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How Going Backwards Can Move Your Training Forward

Retro training has nothing to do with running like they did in the ‘20s. It’s not the latest dance craze either. Retro training is actually quite simple: It is running backward.

That’s right. Running backward.

When done on a regular basis, backward running strengthens the legs muscles (hamstrings, calf muscles and soleus) that aren’t used as much as the primary muscles for forward running. The benefits of backward running are better overall muscular balance as well as stretching and lengthening foot and lower leg muscles such as the Achilles and soleus muscles.

Backward running makes sense. We spend all of our running going forward in a straight line and the body adapts to that. It stands to reason that running backward will give better overall muscular balance as well as a more stable body structure.

Runners have been doing it for years, especially when injured or coming back from an injury. Some muscular strains are too painful for forward running, but light backward running actually strengthens the muscle and allows it to heal quicker.

New Zealand Olympian and ’83 New York City Marathon winner Rod Dixon has long been an advocate of backward running. During his world-class days, he incorporated a few minutes a day of backward running into his training routine. “It’s just like doing some laps around a track clockwise as well as counterclockwise to balance the inside leg,” says Dixon. “I believe you’re only as strong as your weakest link.”

Although there hasn’t been gobs of research into the efficacy of backward running for marathoners, there is some evidence to suggest that it builds hamstring strength as well as makes it less likely to suffer a strain and better equipped to complement its opposite muscle—the quadriceps (the big thigh muscles)—that are used in forward running.

Additionally, one study suggests that the knee and ankle’s range of motion is improved through regular backward running and it may even help with some types of low grade back pain. Since backward runners land on the ball of the foot, the road shock is absorbed by the calf muscles, rather than the ankle, knee and lower back.

Backward running is a great supplement to a daily workout, but it’s not a substitute. Doing it is a terrific way to raise the heart rate, add some speed training and some variety to what you normally do. Some runners warm up for track workouts with a few minutes of backward running.

How do you do it? It’s remarkably easy. Following your normal run, find a large grassy field (Zilker Park is ideal), a smooth trail or a traffic-free road. Then, merely do 5-10 backward sprints of various lengths. Use your arms to propel yourself backward and run on the balls of your feet. Take short strides. Give yourself a short recovery between each sprint.

If you’re on a road, be aware of traffic and never run backward against traffic. You can even do it indoors on a treadmill or Elliptical Trainer.

An even better way to run backward is on a short hill (some runners use parking garage lots) with a moderate incline that takes 20-30 seconds to climb. Repeat this several times. Don’t expect to run as fast as forward running.

When you begin backward running, do so slowly. Start with walking and gradually begin running. At first, only do one or two repeats or you’ll have sore calf muscles.

But trust us: Backward running will add spice to your daily running routine and give you some much needed speed.

Here are some key benefits of doing some backward running:

  • It improves muscular balance. Doing some backward running improves the opposing muscle groups normally recruited for forward running.
  • It can improve leg turnover (i.e., speed). Running backward is harder than running forward and if done properly, improves cardiovascular system and improves running efficiency which helps when you go forward.
  • Running backward burns more calories than forward running. How much? Most experts agree going backward burns 20 percent more calories than forward running.
  • Better running posture. Let’s face it. Many runners have poor posture which can result in back pain (there are other causes). But backward running forces you to keep the back straight (rather than slouched forward) and works the core muscles.
  • It’s weird and kinda fun. A few sets of backward running is something to look forward to at the end of a run and breaks up the monotony. I’ve been doing it for years at the end of my normal run and drivers always look at me like I’m crazy. Crazy like a fox.