The gym sits within a short distance of a very popular and well-known place for exercise and training.
The Wanda sand hills, accessed north of Wanda beach through the Green Hills carpark at Cronulla, are a traditional migratory ground for pre-season sporting teams, weekend exercise warriors, dog lovers, families, various athletes and various wanna-be-athletes. The report of sporting teams attending the sandhills for pre-season training has a decent chance of filling a page of the sports section of the local paper.
Have someone friended on Facebook, or follow on Twitter, who wants to ‘fitspire’ you with some of the sessions that they can’t keep to themselves; sooner or later the likelihood that they will post something about the Wanda sandhills reaches a probability of 1.
So it’s seen as an axiomatic conclusion that running the sandhills, or attending a sandhills ‘torture session’ is a good thing. We must punch that sacred cow.
We could write with great detail on the quality of speed; and we’ll define that quality in this context in a linear locomotive bipedal expression.
We’d talk about horizontal forces and then vertical forces, we’d talk about the biomechanics and shin angles, pushing, contra-lateral coordination, amount of dorsiflexion, why stride length is a phenomena not a coaching point, heel height recovery, position of the hands and arms, on and on. Only some of that is relevant in relation to why trying to develop speed at the sandhills is a bad idea.
Surface contact time is a phenomena in running fast. I say that it is a phenomena rather than a coaching point because it would be a mistake to say that the pursuit of the shortest contact time would be a fix-all for speed training. Clearly there are methods of locomotion where this pursuit is achieved but that would not mean that it has exclusivity of other important elements. Short surface contact time is a result of efficient running and speed training, not the origin of it.
I point it out for the reason that running on sand fails to satisfy both the phenomena of fast running AND mitigates the training of qualities of speed development and maintenance which you could be using that time and energy for.
When you run in sand, the foot sinks into it in varying degrees depending on how dry or wet or compacted it is. This creates a very high surface contact time yes, but the reason this is bad isn’t just because it is, its because it is adapting the lower leg structures away from the specificity needed to create maximal speed on another harder surface when you return to it. And probably with the exception of snow and mud, every other surface is harder and conserves more force in the lower leg structure than sand.
It’s the same reason that weighted balls don’t help pitchers throw faster or weighted clubs don’t make a golfer drive longer; ultimately the speed of the limb and coordinated rest of the body needs to experience and adapt to the maximal exertive effort of the nervous system.
When you swing a weighted bat, jump around with a weighted very or overload a barbell and walk it out of the rack then strip the extra weight off for a subsequent rep and it ‘seems’ like it weighs less, you are experiencing post-activation-potentiation (PAP). This is a temporal sensation where you have exposed the structures, most importantly the nervous system, to an external load greater than an immediate previous exposure. In some cases this is an over-exposure. That is, it’s more than you have ever experienced. This is a technique used periodically and rarely to gain a short-term training effect but should been seen as a training preparation tool rather than a realistic method for global realization of ability. In other words, you use it to help train to realize a performance increase; doing it doesn’t ‘make’ you faster or stronger in and of itself.
Back to the sandhills we go. You are maximally striving to run up the sandhills, however, you are actually moving very slowly. Your nervous system is not being exposed to the speed of contraction necessary to actually run fast. Additionally, you are not exposing yourself to any other quality that would be useful in the development of maximal speed; only speed endurance which I will get to in a moment. (eg in strength training you are not contracting maximally but you are trying to develop the quality of strength)
The lower leg structures are not adapting to the high force conditions necessary for fast running. Go to a track and conduct whatever ‘speed session workout’ you can dream up. Let me know how your lower leg feels the next day if you haven’t done anything like that in a while. That pain you feel? That’s the kind of stress you are going to have to adapt to in volume and also in intensity. To run fast, you’re going to have to manage and exploit those forces maximally to reach your full speed potential. You are not going to be able to do that in the sand as well as you on the track.
Now you may choose to say, “well I run in the sand to lessen the impact!” Ok, I’m with you to an extent, the volume of the track work that someone does, or the field sport that they do may necessitate this. However, you are getting through the volume of work; not the intensity. You’re still not going to be able to sprint maximally or transfer what you are doing maximally at the sandhills; only the volume, only the conditioning. I only prescribe sandhill work as a part of the conditioning element for athletes, with the exception of sand-sprinters (surf lifesavers competitors) because obviously that is their competition skill. A grass track or field would be a much better compromise.
I haven’t even mentioned the poor use of the sandhills for aerobic-alactic athletes by sadistic exercise prescribers who train them lactically, but I’ll have to punch that sacred cow another day.