#7 Fitness Focus: Sand Training (Spring 2013)

Sand Power
Our growing fascination with our feet and barefoot hiking slowly nudged us into seeking sand as foot-friendly terrain on which to train. We quickly discovered that walking or jogging in sand, especially dry sand, was superior conditioning for our muscles compared with hiking on trails. The constant sinking, twisting, and turning continuously worked the soft tissue in our feet, ankles, and legs whereas hiking only delivers those gyrations intermittently.

Calling it a day at Imperial Dunes, CA.
Relatively flat beach or desert sand was most available to us and we kicked off our footwear if even only for a few steps whenever we could. In the fall of 2012 while in Death Valley, our craving for steep hiking trails couldn’t be met so we headed for the Mesquite Dunes for a little CV work. We were thrilled with the results. Climbing up the highest dunes gave us intervals of CV work, simulated the range of motion used by our legs on steep trails, put unusual demands on our balance, and gave our bare feet and lower legs a robust workout.

That fall we made 3 trips to Mesquite Dunes, sometimes for over 2 hours, for the sole purpose of the integrative workout. Training in the dunes was fun too because there were great panoramas as well as interesting scat and tracks on the sand to decode. In January of 2013 we began our journey to the SW by driving south on Oregon’s Hwy 101 which gave us daily opportunities to walk on the beaches even though the cold snap was leaving frost on the sand by sunrise each morning. And we made a point to stop at one of the several sand dunes access areas for a hike on the rolling dunes far from the sea before arriving in California.

In 2013 a sub-theme of Bill’s trip planning became directing us to dunes specifically for the foot and leg training. The Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area in southern California was the first major dune destination for the season and it was a winner. It had the steepest dunes we’d ever tired to climb; so steep in fact we weren’t sure it was possible to scale the faces. We noted that on the steepest dunes that the lap lines formed in the sand by the wind were obliterated by the frequently slipping sands. On those areas the wind patterns were replaced by teardrop-shaped sag marks on the fall line of the slope faces.

A snappy pace & compact form got us to the top at Imperial Dunes, CA.
It was easy to spot the steepest dune faces on the highest dunes by these overlapping, drip-like patterns and we positioned ourselves beneath many of them for a challenging assault. We cinched the chest and hip straps on our light weight packs not knowing if we were going to roll or fall backwards in failure. Much to our delight, we were successful at scaling these 50-70’ high faces of what had to be more than 100% grades.

I had floundered and lagged behind Bill on the lower and less steep Mesquite Dunes faces and knew I’d need to do better quickly on the Imperial Dunes before me to make my way up the sand that began flowing above and below me with each step. Maintaining a compact and upright stance worked like magic. Short, quick steps with my feet pointed straight ahead and my arms pumping close to my body got me to the top of each of the dunes with no wasted effort. We were both gasping for air at the top after making it without pausing on the way up.

We always seem to skillfully avoid doing the much-touted interval training in which one does short bursts of high-intensity effort but scaling the steep dunes at Imperial made working in bursts a kick. As soon as we were breathing well enough to talk again, we selected the steepest way down off the dune peak and aimed ourselves towards the next high dune in sight. Going down these impossibly steep faces was fun too: the rapidly flowing, mid-calf deep sand felt like a warm, velvety pudding wrapping around our legs as we almost floated down to the bottom.

After outings on 2 days of 2 or more hours each in the Imperial Dunes we felt like we’d had superior workouts. Walking on firm sand at the tops and bottoms, lumbering while walking horizontally across a face, and negotiating the challenges of going up and down steep slopes felt like a thorough workout for large and small muscles throughout our bodies. It seemed like a important way to cross train, a way that we’d continue doing as often as possible. Augmenting our overall durability was always on our minds and the various strains involved in powering up dunes seemed like a good way to do just that.

The dunes at White Sands, NM weren't so high but the gypsum sand was delightfully soft.
Preparation for Sand Walking
Taking It Easy
If you are already a barefooter or minimalist shoe walker/hiker, then going barefoot for an extended walk on sand likely won’t be an issue. But if you routinely wear regular shoes, it should be approached with caution. If you are planning a trip to Hawaii or some other event where you might spend hours walking in the sand, best to do some sand-focused conditioning in advance.

Walking on sand is a notorious way to generate aching muscles and trigger a bout of plantar fasciitis. The plantar fascia traverses much of the length of the sole of the foot is easily injured from a sudden change in activity. Unlike calf muscle overuse that usually resolves in a few days, plantar fascia injuries can nag people for years. It seems like overkill, but it is like any exercise, sand walking should be introduced gradually. And read about plantar fascia stretches done by rolling the foot over a tennis or golf ball and look for other suggestions on how to coax this vulnerable tissue to cooperate with your activity change.

Calf Stretching
Many people are moaning and groaning for 1 or more days after a long barefoot walk in the sand because of over stretching their calf muscles. Even a little bit of heel lift in regular shoes will set you up for over stretching your calf muscles on a beach walk. There are 2 major calf muscles and 1 is stretched by having the knee bent, the other is stretched only when the knee is straight. It’s a good habit to always stretch both muscles and working up to holding a stretch for a minute and a half to 2 minutes will ensure a thorough stretch. Depending upon how tight your muscles are, it may take weeks of stretching several times a week to lengthen the muscles enough to be happy on sand.