Reverse running who to and why

Reverse running: what are the benefits of running backwards and should we all start doing it?

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Reverse running is one of the biggest fitness trends of 2022. But jogging backwards isn’t actually new – experts have used it for years as a conditioning tool. Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi gave it a go…

Is it me or does ‘reverse running’ – running backwards – sound like a made up fitness fad? It’s the kind of thing that someone taking the piss out of wellness might suggest as a way of mixing up your training. But it turns out that reverse running is actually a real ‘thing’ and may actually have a load of benefits to offer.

While it’s been lauded as one of the big fitness trends of 2022, it’s not actually a totally new ‘thing’ (what ever is?). In 2013, Dr Robert K Stevenson wrote a book called Backwards Running in which he claimed that every runner should include jogging backwards in their regime. And when I mentioned that I was looking into the activity, a friend of mine who works for a big running brand said they’d previously met a sub-3h30m marathoner…who ran the whole thing backwards. For context, the average female runner completes the London Marathon in 4 hours 23 minutes… and that’s running forwards.

“Reverse running is essentially what it says on the tin: it’s running but in reverse,” explains Barry’s UK trainer Lucy Usher.

So, why on earth would anyone want to run backwards? The world’s fastest backwards runner, Aaron Yoder, told Great Big Story that he took up running backwards to deal with a knee injury. After years of competitive running, he was warned that he might have to give it up altogether to save his knee. 

Instead, he hopped on the treadmill and turned around – and found that his knees were under significantly less strain. After a stack of medals, he now says that he prefers reverse running because you “get to see how far you’ve gone, not how far you’ve got to go”. That may sound a bit ‘woo’ but there’s definitely something enviable about being able to relish how far you’ve run and enjoy the journey that you’ve already been on.

“As crazy as it sounds, it does come with benefits that may improve your usual running technique, such as improving your posture, as it will require you to be in more of an upright position and therefore you can take this posture into your forwards running. It’s also an exercise that not only improves your coordination and balance but can be great to show just how much balance and coordination you already have,” says Usher.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Strength Conditioning Research found that backwards running resulted in greater muscle activity and heart/lung activation than forwards running. Eight athletes were made to run backwards on a treadmill over a 10-week period, after which, scientists found that they had improved forward running economy. In other words, running backward for highly trained runners can make you better at running forwards.

Another study, this time published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences Training, found that the way in which run really differs between forwards and backwards. When running normally, most runners are heel-strikers; when backwards running, they tend to land nearer the front of their feet, leaning slightly forwards. Backward running was found to require 30% more energy than running forwards while also producing far less hard pounding.

“Reverse running isn’t a new concept, but does seem to be growing in popularity according to recent reports,” explains Vangellis Stamatiadis, running product expert at Garmin. “This is likely because of the benefits it offers to complement traditional running: posture, fitness and decreased load onto your joints.”

Scientists have also found that runners with ‘bad knees’ can benefit from backwards running because going in reverse puts less pressure on the front of the knees. 

Of course, there are drawbacks to going backwards. I gave reverse running a go during a lunchtime session and found it to be a pretty terrifying experience when you’ve got walkers and cyclists moving around you, slippery surface beneath you and lots of hills. You can’t see where you’re going; these studies are largely conducted on treadmills, with athletes harnessed onto them to stop anyone from pinging off into the distance.

Usher recommends trying backwards running on a treadmill to avoid stacking it outside. “The treadmill will never change underneath your feet as it’s a flat surface, plus you have the handrails on a treadmill you can hold onto if you need a little extra support.”

Even with the potential for calamity, I did actually notice some potential benefits to backwards jogging outdoors. For one thing, I’m a chronic overstrider and going in reverse forced me to shorten my steps significantly. I also found myself lifting my feet more than usual to avoid twisting my ankles – something I should try to do more often. It’s also quite an embarrassing thing to do alone and because of that, you forget about what other runners are doing and what your Garmin is saying in favour of simply keeping going.

I set off for a 5km, breaking at 2.5km to do 200m backwards and then repeated the same thing at 4km. I’d like to try for longer but as I live on top of a hill surrounded by busy roads and canals, I’ve not found a safe route to do so yet. “As long as you’re practicing it in a safe environment (ideally on a track where other runners are aware of what you’re doing), then why not [give reverse running a go]?” asks Stamatiadis. “Mixing up your running training is usually a good thing, and you may begin to see some benefits that complement your normal run routine.”

The most jarring thing about trying it, however, was having to stop my watch to do so. I didn’t want to keep the clock going when I was having to slow down to make sure I didn’t fall over. That might sound vain but many of us do want to record a certain tempo and distance. Stamatiadis recommends either creating an activity profile on Garmin or whatever running watch you use, “that includes the same data points as traditional running” or simply setting aside sessions for reverse running and labelling them on Strava once you’re done. 

“If you do decide to track your reverse runs, you’ll be able to analyse how the exercise impacts your fitness and body throughout the exercise. For example, you can review your heart rate and how much toll the exercise took on your body,” he explains. You can also review your performance over time. You may begin to see that reverse running doesn’t elevate your heart rate over time as much as it used to, indicating you’re getting fitter or that the exercise isn’t costing you as much.”

A chronic overstrider normally, reverse running forced me to take smaller steps to avoid stacking it backwards.
A chronic overstrider normally, reverse running forced me to take smaller steps to avoid stacking it backwards.

So, is reverse running worth the faff? “If you’re an avid runner or someone who just loves trying new things then absolutely, I would recommend giving it a go,” Usher says. “It’s always good to try new things and challenge your body in different ways. It can be good for people who have knee injuries as it relieves some of the impact on the lower body, so therefore can be used as a rehabilitation exercise if needed.” She recommends building it up slowly within your run rather than attempting to go out for a backwards 10k.

“Start with around three-to-five minutes just after your warm up (or even as your warm up) and see how you find it.” However, the Barry’s trainer also warns that it might not be the most effective way to improve your running. “As fun as this is, you will probably benefit more from the standard running you do, however many times a week you train. It’s great for improving posture, balance and coordination but there are other forms of exercise you can utilize that will improve these things as well.”

From my brief foray into backwards running, I tend to agree with her; I’ve made huge strides in the past from going to gyms like Barry’s and Victus Soul for sprint sessions and hill workouts, as well as trying various running drills, and it seems unlikely that a five minute reverse run is going to be able to replicate that. 

But while I might not be aiming to become Hackney’s answer to Yoder, I’d like to give backwards running another go. After all, it can’t hurt to switch things up a little – particularly if it means taking the pressure off often stressed-out areas like the knees and tendons.

Looking to improve your running technique? Check out our range of runner-focused bodyweight classes on the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty/author’s own

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.