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The Benefits of Backward Running
How to Start a Backward (Retro) Running Program

Running backward?
Running backward?

A runner I train experienced pain every time she went up or down a flight of stairs. She also had problems doing lunges or squats, even with proper form. After working with a physical therapist for months, the therapist prescribed something unusual. My client was told for the next eight weeks to do all her normal running exercises, but she had to do them backwards. That’s when I learned the first big benefit of backward or retro running.

Backward running helps with injury rehabilitation.

When you run backwards, the direction of knee joint shear force is reversed. What that means is you still get the exercise, but your knees aren’t getting beaten down nearly as much as when you run forward. It was an opportunity for my client to exercise, but give her knees a break. Studies looking at backward running also found it can reduce problems for people experiencing patellofemoral pain and heel pain too. 

When we first discussed it, my client was against the change. She was preparing for a race and she wasn’t willing to let up on her training. That’s when I discovered the second big benefit of backward running.

Backward running helps people get better results, with less work.

In a study published in May of 1997 in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, researchers found that, “backward walking elicited greater cardiorespiratory, metabolic, and perceptual responses than forward walking…” Additional studies since then have shown that backward runners expend more energy, in less time, and with less stress on tendons and joints than forward runners.

Some researchers found backward runners burn 20-40% more calories than forward runners, in the same amount of time. For anyone busy and trying to lose weight, it’s a chance to put running back into a hectic schedule. That’s when I learned about one of the more surprising benefits of backward running.

Backward running helps improve posture.

Many long time runners develop a forward-leaning slouch. Their head is looking down at the ground, their shoulders are raised and tight while their back is rounded. To run backwards, you have to look over a shoulder to see where you’re going. That pushes your back up straight and forces you to relax your shoulders. A secondary benefit is that you’ll engage your core muscles and build tighter abs. To avoid a stiff neck, I suggest setting a timer to go off once a minute and you switch the shoulder you’re looking over.

Backward running evens out muscular development.

When building a weight training program, you should always work opposing muscles equally. For every exercise that builds your chest, there should be a comparable exercise working your back. With forward running, you put a lot of stress on hamstrings and knees. Insert some backward running days into your regular schedule and you’ll strengthen calves, quads and shins, helping keep those muscles in balance. 

Backward running may make running a challenge again.

Running the same course for weeks or months can get boring. When you do it backwards, you suddenly start noticing things you previously missed. That higher level of focus makes you more aware of your surroundings and can help remove some of the monotony in a familiar run.

When you start, proceed with caution. Avoid busy streets, uneven pathways or areas where tree branches and shrubs may get in the way. Start somewhere safe. I suggest a slow-moving treadmill with handlebars that you can use to steady yourself. You can also try a level track and concentrate on staying between the lines. Spend a few weeks in the safer settings until you’re more sure on your feet.

Running backward is a great exercise to have a partner. The backward runner is in front, while the forward runner stays behind, spotting any obstacles or problems on the route.

Walk, don’t run the first few weeks. Even if you’ve been running for years, you’re working your muscles in a brand new way. You won’t be able to go nearly as far or as fast as you might be used to. Give your body some time to adjust.

Remember that form matters running backwards, just as much as when you’re running forwards. Don’t lean too far back or you’ll fall over. You don’t have to bend your knee that much. Don’t try and land on your heels, when your feet touch down it’ll be toes first.

It’s time to get going and start looking back.

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