Reverse Running: Does it Work?

Reverse Running: Does it Work?

When people talk about progress, there's a common adage that it takes "two steps forward, one step back." But when it comes to running — increasing your running speed and strength, and rehabilitating from running-related injuries — the exact opposite might be true. If you've never explored reverse running, let's sprint (pun intended) through the surprising benefits of this fitness trend and how to incorporate it into your workout routine.

What is Reverse Running?

Backwards running — occasionally referred to as retro running (i.e., it's a retro movement, making you go backwards) or reverse running — originated in the early 1900s. One of the earliest practitioners was American boxer and world heavyweight champion Gene Tunney. Tunney ran backwards as part of his training, with many people crediting the novel practice for giving him the strength, stamina, and agility that he was renowned for. 

The practice is exactly as it sounds: You run backwards in the direction that your back is facing, sometimes incorporating upward or downward trajectories on a sloped surface or hill.

Why Are People Running Backwards?

Running backwards is far less energy-efficient than traditional running — meaning you'll likely sacrifice speed and distance — but that in and of itself lends it some unique benefits.

1. You'll Burn More Calories and Lose More Weight

Cardio remains one of the most commonly chosen types of physical activity for those who want to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. And while traditional running has been proven time and time again to be an effective weightloss tool, reverse running may be far more effective. In fact, runners who switch to reverse running were found to lose an extra 2.5% of their body weight in a six-week period. 

This may be because reverse running triggers a bigger metabolic response, as measured by your oxygen consumption (VO2 max). VO2 max is a clinical measurement of your exercise intensity.

2. You'll Activate More Muscles

Compared to forward running, reverse running doesn't just push your lungs and cardiovascular system harder. Research shows that it also activates more muscles — great for building strength and endurance. 

3. You'll Protect Your Joints and Tendons

Injuries (e.g., ankle sprains, "runner's knee," etc.) are statistically common with running. Reverse running lessens the impact of your feet hitting the pavement and has even been shown to reduce the pressure on your knees when you're sprinting, running, or jogging. It can therefore be valuable for those who have pre-existing injuries or who are at risk of injuries, all without sacrificing the health and fitness benefits of physical activity. 

4. Additional Health Benefits of Backwards Running

Dr. Barry Bates, Ph.D., has served as the University of Oregon's director of biomechanics for nearly five decades. Dr. Bates says that based on his research studies — which Dr. Robert K. Stevenson, author of the popular book Backwards Running, also agrees with — there are many additional perks to trying reverse running:

  • It may be better for building your leg muscles
  • It may help to restore good posture, in part by keeping you more straight as you run instead of the normal hunched-over position seen in traditional running or jogging
  • It may add more variety to your workouts, keeping you more engaged and interested in exercise
  • It may improve your overall balance, mind-muscle connection, and performance

How Does Backwards Running Help with Rehabilitation?

As noted above, reverse running or retro running puts significantly less strain on your knees, ankles, and lower body. Not only does backwards running help to prevent injuries, but it has also long been used as a well-researched form of rehabilitation exercise. In fact, it's been effective for everything from Achilles tendon injuries to treating stroke patients who suffer from mobility issues and poor balance.

Dr. Bates' research specifically notes that rehabilitative backwards running may assist with:

  • Hip injuries
  • Back and posture issues
  • Hamstring injuries
  • Groin pain
  • Shin splints
  • Knee injuries
  • Ankle sprains

How to Run Backwards Safely

It may feel weird and unnatural the first time you attempt to run backwards, especially since you can't see behind you. Here's how to do it safely.

1. Pick a Familiar Spot

Now is not the time to choose a brand-new running trail. Start with a place that you're well-familiar with and doesn't have a lot of twists, turns, obstacles, or other people. On your first go, you may want to find a smooth, grassy hill — running uphill is harder, but the grass and the incline can give you extra stability for your initial attempts.

2. Run with a Friend

Just like how it's helpful to have a spotter in the gym when you're lifting extra-heavy weights or trying a new movement, bring a friend. They can help guide you, and they can point out tripping hazards or let you know when another person is behind you.

If you don't have a workout partner, consider using a treadmill for your first trial of backwards running.

3. Start Slow

This isn't a sprint nor a marathon. Reverse running also requires a reset of your running mindset — you're not going to try and beat your regular running time. Consider reducing your regular running pace by 50% to 70%, then slowly ramping up once you're comfortable with this new approach to movement.

4. Mix It Up

It's not an all-or-nothing game. In fact, many athletes and fitness enthusiasts use reverse running as a way to add variety and spice to their workouts. Start by swapping in reverse running for one of your regular running workouts. Or, split up your running workout and try doing forwards for a few minutes and then backwards running for a few minutes.

5. Don't Forget Your Regular Running Advice

Just because it's in reverse doesn't mean you should toss out your standard workout advice:

Don't let the term "retro running" throw you off and make you think it's old-fashioned. That simply refers to retro (i.e., backwards or reverse) movement. If anything, retro running and reverse running may just very well be the future of your running activities.

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