Jan 29, 2015
Quick Sand

Looking for a new way to increase your athletes’ quickness while lessening impact? This author suggests sand training, which helps achieve the ideal 45-degree body angle when accelerating out of a cut.

By Scott O’Dell

Scott O’Dell, MA, CSCS, is the Director of Strength and Conditioning at East Central University of Oklahoma. Author of the book, The Power Revolution, he has been an NSCA conference speaker in areas such as plyometrics and strength development and can be reached at: [email protected].

Legendary NFL running back Walter Payton retired from the game with a host of league records, including most rushing yards and most all-purpose yards. However, his most impressive achievement may be that, despite playing in one of the league’s most punishing positions, he started every game of his 13-year career but one, and that was due to a coaching decision, not an injury. When asked about his remarkable durability, Payton attributed it to the sand workouts he put himself through in the offseason. In the time since, the benefits of sand training have been well documented, and athletes ranging from basketball players to boxers have followed Payton’s lead. I began using the training while working as Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at William Jewell College. Having become convinced of its many sports-performance and injury-prevention benefits, I decided to draw up a workout program for the football team that utilized the school’s sand volleyball courts. It wasn’t long before I discovered that the sand was a great surface for plyometric exercises, and the workouts were effective in improving players’ speed and agility. The players responded so well that I incorporated sand training into the workouts of other teams at the school. In my current role as Director of Strength and Conditioning at East Central University (ECU), I’ve developed sand workouts for most of the school’s 13 varsity sports, including volleyball, baseball, softball, and men’s and women’s basketball. I believe this training has played an important role in improving our performances and limiting the number of injuries suffered by our players.


Sand training is a simple, low-impact form of resistance training. According to a 1998 Belgian study, running on dry sand requires 1.6 times more energy than running on stable surfaces, and walking in sand requires 2.1 to 2.7 times more energy. This increased resistance helps improve quickness and build explosive strength because the muscles experience a greater workload during training exercises. Another benefit is the instability of the sand, which requires the muscles that stabilize joints in the ankles, knees, hips, lower back, and core to continually compensate and adjust during movement. This causes a greater range of motion in joints and strengthens the muscles, improving balance and preventing injury. In addition to these stabilizer muscles, prime-mover muscles are activated, making sand training easier on the joints than workouts on stable ground. Sand work also alleviates compressive forces on the joints during running, jumping, and walking. With less stress on the joints, overtraining symptoms are less likely to occur. A sand workout is also useful for improving an athlete’s cutting ability because the resistance of the sand makes it easier to achieve the ideal 45-degree body angle when accelerating out of a cut. When cutting, the foot plants in the sand, causing the body to react with a harder knee drive upward. This helps develop the high-knee motion critical to the acceleration phase of sprinting and eliminates wasted backward leg movement. It also trains the athlete to keep positive shin angles–where the ankle is behind the knee–which is an important component of acceleration. In addition, maintaining the 45-degree angle keeps an athlete’s hips low while cutting, which provides more activation of the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps, and takes energy and stress away from the knees. Positive shin angles can also be developed by performing plyometrics in the sand. These exercises are effective because they force the athlete to perform a hard knee-up, heel-up, toe-up movement to lift the leg after the foot has been driven into the sand. Sand work also provides the benefits of another growing workout trend: barefoot training. Athletic footwear has evolved considerably over the past 40 years, with shoes getting more comfortable and ergonomic, yet the incidence of leg injuries has increased. One theory for this increase is that the human body was designed to move barefoot, so we underuse and therefore weaken muscles in the feet and legs by wearing thickly padded footwear. By training barefoot, we activate and strengthen these underworked areas. However, barefoot training in the sand in extreme temperatures carries the risk of serious and sometimes unbearable discomfort to the athlete. Many regions in the U.S. have summers that can bring the temperature of sand to dangerously hot levels, just as winters can often make sand unbearably cold. In either of these circumstances, athletes can train in socks without sacrificing any of the benefits of the sand work.


Here at ECU, we prefer to have all our sand work completed at least four weeks prior to the start of the regular season. During the final four weeks of preseason, the athletes should be working exclusively on surfaces that provide maximal traction and that transfer to their competitive environment. During the early stages of a team’s offseason workout, we try to get the athletes in the sand once a week. Their weekly workout program includes weight training on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and linear speed, agility, and plyometric work on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We do the sand training on either Tuesday or Thursday, concentrating on agility and plyometric exercises.

