After first picking up in popularity in the 80s, Running Backwards, or retro running as it’s sometimes called, has got runners talking again this year.
With a 50% increase in monthly global search volumes, there clearly is a renewed interest in this unique type of running. I believe part of this is due to Kara Goucher’s recent announcement that she may no longer be able to run. Others with dystonia found they could run backwards! So now I think we’re all pondering it.
But what really is running backwards?
Can it help you become a better runner? Or is it just a fad that will run its course and fade away?
While backward running has a small following currently, many studies show that it can be a highly rewarding activity for runners to practice.
In this article, you’re going to learn all there is to running backwards, and we’ll touch upon its impact on your joints as well as the top benefits you can gain from trying out this latest running trend.
Ready? Let’s get started!
What is Running Backwards?
Running backwards is exactly what it sounds like. Running backwards instead of forwards like its traditionally done. It’s commonly called retro running, reverse running or backward running. If you want a fancy term backwards running can can be called retro locomotion.
While in running backwards mode, you run while keeping your lower limbs parallel to the direction of the travel, but your shoulders and head may be rotated to keep your path under control.
Rotating your head to look in the direction you’re running is common, but not all retro runners do it. In fact, most retro runners hardly ever turn their heads. (Mind blown!)
Turning your head while running can mostly eliminate any visual hurdles and obstacles. But it limits your speed and may also lead to tensions in the neck.
Running Backwards: The Latest Trend or a Tried and Tested Training Technique?
Running backwards as a sport can be traced back to the early 20th century when athletes including wrestling champions William Muldoon and Ed Schultz, as well as boxer Gene Tunney used backward running in their training regime.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s that this running technique grew in popularity.
In fact, in 1979 Mike Pulido claimed that he got ready for the City of Orange Marathon with just 6 weeks of backward hill running, according to the book Backwards Running. And he finished in 3:20.
Since then, many research studies have been conducted on this unique activity to determine whether it has any legitimate benefits or is just an interesting fad that’ll soon come to pass.
Running backwards has seen a 50% increase in global search volume since the end of 2020 according to a data analysis conducted by PureGym in the UK, and it seems like it’s only increasing in popularity.
But what really are the benefits of retro running? And does it mean you’re going to lose speed? Let’s answer these questions so you can decide whether you want to give this latest running trend a go or not.
Is Running Backwards Good for the Joints?
A study published in the Journal of Biomechanics found that backward running reduced patellofemoral joint (runner’s knee) compression forces compared to forward running at the same speed.
This means that backward running doesn’t compound pain from the knee in the same way that forward running does. This compression force signifies a relationship between ground force and the vector of the knee.
Another study conducted in 2011 by the University of Milan found that in backward running, there is more force in the thrust and less in the braking with a positive impact on the joints.
Reverse running allows bones and joints to absorb shock more effectively, which reduces the risk of injuries. Forward running is also said to over-develop the hamstring muscle group which can increase the risk of knee joint injuries due to muscle strength imbalance.
Backward running, on the other hand, not only strengthens your muscles but also makes the calf muscles, quads, and shins more balanced as you reach greater muscle strength.
Simply put, backward running can actually strengthen your knee joints. It does this by engaging muscles and tendons such as the tibialis anterior (located along the shins) and the vastus medialis muscles (just inside of each knee).
This reduces the frequency deficiency between your anterior and posterior chain muscle groups, i.e., the hamstrings, and the calves and quads.
There is sufficient scientific evidence to confidently say that backward running actually strengthens the joints and is good for it rather than the preconceived notion that it’s harmful.
9 Benefits of Running Backwards
Running backwards has some great health and fitness benefits that make it not only an interesting running technique to try, but to also incorporate into your training program.
Let’s look at the various benefits you can gain from it:
1. Helps Rehab and Prevent Injuries
Backward running can be an effective strategy to rehab injuries such as knee joint, groin, hamstring, shin, lower back, and hip injuries.
This is because it puts different types of demands on your body compared to regular, forward running. There’s a more erect posture, greater range of motion, and greater activation of the quadriceps and calves muscles.
Mixing up forward and backward running into your training plan can actually help prevent injuries from happening in the first place as you are balancing the types of muscle groups used.
