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Sand dunes, the grit to climb and a view

June 16, 2003|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

Many of us feel the need to step outside the gym now and then to rejuvenate our workout routine in the great outdoors.

One such place that inspires fitness enthusiasts of all skill levels is Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach. The popular 3-acre South Bay park offers a couple of appealing novelties. First, there's a welcome change of scenery -- at the top, if you're not bent over in exhaustion, there's a decent view of the Pacific Ocean. And then there's the change in workout surface -- namely, to sand.

On arrival at the quiet park, nestled in a residential neighborhood blocks from the beach, you quickly understand that it didn't get its name for nothing. A towering sand dune practically dares all comers to conquer it.

I had no set program in mind but kept to one simple goal -- keep moving, up and down the dune, for at least half an hour. It didn't sound hard, but it was quite a challenge, and it yielded a terrific cardiovascular workout.

After only a few steps, my bottom-to-top education in negotiating a 100-foot-tall wall of sand had begun. As anyone who has run on the beach can tell you, it's slow-going if you're not on the hardened wet stuff next to the surf. You're exerting what seems like twice the effort to go half as far as you would on a flat, solid surface. Any thoughts I had of smoothly gliding over the sand were immediately shot.

Standing still is also not an option -- unless you want to trudge over the same real estate twice. Because of the dune's relatively steep incline and its easily shifting sand, attempts at stopping to catch your breath -- a frequent temptation -- usually mean sliding backward. Thus, dune dynamics almost force exercisers to forge ahead, no matter how tired they may be.

Actual movement is a struggle, and not because you're out of breath. It's just hard to get up a sand dune. Your feet are constantly searching for pockets of stability where they can get enough resistance to push off for a strong step forward. Sometimes, the search was fruitful, and you advanced a full step, sometimes not. Half the time, my progress was so awkward it felt like I was wearing snowshoes.

On my way up, I noticed that many of the dune walkers weren't wearing shoes at all. I didn't pay much attention until I got about three-fourths of the way up on my first trip and realized I was carrying a handful of sand in each shoe. I kept my shoes on, but I had to shake them out after reaching the summit each time.

Of course, if you're interested in getting a good workout, all these special characteristics of sand are a definite plus. And for a guy like me, with tender knees, the slow, deliberate movement -- combined with the give and take of the sand -- was especially easy on the joints.

In all, it took me about 35 minutes to travel up and down five times. Each time I reached the top, I walked around a bit to catch my breath before heading back down. Typically, my heart rate was in the 170s near the crest of the dune, but it had eased back to the 120 range by the time I reached bottom.

I tried to hit the dunes at an off-peak hour -- a late weekday morning. At that time, there were about a dozen walkers. Locals say the heavy traffic periods are the hour after sunup and the hour before sundown. At those times, the number of dune walkers can reach 30 or more.

The dunes have become so popular that Manhattan Beach is periodically under pressure from the park's neighbors to severely curtail access. One recent proposal, eventually defeated, called for fencing and advance reservations to use the park. On summer weekends, the city estimates that the dunes draw more than 300 people a day.

Among the regulars, at least for the last year or so, are Cara Jackson and Ryan Terry of nearby Redondo Beach. Although the pair -- one a former Miss Arizona, the other a former professional football player -- are athletic and fit, I also saw all ages (about a third of the dune is reserved for children) and all shapes attacking the dunes.

Jackson, a singer and actress, likes the competitive boost the dunes can supply. "When you're at the gym, it's hard to know how you're doing compared to other people on the machines," she said. "But out here in the fresh air, you're right next to people. It gives me a little extra bit of motivation."

For Terry, who recently retired from pro football in Canada, the dunes provide a uniquely challenging workout. As with most visitors, he's improvised his own workout. His calls for a mix of walking, sprinting and running up and down the dunes for about 30 minutes.

"I work harder here than I did in football practice," Terry said.

I don't have football as a benchmark for comparison, but I can say that the dune experience certainly demanded more out of me than my half-hour cardio machine workouts. If I lived closer to the beach, I'd shed my shoes and incorporate the dunes into my weekly workouts.



Snapshot: Sand dune climbing

Duration of activity: 37 minutes

Calories burned*: 517

Heart rate*: Average, 147; high, 181

Where to go: Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach

*This information was obtained using a heart-rate monitor.


Martin Miller can be reached at

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