Walter Payton, one of the NFL’s greatest running backs of all time was known for many impressive feats throughout his career. These included retiring as the games all time leading rusher, holding the record for the most consecutive one hundred yard games, two NFL league MVP awards, and a Super Bowl. Among his achievements, quite possibly most impressive, especially because of the fact that he played running back, was his incredible durability. According to an interview in Esquire magazine back in 1986, Payton played in every Chicago Bears game except for one, and never suffered a major injury during his career. To what did he attribute his superhuman durability to? Physical preparation. In particular physical preparation in the sand!
According to the Esquire article, “Constantly shifting beneath his body weight, the sand forced him to collect himself over and over while still moving forward….it enacted the physical dynamics of making a cut or quick change of direction on a football field, and while the moves a running back makes are basically instinctive and spontaneous, Payton felt the sand helped him develop both balance and foot speed”.
According to an LA Times article called Against The Grains, many athletes have followed in Payton’s footsteps and taken to sand training. The article stated “In recent weeks, for instance, a visitor to the dune might have encountered Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Andrew Bynum of the Lakers or former UCLA defensive back Kirk Alexander, a phenomenally fit personal trainer who spends so much time there that he is known as “King of the Dune.”
“Kobe Bryant has trained at Sand Dune Park, as have several of his Lakers teammates, past and present. Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics, Tony Gonzalez of the Kansas City Chiefs and any number of NHL players, USC and UCLA football players, volleyball players, boxers, fighters, sprinters and WNBA players also have taken on the dune, sharing the sand with a steady stream of weekend warriors”.
“In the early 1990s, when Loyola Marymount’s basketball teams ran tirelessly up and down the floor while setting numerous NCAA scoring records, coach Paul Westhead brought them to Sand Dune Park for early-season training”.
By minimizing impact forces while maximizing stabilizer muscle recruitment, training in the sand is a simple, yet highly effective method for not only decreasing injury potential, but also increasing athletic performance. Structural imbalances between quadriceps and hamstring musculature can be addressed through sand training. In athletes who become quad dominant, sand training can address an imbalance between hamstring and quad strength due to the exaggerated foot drive into the sand, eliciting a greater activation of hamstring muscles during locomotion.
Training in the sand is an excellent method for strengthening the ankles as the muscles that stabilize the ankle joint are heavily recruited during sand training. The instability of the sand allows for a greater range of motion in all biomechanical actions of the ankle. This leads to increases in strength in the associated muscles. The same can be said for strengthening about the knee and hip joints, as many Orthopedic Doctors and Physical Therapists recommend their clients toward training in the sand during the later stages of physical therapy. Many high level club soccer and volleyball coaches as well as numerous NFL and Division I college programs utilize training in the sand as a method for increasing athletic ability while minimizing the risk of injury!
Another benefit to training in the sand, according to a National Strength and Conditioning Association article on Speed Development, is the “increase in proprioception and sensory integration of the lower extremities. Such an increase is a direct product of requiring the ankles to function through their full complement of kinesiological ranges. As opposed to running on artificial turf or regular grass where the ankle is exposed to less variation and therefore fewer proprioceptive adjustments, running in sand requires the ankle’s proprioceptors to make constant adjustments with each stride in order to preserve balance as well as running synchronization”.
One last benefit is increased activation of the core and low back musculature during sand training. The uneven and unstable surface not only requires enhanced stabilizer muscle activation of the lower extremity joints, but also the stabilizer muscles throughout the entire kinetic chain. As the ankles and knees compensate during movement to maintain balance on the uneven surface, so too does the musculature of the hips, low back, and core. Adjustments are made in trunk posture in order to maintain upright stability, leading to an increased activation of these muscles while training in the sand! (Never mind the fact that training in the sand requires more energy and burns more fat. A 1998 Belgian study concluded that walking on dry sand requires 2.1 to 2.7 times more energy while running on sand requires 1.6 times more energy! More on that in part 2 of this article series. : )
Be sure to check out www.apec-s.com or CrossFit Tri-Valley (www.crossfit-trivalley.com) for more info on our 100’X40‘ completely private sand pit used for our unique CrossFit training experience and athlete strength, conditioning, and rehabilitation!