2. Improves Performance
Running backwards is actually more demanding than running forward. Comparatively, it requires a lot more effort to move from one point to another.
It can be compared to speed intervals or hill sprints when it comes to cardiovascular demands. This improves stamina and aerobic capacity, which can then lead to better and improved times in forward running.
3. Enhances Cognitive Function
Running backwards requires you to coordinate your movements in a different way than forward running. This means that your brain has to work harder to process visual information and make quick decisions about where to place your feet, how to maintain balance, and how to adjust your movements based on what’s happening around you.
Research suggests that these cognitive demands can have a positive effect on brain function. For example, a study published in 2019 found that participants who engaged in backward running for six weeks showed improvements in cognitive function, including spatial memory and attention control.
The researchers suggested that the cognitive demands of backward running may stimulate neural plasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adapt and change in response to new experiences.
4. Improves Posture
Running backwards leads to a natural change in your posture as you are forced to stand more upright, with your back straight and shoulders back. Inadvertently, this can help improve your running form and your body’s resting posture.
While we run forwards, we tend to lean forward as well which then makes our shoulders fall forward and affects our running form. The opposite happens when you run backward.
You’re also more aware of your posture and stance when doing a new activity with unnatural movements. The focus and balance naturally allow you to correct your posture.
5. Balances Muscle Development
Running backwards works and strengthens the opposite muscles when compared to forward running. These opposite and opposing muscle groups include your quads, calves, and shins.
This ultimately balances your quad to hamstring strength ratio to an ideal 60/40. While forward running can develop your hamstrings sometimes it’s not unncommon to become quad dominant. Especially if nothing is being done to balance out the opposing muscles, meaning strengthening your glutes through work outside of running.
Backward running does just that and helps develop a more balanced muscular system.
6. Burns More Calories
Scientists at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa found that backward running could even help runners burn more calories.
The study was done on 26 female university students, who jogged 15 to 45 minutes backward three times a week for six weeks. They lost up to 2.5% of their body weight by switching to backward running alone.
Since it is much more difficult than forward running, running backward can burn more calories. In fact, it can burn about 30% more energy than regular forward running.
7. Lower Impact on Joints
Running backwards allows bones and joints to absorb shock more effectively, which reduces the risk of injuries and therefore the impact on joints.
Since you are catching your body weight on the balls of your feet instead of landing on the flat of your feet, it reduces the impact between your body and the ground.
Research by The Royal Society shows that running backwards leads to a soft landing and hard takeoff asymmetry, which is the opposite of what happens during a forward run.
This hard takeoff requires greater energy, but the soft landing is much more gentle on the body and activates the muscles’ strength rather than their elasticity.
8. Increases Agility and Improves Running Economy
The study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2011 found that running backwards can be an effective form of cross-training for athletes.
The researchers focused on female soccer players and found that running backwards can improve running economy, which is the amount of oxygen required to maintain a given running speed.
The study participants who ran backwards for 6 weeks showed improvements in agility, speed, and power compared to those who did not run backwards.
9. Adds Versatility to Your Running Program
Let’s admit it, depending on how things are going around you, you might find that you feel bored or tired of running as it starts seeming like a tedious task instead of the joyful activity it once was.
Sure we snap out of it soon after, but what if you had a little running technique you could use to spice things up and eliminate the boredom from your training program?
Running backwards does just that, while still allowing you to experience all the other benefits of distance running. It can breathe new life into your runs and help you have a little fun when things start getting dull.
It’ll keep your mind more engaged by being challenging, different and can add a great new layer of variety into your running routine.
Like record holder Shantelle says: “Initially it was a bit of fun, but after researching backwards running I realised that it is a great cross-training exercise, and a great work out for your abs.“
Will Running Backwards Make You Faster?
Running backwards is challenging at first, and it’s always recommended you start by walking backward before picking up the pace.
You may also limit your speed if you turn your head around to look in the direction, you’re running. But running backward doesn’t always entail losing speed.
While the general assumption most runners have when they first hear of it is that it’ll mean losing speed, I’m here to tell you that that’s actually not necessary!
- Germany’s Achim Aretz showed running backwards didn’t mean slowing down by breaking the world record for the fastest half marathon backwards with his time of 1 hr 40 min 29 sec.