It can be logistically challenging to draw up workouts for small volleyball sand pits and my choices are often determined by the number of pits available and the size of the team. Stationary drills are generally not a problem, but drills that are movement-based can be difficult to coordinate. Depending on how many sand pits are available, we generally put the athletes in lines at the edge of a pit and have them take turns performing their repetitions. When a team first begins plyometric work in the sand, we allow the athletes to run through the exercises at their own pace so their bodies can adjust to the higher workload. Single-response plyometrics such as squat jumps and star jumps are introduced anywhere from one to three weeks later. These exercises involve performing a rep of a movement, reloading and resetting the body, and then repeating the process for the remaining reps. The goal for the athlete is to achieve good technique, while improving flexibility, balance, and overall body strength. The following techniques should be emphasized during sand training plyometric exercises:

Toes and heels up: The toes and heels should be lifted as high as possible to train the feet to be quicker off the ground and to decrease the impact of landing.

Knees up: Bringing the knees up prepares the lower body to drive forcefully into the ground on the next jump, while also flexing the joints to decrease the force of landing.

Hips up: Exaggerating hip extension generates more power.

Thumbs up: Forcefully swinging the arms ahead of the body will also increase power production. Muscle tension upon landing: Landing with the muscles in the ankles, knees, and hips flexed will aid in shock absorption, so an athlete will have minimal contact with the ground before springing into the next jump. Once an athlete has developed proper technique, we focus on flexibility and stabilization by adding multiple-response plyometrics. These movements are performed continuously, without any reloading or resetting in between. Teams are generally ready for multiple-response movements between weeks three and five, depending on how well the athletes progress. For agility drills, we generally set up two or three stations on each side of the sand pit. We try to incorporate a power cut such as a pro-agility drill to focus on the body mechanics, muscles, and joints of the outside cutting foot, as well as a speed cut like a Figure 8 to perform the same work on the inside cutting foot. Finally, to work on the mechanics, muscles, and joints involved in transitioning from one move to another, we include a transitional agility drill such as a speed square. BASKETBALL SPECIFIC

Our men’s and women’s basketball teams are two squads that take advantage of sand training. In the offseason, we concentrate on technique by only using single-response movements. During the early preseason, we gear our sand training toward maximum intensity phases of plyometrics by progressing up to multiple-response movements. We increase the complexity of the plyometric exercises when we move out of the sand and onto the basketball court. Here are the plyometric exercises we use:

Preseason – Donkey kick: 2×20 yards – Tuck jump: 4×6 – Double-leg bound: 2×20 yards – Single-leg bound: 2×20 yards – Single-leg speed hop: 2×20 yards per leg – Skier: 3×10 (5 per leg)

Offseason – Tuck jump: 4×6 – Squat jump: 3×5 – Star jump: 3×5 – Scissor jump: 3×5 – Two-leg lateral bound: 1×20

The agility drills are the same for both the preseason and offseason and serve to develop power, speed, and transitional agility. Here are the agility exercises we use:

– Pro-agility: 1×4 – Figure 8: 1×4 – Speed square: 1×4 – Forward and back: 1×4

Sand training has become a unique piece of an overall program at East Central University that has seen a radical reduction in injuries and great improvements in performance in a number of sports. The key is ensuring that the student-athletes focus on proper technique during their workouts and become proficient in an exercise before progressing to the next one. While sand training is no day at the beach for the athletes, they appreciate the results they’ve seen.


Sand training puts a higher workload on an athlete’s muscles compared to training on a more stable surface like grass, hardwood, or pavement. Therefore, it’s important that an athlete performs dynamic stretches and warms up before beginning. Here are examples of stretching and warm-up drills we use as part of the sand workouts for the baseball and softball teams at East Central University:

Dynamic Sand Stretch Drills

Ankle grab: x10 seconds Knee hug: x10 seconds Forward lunge: x10 seconds Side-to-side lunge: x10 seconds Back lunge: x10 seconds Double-toe touch: x10 seconds Stationary high kick: x10 seconds

Technical Sand Warm-Up Drills

If you don’t have a great deal of space, you can go back and forth across whatever area is available until you complete the desired distance. A-skip: 1×20 yards Donkey kick: 1×20 yards each leg Lateral skip: 2×20 yards Long carioca: 2×20 yards Backward shuffle: 2×20 yards Backward run: 2×20 yards Backward skip: 2×20 yards Power skip: 1×20 yards Heel walk: 1×20 yards Heel and toe up walk: 1×20 yards

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