since the invention of the running shoe, the question begs to be asked, has millions of years of evolution now been negated by a few years of soft footed padding?


Throughout the 50's and 60's, runners such as England's Bruce Tulloh, were setting European records, almost always in bare feet. Since the invention of the running shoe, the idea of barefoot running never really caught back on. However, in more recent years, the pastime of shoeless running has started to shift from niche hobby, to athletic movement. Few still run completely barefoot, but a large number has begun to adopt the minimalist running shoe movement.


Decades of footwear development has led to larger shoes, with more protective support. This however, has potentially weakened our feet, and changed the way we are naturally meant to run. There are many benefits to running with shoes; Advancements in technology can assist in the prevention of flawed running techniques, such as overpronation (when the ankle rolls inward), leading to shin splints. Shoes also protect us from broken glass, sharp stones, beached needles, and other dangers along our path. Take the case of  25 year old Joanne Hall, whom received such severe burns from running along a hot Fremantle beach, she was rushed to the hospital burn unit.


Regarding scientific research, the results are mixed. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, examined the body of research available on barefoot running. "The research is really not conclusive on whether one approach is better then the other". "There is no perfect recipe". The studies had found that barefoot runners were more likely to land on the middle of the foot, in turn, decreasing the technique of heel-striking. The impact of landing hard on the heel can lead to injuries in the knees, hips, shins, and other areas. The reason running shoes promote the striking of the heal, is largely due to the thick cushioning below the heel. 


There are dangers to to shoeless running as well. When a runner goes from shoes to no shoes, the body may not automatically change its form. Increased pressure along the front of the foot can cause small stress fractures, as we begin to shift the weight away from the heal, changing the form we may have had for years.


If you are used to running in shoes, and would like to begin running barefoot, take care with the transition; Your feet are used to the support. Running without an elevated heal is very relevant, and something we would have to get used to doing. It is recommended to first go through a thorough physical exam by a physical therapist, or running specialist. 


For a sport built around speed, it is recommended to first, take things slow.


How to strengthen flat feet


Roughly 20% of adults have flat feet. Some do have a hereditary flat foot, but it is believed that most cases, it has developed over time. Having been born into a shoeless existence, companies are convinced that man-made corrective footwear is enough to alter and 'fix' millions of years of natural selection. 


Shoes alter the structure of the feet. But is it for the better? in the early 1900's, an orthopedist by the name of Dr. Phillip Hoffman compared some people that wear shoes, to some other people, that don't.


Here is an example of a healthy non-shoe wearing individual with a lifetime of healthy, and stable feet.



Here is the same person, when wearing shoes. Notice the structure of the foot has now changed? The big toe is now pointing inward, and the toes have become quite cramped. 



It was concluded by Hoffman that not a single foot, of the one hundred and eighty-six non-shoe wearing individuals, had any weakness so common in shoe-wearing adults. He also noticed, that foot development was very similar in all populations, until the introduction of the shoe. This shows that shoes have an ability to alter the feet. 


Unless we waive metal detectors over the beach as our source of income, we need shoes for work. So what can be done?


Start off by spending as much time barefoot, as possible. Walking around the home, is a good place to start. The muscles in your feet can begin to push, pull, and flex, as they were born to do. Another great way to strengthen flat feet is to try toe running. If you stand on your toes, you may begin to feel a slight shaking between the toes and muscles of the feet. This shows a weakness, or imbalance, within the foot. Toe running, or walking, will help strengthen ligaments and muscles of the foot. Walking in sand is another way to strengthen the foot. The changing surfaces can give the muscles a chance to adapt to unstable environments. 



In conclusion running on any surface can be beneficial to the human body, if done in a safe, and transitional way. When trying anything new, ease in it to, and always consult a specialist if you are having any issues. The last thing we would want is for you to exacerbate any underlying issues that you may already have. The jury is still out on shoes or no shoes, so do what ever is comfortable to you, and remember to have fun!