- UK’s Shantelle Gaston-Hird holds the female world record for a backwards half marathon after posting a time of 2 hr 16 min 3 sec at the end of the Manchester half.
While you might not be Aretz or Gaston-Hird starting off, that’s completely okay (and safe too!). It’s knowing that it’s possible that matters, and that’ll allow you to focus entirely on its benefits.
7 Key Tips to Running Backwards
So if by now I’ve managed to convince you to give backward running a go, here are four tips to get you started safely:
1. Start Slow
Whenever you start a new activity, make sure to start slow in both pace and duration. And this is especially important for backward running.
You can first start by walking backwards before you start running. If you want to start today, consider going for a backward walk around the neighborhood.
No doubt you’ll feel a bit sore from doing something new. But you’ll start reaping the rewards of it soon.
Increase mileage no more than 10% increment per week and start by walking first. Remember that you’ll be landing on the ball of your feet constantly, this is going to fatigue your muscles much faster than forward running.
Once you’re more comfortable doing so, you can try an easy backward run. The more comfortable you become, the more confident you’ll feel and the faster you’ll be able to run slowly but surely.
2. Look Behind, But Practice Not To
It’s natural to want to look behind while running or walking backwards, but it may result in a few issues over time. The first is that it can cause neck stiffness and pain, and negatively impact your form.
Which means, there is going to be a learning curve of trusting yourself and planning your routes!
It’s best to, as I said above, start slowly and learn to become more comfortable with not looking behind before partaking in any long backward runs.
Ideal places for backwards running:
- Soft grassy areas
- High school track or along the turf
- Beach running
- Treadmill – again start very slow and know your balance
Again soft places, that are generally flat without obstacles.
3. Practice with a Running Buddy
Running backwards can be both fun and tricky. But doing it with a running partner can make the whole process all fun, with fewer obstacles.
While running with a friend backwards, take turns to be the guide. A guide or spotter is someone who runs alongside you while facing forwards and acting as your eyes. Not only will this allow you to practice better, but it can be a fun experience with a friend.
4. Practice Falling (But Safely)
The trickiest part about running backwards is the risk of falling. That’s why you should always start slowly, look behind when you need to in the early days and also take necessary safety precautions.
Consider wearing a helmet if you’re nervous and you’re running on uneven, rocky surfaces. I’ll always suggest finding a safe area to practice running backward so you can avoid the risk of being injured.
You can also practice controlled falls. This, again, should be practiced safely but it entails learning to land on your side or other fleshy parts of your body to disperse the impact of falling.
5. Wear Proper Shoes
Running backwards can put more pressure on the balls of your feet, so it’s important to wear shoes with good cushioning and support. Look for shoes with soft, responsive midsoles made from materials like EVA or foam.
Plus, running backwards requires a different range of motion than running forward, so it’s important to choose shoes that are flexible and allow your feet to move naturally. Look for shoes with a flexible forefoot and a soft, comfortable upper that won’t restrict your movement.
Other things to consider in the running shoes you pick include a snug and secure fit, good traction, and extra padding in the forefoot to help absorb shock.
6. Strengthen Your Glutes and Core
Since running backwards puts more pressure on your glutes, it’s important to strengthen the muscles involved in order to ensure that they are ready for the task.
Make sure to include exercises like squats, lunges and hip thrusts into your routine. This will help you stay injury-free and more comfortable while running backwards.
7. Pay Attention to Your Posture
Your posture is important while running backwards, and keeping a good form means your body will be better prepared to handle the movements.
Be sure to keep your head up, shoulders back and your core engaged as you run. Take short, quick steps and make sure you’re landing on the balls of your feet rather than your heels. This will help prevent any potential injuries from occurring.
Running backwards is definitely the latest trend for running, but it’s definitely here to stay. Incorporating it into your running routine can balance out your muscles, help prevent injuries and even help burn more calories.
But it’s important to follow the tips and to always take it slow. With enough practice, you might permanently add it into your training plan or maybe even train for a backward half marathon someday.
Looking for more training advice?
- How to protect your joints as a runner
- Best hip and glute strength workouts for runners
- Dealing with runner’s knee
- How to exercise with knee pain
Other ways to connect with Amanda
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