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Running on the Beach Comes With Risks

Many people bring their workout regimen to the beach. However, an orthopedic specialist warns this may actually put more strain on your muscles and joints.
running shoes on the beach

During beach season, many people bring their workout regimen with them to the shore. And that means running along the beach, in the sand. It is commonly thought that the soft sand better cushions the lower extremity joints, making running on the beach even more beneficial. However, a Jefferson orthopedic specialist warns this may actually put more strain on your muscles and joints.

“Though running is an extremely common activity, it is not one performed perfectly at all times. As the summer months begin, running outside, particularly while on vacation at the shore or on the beach, remains one of the most popular activities. But running on the beach comes with risks,” says Dr. Michael Ciccotti, chief of sports medicine at the Rothman Institute at Jefferson and head team physician for the Philadelphia Phillies and St. Joseph’s University.

Running on this sloped surface can especially predispose an individual to injury.

–Dr. Michael Ciccotti

Rarely consistently smooth and flat, the beach surface changes drastically from extremely soft to hard. In addition, the beach often slopes dramatically as it approaches the water. “Running on this sloped surface can especially predispose an individual to injury,” warns Dr. Ciccotti.

“As you run on an irregular, inconsistent surface like sand, the forces that go through the feet, ankles, knees and hips vary dramatically and can predispose an athlete to injury in any one of these body parts.” He advises: “the ideal surface to run on is a relatively flat, smooth, resilient and reasonably soft surface such as a track or jogging trail.”

Common injuries from running in sand
The most common injuries from running in sand include:

  • Tendonitis of the knee, an inflammation of the tendon either directly above or directly below the knee cap
  • Sprains of any one of the four ligaments in the knee, which stabilize the knee joint
  • Injury to either one of the C-shaped meniscal cushion pads in the knee joint
  • Irritation of the fibrous connective tissue at the sole of the foot in the region of the arch
  • Plantar fasciitis (heel spur)
  • Sprains of the ankle ligaments on either side of the ankle
  • Stress fractures of the foot or ankle
  • Incomplete hairline breaks in the lower leg bones, foot bones or thigh bone may occur. These injuries most often occur with progressive soreness, swelling or stiffness in the involved area.
Dr. Michael Ciccotti looking at the model of a knee
Dr. Michael Ciccotti looking at a model of a knee.

Ways to avoid an injury
Dr. Ciccotti says, “running on the beach is a great activity with tremendous health and psychological benefits. We just need to be extra careful to remain free of injury.”

He recommends the following preventative measures to avoid injuries:

    1. Choose the most appropriate footwear. The ideal running shoes provide shock absorption, motion control and stability. In addition, monitor the wear and tear of your shoes, as common running shoes will lose approximately 60 percent of their shock absorption capability after 250 to 500 miles of use. A runner who puts in 10 miles per week should therefore consider buying new shoes after nine to 12 months of use.
    2. Be careful to increase the duration and speed with which you run. Running “too much, too fast, too soon” is one of the hallmarks of training error and injury during the summer months. In the summer when people visit the beach, particularly while on vacation, they often have more time to exercise and a lot of excitement about being able to increase their sports activities in beautiful surroundings. This can be a big mistake for the casual jogger or runner who normally puts in very few miles every week and then dramatically increases his or her mileage. Prudent progression in running distance and pace are essential to avoiding injury.
    3. Be aware of your particular anatomic makeup. Some runners may have high foot arches, one leg shorter than the other, scoliosis (curvature of the spine), or excessive muscle tightness which may increase his/her susceptibility to injury during training.
    4. Stretch the involved muscles for at least three to five minutes before and after exercising.
    5. Respect the environment in which you run. Be aware of the temperature, altitude and terrain. Recognize potential environmental problems and make adjustments to your training routine. Keep well-hydrated when the temperatures are high and avoid running during the hottest part of the day. Also, lookout for extreme dropoffs, holes, fast-approaching inclines, and alternating hard and soft spots in the sand.

What to do if you get an injury
If you do get injured while running, here are some things you can do:

Simple measures such as decreasing or stopping running, icing the affected area for five to 10 minutes at a time, two to three times a day for several days, taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory such as an aspirin or ibuprofen (if your medical history allows) and even local compression such as with an ace wrap can help. If symptoms progress and interfere with sleep, appetite or performance of daily, routine activities, then seek evaluation by your primary care physician or sports medicine specialist.

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