Don't let fear of a shark attack scare you away from occasionally moving your workout to the beach. It can add fun and variety to your routine, and as long as you follow a few simple guidelines, it's quite safe as well.
In sunny Southern California, working out at the beach is common practice. Gary Brazina, MD, a Los Angeles orthopaedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine, says that "too many people think of working out at the gym as the only way to exercise. Certainly the beach offers the option to be outside and enjoy your workout as opposed to thinking of it as a punishment. ... The nice thing is you can do cross-training at the beach easily. You can add running, walking in soft sand, and swimming [to your routine], and you can combine this aerobic exercise program nicely."
The advantage of running or walking on the beach is that the sandy surface has some give, making the exercise less jarring on your joints. The disadvantage is that you may have to walk or run on an angled surface. Try to find as flat a surface as possible to run or walk on.
Swimming in the ocean, as anyone who's tried it will tell you, is great fun. Hazards you may encounter include sea life and rip currents, which can carry you out to sea.
"Sea life is always a bit of a problem," says Brazina. "Shark attacks are ... dramatic but very rare." On the other hand, he says, jellyfish are very common in South Florida, as are sea lice, immature forms of jellyfish that are quite painful.
On land or in the water, use common sense to stay safe. Cover up with a strong sun block. Protect your eyes with sunglasses that provide UV protection when on land and with goggles when in the water. Swim only with a buddy or where a lifeguard can see you. Ask a local lifeguard about what to watch out for in the area where you want to swim.
You should also consider that ocean water is colder than pool water, so you'll fatigue faster when swimming in the sea. Don't stay in cold water too long or you risk developing hypothermia, where your body temperature drops below normal levels. On shore, you risk hyperthermia, where your body temperature gets too high. Keep drinking water while active on the beach, and rest in the shade if you start feeling dizzy or faint.
New York City-based personal trainer and exercise physiologist Paul Lauer leads an exercise class at the beach in New Jersey. He never lets anyone in the water early in the season. Instead, he waits until later in the summer, when the water temperature rises to the mid-60s. He also tells his exercisers to drink 16-20 ounces (about two big glasses) of water an hour or so before hitting the beach and to drink constantly while working out.
Expect your body to react differently to a beach workout, says Brazina.
"It's a different training mode," he says. "Walking on soft sand is excellent, but it's a much more difficult workout. ... When running, you're going to have to spend a little more time stretching because it's going to put extra stress on the Achilles tendon [at the back of your lower leg] because of the soft sand."
According to Brazina, these differences are an advantage.
"Your muscles have a tendency to accommodate your workout so if you're doing the same routine all the time, it gets stale, and you don't get the gains a lot of people are looking for," he says. "This is a way to keep things new, fresh, and challenging. It puts the fun back into the workout."