By XPT Performance Director, PJ Nestler
In one of the most famous training montages in sports movie history, Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed race along a beach, every muscle and sinew straining as the two boxers push each other so they’re ready for combat in the ring. The Navy SEALs carry logs through the breakers and undergo “surf torture” as part of the notorious “Hell Week” selection process. And NBA All Stars like Blake Griffin sprint up and walk down dune after dune to get ready for the rigors of the pro basketball season.
As grueling as each of these are, you can do much more with beach-based training sessions. And they don’t have to always be as arduous, either. XPT co-founders Laird Hamilton and Gabby Reece forged their fitness over many years on the sand. In Gabby’s case, it was leaping high above the volleyball net that made her the first female athlete to earn a signature shoe. And while Laird’s most famous exploits take place offshore on the towering faces of Peahi (aka Jaws), he has always honed his strength, power, and speed with sled drags, boulder carries, and other beach exercises.
When thinking about “fitness” in the modern, commercialized sense of the word, many of us think about only what goes on inside a gym. But for the majority of human history, people weren’t physically active in such a formalized, restrictive way. As National Geographic writer Dan Buettner explores in his bestselling book Blue Zones, one of the key commonalities among cultures that not only live the longest, but also have the greatest vitality (like in Okinawa and Sardinia) is continual daily movement. This includes walking between six and nine miles a day in natural settings like along beaches, up and down mountains, and through forests. This isn’t like trying to reach the modern movement RDA of 10,000 steps (which merely attempts to create the kind of activity baseline that sedentary lifestyles have removed) at the mall. Walking, hiking, and running on natural surfaces has greater physiological requirements due to the subtle variations in landscape when you’re moving through terrain.
Being physically active outdoors instead of just defaulting to another strength session in the gym or cardio crush at your cycling studio also provides a profound change in environment. We know from behavior-focused books like Atomic Habits by James Clear that simply altering where you do something can not only challenge you but also help break out of a rut. And in another seminal work, Blue Mind, author Wallace J. Nichols cites multiple studies that show the physical and psychological pluses of regularly being by the ocean, lakes, and rivers (much of which Nichols kindly shared on his website). And flow expert Steven Kotler shares in The Rise of Superman that outdoor sports are capable of triggering the deepest states of embodiment due to the novelty and complexity that nature always presents and the total focus it demands.
Monotony can quickly become the enemy of progress. Even if you’re showing up to train consistently and there’s a fair amount of variety in your program, it’s likely that eventually you’re going to yearn for a different kind of challenge. Fortunately, beach workouts can provide this without asking you to master any radically different movement patterns. Simply putting sand under your feet (or, for that matter, another natural surface like grass in a park or dirt on a trail) changes the physical demands of the session, as you’re asking your body to stabilize and make minute corrections in milliseconds. Speaking of feet, freeing them from the constraints of shoes – many of which have restrictive soles and coddling features like air cushioning and big arch supports – can help remedy conditions like plantar fasciitis and restore the strength and dexterity, which padding along on flat surfaces all day slowly robs us of.
Another benefit to taking your training to the beach is that it introduces a sense of fun and spontaneity not often found at your local 24 Hour Fitness. Between sets you can take a dip in the ocean with your friends, or bring some surfboards or paddleboards along to catch a few waves afterwards. AT XPT, we focus our beach sessions on six elemental movements – jumping and landing, skipping, shuffling, throwing, and – just like Rocky and Apollo Creed – sprinting. Then we add in things like bear crawling and, appropriately for the setting, crab walking. Each of these engages the brain as the body expresses primal motor patterns on an ever-shifting surface. Such exercises can help to re-groove the kind of motions we performed so naturally as kids (see any family having fun at the beach – we don’t always need the “training” label), but let go dormant as adults. Our main movements also require you to explore every plane of motion, whether it’s bounding diagonally across the sand, doing goblet squats with a rock, or twisting to throw the same stone off to one side.
Another thing about beach workouts that people seem to enjoy so much is being out in the elements. This engages every single one of your senses. You hear seagulls’ cries (hearing), see the soothing motion of waves breaking (sight), inhale the fishy brine (smell), taste the salty sea spray (taste), and feel the wind on your skin (touch). Moving on and through the sand also challenges your proprioception and somatic senses as your body provides constant feedback about where it is and what it’s doing in three-dimensional space. You can amplify this by switching between the harder, compacted ground nearer the water and the soft, fluffy stuff further inland. We can also introduce some of the other key XPT practices , such as contrast therapy, by switching between moving with intensity in the heat of the day and cooling off in the surf – not to mention that ice cold beach shower that feels so good afterwards.
There are an almost infinite number of workouts you can do on the beach. To get you started, here are a couple that we used at recent XPT Experiences. Why don’t you join us for the next one to see more for yourself?
*Important* Start every session with a dynamic warm-up including some light movement to get the heart rate up and blood flowing followed by a few exercises to move the joints through optimal ranges of motion. This will help prevent injuries from the unpredictable surface.
Choose a long beach with obstacles along the beach. This can be lifeguard towers, trash cans, jetty’s, or groups of people.
If the markers are close together alternate by jogging, sprinting, walking, shuffling, and backpedaling between them
Set 4 markers in a line approximately 10 yards apart from each other. Starting at the 1st marker, perform each movement full speed to the 2nd marker (10 yards) and slowly jog or walk back (this is your rest).
Once you complete the full circuit from marker 1 to 2 rest 60-90 seconds. Then repeat the circuit from marker 1 to 3 (20 yards), rest another 60-90 seconds and finally repeat from marker 1 to 4 (30 yards)
Once complete, lie down on your back and perform a slow recovery breathing protocol. Breathe in through the nose for 5 seconds and leak it slowly out through your lips for 10 seconds. Follow this pattern for 5 minutes.
Set up two markers approximately 15 yards apart. Complete the full round as fast as possible (resting as needed during the round but the clock keeps running). Rest for 1-2 minutes between rounds.
Finish lying down with 3 minutes of slow box breathing all through the nose. Inhale for a count of 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4 and hold for 4.