Backward running, also called reverse or retro-running, is a fun way to burn calories and gives runners several unique training benefits not found in regular running. Stepping backwards is an activity familiar to most people. Think about the movements you make when opening a door or stepping away from the sink. Many sports require athletes to run backwards over short intervals. The biomechanics of going backward forces muscles and joints to work in a way opposite to how they’re primarily used. Running in reverse can be a great cross-training tool for strengthening muscles, improving balance, preventing injuries, and adding variety to your workouts.
Benefits of Running Backwards:
1. Recovering From Injury
A study published in 2012 found that running backwards causes significantly less force on the knee joint than running forward at the same speed. One implication of this is that athletes can use reverse running while rehabilitating from knee injuries as a way to continue exercising without hurting their recovery.
Running backwards is also going to be seen as a novel movement by the brain. Returning to running after a painful injury can be a slow process because the nervous system is sensitized by the injury. The brain remembers the activity that caused the injury and will continue to send out pain signals when it detects something similar happening. Any movement that is different from regular running will be perceived as less threatening. Running in reverse can then be a way to transition back to normal running without setting off the brain’s alert system.
2. Muscle Balance
Running backwards will strengthen the opposing muscle groups to what we normally use when going forward. This means improved activation of all the muscles along the posterior chain like the glutes, calves, and hamstrings. Improving the balance between opposing muscle groups can increase performance and reduce a runner’s risk of injury.
3. Improved Fitness
Running backward requires almost 30 percent more energy than forward running at the same speed. In one study a group of young women lost nearly 2.5 percent of their body fat over a 6 week period when they replaced their normal exercise routines with a backward run/walk training program. This same group also showed a significant improvement in VO2 max values (a measure of cardiovascular fitness) when they were tested with regular running at the end of the study.
4. Better Balance and Awareness
Kinesthesia is a term that refers to the awareness of the position and movement of the parts of the body by using sensory information from the muscles and joints. A strong kinesthetic sense is part of the reason elite athletes excel in sports. Without the benefit of seeing directly where you are going, running backwards forces you to rely on hearing, peripheral vision, and body awareness to stay grounded. These senses become strengthened from running backward.
Variety is the spice of life — even when it comes to working out. Adding some variation to your exercise routine is important to avoid growing tired and plateauing with your workouts. Researchers have found that adding new exercises to your regimen significantly increases enjoyment and leads to better adherence. You might look a little crazy going backwards, but that’s half the fun!
Tips to Start Running Backwards
Start with Walking
Before adding backward running to your training, make sure you feel comfortable walking backward. Consider mixing in brief periods of walking backward with normal running to get accustomed to the movement.
Stay Off the Road
The best place to start running backwards is on a track where you don’t have to worry about potholes, traffic, or other hazards. Another option is to run on a flat field, preferably one that is well maintained. Training backwards in busy settings puts both you and others around you at risk and might lead to a traffic violation.
Not being able to see ahead of you creates a big safety risk. If possible bring along a friend that can take turns with you looking out for obstacles in your path. Exercise caution near hills since the physics of traveling downhill backward can make it challenging to staying on your feet.
Build Up Gradually
Going backwards requires muscles to work differently than what they’re used to. Doing too much too soon can lead to fatigue or overuse injuries. Start off with 1 minute intervals at half-speed and gradually go up from there.
If you decide to try it out let me know your experience below!
Photo Credit: Walhalla