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Focus on Training – Sand Dunes

Sand Dune training has been the backbone to the success of many athletes over the years. This form of training offers resistance, encourages good form and technique and makes the body work harder, despite running at a slower speed. Of course, accessibility can prove to be the main stumbling block for many who want to try this form of training but for those who can make it to the beach then a whole new form of training can be opened up.

Although used by many athletes over the years, some would say that the pioneer of this kind of training was the Australian coach Percy Cerutty. Among the many successful athletes in his stable was 1960 Olympic 1500m champion Herb Elliot, along with another former mile world record holder John Landy. Cerutty was famous for making his athletes run up and down sand dunes (sometimes for more than an hour). Steve Ovett and his coach Harry Wilson were also big advocates of running on sand and would often travel to Merthyr Mawr in Wales to complete a rigorous session during the 1970s and 80s. You can view a youtube clip of Steve Ovett training on the sand dunes by clicking here.

So what does this type of training training involve? Well as long as you are running on the sand then you are working harder than you would do normally and getting all the benefits that comes with it. As with any new type of training though, you must start easy and then gradually build up the intensity. The worst thing you can do when you are not used to the surface is to jump into a hard, hilly interval session, chances are you will wake up the next day full of aches and pains and be put off for life. Worse still you could end up injured!

The first thing to do is to commit to the training. Talk to your coach and find a slot where it can fit into your training and plan gradual sessions. The first time that you train on sand dunes we recommend the following:

  • Jogging on the road or grass for around 15 minutes by way of a warm up

  • Gentle running on the soft sand for 10 minutes

  • 30 minutes of dynamic drills and strides on firmer sand

  • Gentle running and strides on the soft sand for 10 – 15 minutes

  • Finish off with plenty of stretching, giving particular attention to the calves and the Achilles tendon

This initial session should be done at least twice in order to build up muscle strength and reduce the risk of injury once the more ‘intense’ sessions start.

On the third week you should be looking at stepping things up and adding some specific reps to the session:

  • Jogging on the road or grass for around 10 minutes by way of a warm up

  • Gentle running on the soft sand for 15 minutes

  • 4 x 50m strides in ankle deep water to encourage high lift, essential for the next part of the session

  • 3 reps of a hilly section of around 70m – 100m, jog back recovery

  • 3 reps of 60 – 90s with 90s recovery

  • Gentle running on the soft sand for 15 minutes

Finish off with plenty of stretching, giving particular attention to the calves and the Achilles tendon

From this starting point you should be in a prime position to adjust the sessions to fit your needs. For example an 800m runner may want to concentrate on short, hilly 100m reps with short recovery, whereas a half marathon runner may need to do longer 3 or 4 minute reps.


As mentioned, sand dune training offers resistance which means that the body has to work harder to maintain form. As the legs sink into the sand the runner is forced to lift the knees higher than normal and drive the arms hard which improves technique when running on the flat.

Most running injuries are stress related; the impact of running on the roads placing undue stress on the body every time the foot hits the ground. Yes, a good pair of trainers helps to ease this pressure and please visit our trainers section for more details by clicking here (!), but the softer and more natural the surface underneath the foot is, the less of a injury risk there is.

When running on the sand, the foot sinks down and therefore requires more effort and energy to drive off with every stride. As the foot spends more time on the ground and more energy is needed to complete the usual running stride, a runner cant reach the same speed as when running on a firmer surface. An intensive workout is had as you are burning more energy over the same time you are running on the sand than when you are running on the road / track / paths.


We have established that running on sand provides a more intensive workout due to the softer underfoot surface. However, the uneven surface means that it is harder to stay on your feet. As much as running up and down sand dunes will also improve core stability, the risks of loosing balance and falling over are considerably increased (the author speaks from experience!). No, maybe falling over on some soft sand isn’t the worst experience a runner will endure but it is possible that sprains and strained muscles may occur in extreme circumstances. That is why we have recommended above that sand dune training should be done gradually to allow the body to adjust to the new environment.

If you are running barefoot, as with a new pair of trainers, the new surface on the feet can cause friction which may result in blisters. Runners also need to be aware of debris on the sand.

As much as the training is advantageous when the foot sinks into the ground and you have to drive the knees high to maintain form, this can put an awful lot of pressure on the Achilles tendons; indeed, many runners who try this kind of training suffer from some sort of Achilles complaints.


Sand dune training offers something new and different to the program. As well as being fun, the intensity of the sessions mean that you can get a good workout from a short session (in terms of time spent running hard). Core strength, speed, leg strength and speed-endurance can all be worked on during a session.

As with everything, we recommend that sessions start easy then are gradually built up. Allow the body to get used to the extra pressure that you are placing on it and make sure that you are thoroughly warmed up before every session and also go through a thorough warm down, placing emphasis on the stretching of Achilles and calf muscles.

With regards to the sessions, as well as building them up gradually, make sure you vary them. Don’t do the same session twice in a row and change the amount of reps and recovery periods to keep yourself fresh and psychology tuned in.

If you are the kind of runner that chases the personal bests times in training and has a lot of interest in how many miles you have clocked every week then maybe sand dune training is not for you – it is possible that a quality workout could be done 2 mins per mile slower than your normal pace and only 5 miles are completed. However, if you want a fun session that works on more fitness aspects than most types of training and you live within easy access of a beach then we say get yourself down and try it once a week for at least a month. You could even finish a session with a dip in the sea, what more could you want!

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