The next time you head out to the beach to catch some rays, pack some running shoes along with your lounge chair. You'll be glad you did.
"You won't find a better workout," said Jeff Bullock, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based personal trainer who runs in the sugar sand every chance he gets. "It will make your whole body stronger, not just your legs."
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The same goes for walking on the beach. While not quite the calorie blaster that running is, walking is a great fitness activity for all ages, and you'll find it's tougher going on the sand, too.
Taking your workout to the beach has many advantages over sticking to your inland route. For starters, there's the scenery.
"Most people live here because of the beach," said Skip Rogers, organizer of the popular Sunsets at Pier 60 summer race series on Clearwater Beach. "There's nothing more fun than running along the water's edge at sunset."
Recent studies have established what many of us know instinctively: It feels good to get outdoors and enjoy the beauty of nature. The sights and sounds of the beach are particularly effective stress-busters.
That's just the start of the health benefits. By some estimates, running on the sand will burn up to 50 percent more calories than running on pavement.
But before you rush out and start pounding the sand, you will need to know a few things.
Hard versus soft
Rogers tries to schedule his races when the tide is low and there is more room to run along the hard-packed, wet sand. The impact on the bones and joints is still significantly less than asphalt or concrete, but it's not as hard on the muscles as trying to run on soft sand.
"You want to start out on the hard stuff," Rogers said. "It is a lot more work running in the sugar sand."
The best running beaches are wide and flat. Avoid those that have a steep incline that leads to the water.
"If you are running along an incline, one leg is going to be doing more work than the other," said Bullock. "That is a good way to get injured."
In general, running in the sand, hard or soft, will take pressure off joints. But it can also stretch your calf muscles and Achilles tendons, leading to soreness and, in some cases, serious injury if you try too much, too soon.
"I like to start off with a nice, long run along the wet sand," said Bullock, who operates out of his gym, Bull Fitness. "I usually finish off with sprints in the soft sand."
But high-intensity sprints, on the road or on the beach, should not be part of a beginner's workout program.
Bare versus Shod
Many beach runners prefer to go barefoot. Running without shoes will strengthen your feet, ankles and, ultimately, your entire legs.
But if you are running to try to shed weight, you may need to stick with shoes, which will lessen the impact on your bones and joints. Once you're leaner, ditch the shoes gradually for short runs and see how you feel.
Shoes, however, have another advantage. They protect your feet from nails, glass and a hazard found on many beaches: broken seashells.
"You don't want to tear up your feet," said Brian Harmon, a salesman with Feet First in St. Petersburg. "Even running on clean, wet sand will leave you with blisters."
Harmon recommends that beginning beach runners wear some kind of running shoe. "They don't have to be as heavy as the shoes that you wear on the street," he said. "But you do want some degree of protection."
Many companies capitalizing on the barefoot-running craze have introduced minimalist running shoes that may prove ideal for beach running. But like most athletic gear, shoe type is a matter of your build, running experience and personal choice. Visit a reputable running store, get properly fitted and try on several types of shoes before you decide to go bare or shod.
And remember that early morning or evening are the best times to be outside in the summer, whether you're running, walking or just kicking back and enjoying the scenery.
Don't forget ...
Be sure to follow the same precautions you'd take for an inland workout:
• Start slow and gradually build distance and speed.
• Stay well-hydrated.
• Wear sweat-wicking clothing, preferably with a built-in SPF.
• Use lots of sunblock (don't forget to coat your feet if you run barefoot). Reapply often; there's no such thing as sweat-proof SPF.
• Wear good sunglasses and a brimmed hat to ward off the glare.