When marathoner and two-time Guinness World Record holder Shantelle Gaston-Hird goes out for a run she is often met by puzzled looks.
Some even go as far as to say “love, you’re going the wrong way,” shares the triathlete.
No, Gaston-Hird isn’t directionally challenged. She simply runs backward.
Interestingly, she isn’t the only one. More and more runners and athletes are choosing to run in the reverse to fast-forward their performance.
Reverse running, also known as retro running, is basically running backward. “All the principles of running apply, however, you’re just moving backward,” explains Gaston-Hird who is currently training to be the first female to complete an ultra-marathon distance in retro running.
“I started backward running in 2013. It was a one-mile fun run that I entered as part of a team-building exercise with my roller derby team,” says Gaston-Hird. Soon, the 35-year-old decided to incorporate retro running into her fitness routine in order to make it more fun and challenging. But when she began to notice how it improved her triathlon and running times and led to fewer injuries, she decided to make a permanent switch to retro running.
Here’s how running backward can spring forward your fitness
Even though it might seem counterintuitive, running backward offers a range of proven benefits that make it a challenging yet rewarding workout to add to your training. Let’s take a quick look at some of them:
- It can better your posture. Most postural issues you experience are due to poor muscle balance. This imbalance causes compensation patterns (improper movement patterns that place undue stress on your body) which lead to aches and pains in your hips, lower back, upper shoulders and neck, explains Gaston-Hird. “Sitting up right at your desk isn’t enough to improve your posture. You’ve to incorporate strength training into your routine to train your body to support a good posture otherwise you’re fighting a losing battle,” she adds. Retro running can be a great strength-building workout that’s easy to incorporate into your training program, she suggests.
- It’s easy on your knees. Forward running is an amazing workout with a slew of benefits, however, it puts tremendous compressive force on your knees—which is why it could make things worse if you have a bad knee. Since the landing-takeoff asymmetry is reversed when you’re running backward (soft landing and hard takeoff), it’s gentler on your knee joints. “Retro running is great for those who have had knee injuries as it takes the impact off the body,” confirms Aaron Yoder, head track and field coach at Bethany College, West Virginia, who’s been training for retro running exclusively owing to injuries.
- It burns more calories. “I’ve collaborated with Manchester Metropolitan University to study the difference between running forward and running backward. They found that I used 30% more oxygen moving backward when they compared my forward movement at a set pace to my backward movement at the same pace,” reveals Gaston-Hird. “This means that I was working 30% harder moving backward compared to my forward movement at the same pace,” she notes. Large muscle groups are engaged during running, these include your core muscles, glute muscle group, hamstring group and calf muscle group. However, most people tend to be quadricep dominant, so they don’t engage their gluteus or core group muscles correctly. When you’re reverse running, these large muscle groups are used differently and the body has to work harder so you end up burning more calories, explains the retro running world record holder.
- It trains your proprioception. Proprioception, also called kinesthesia, refers to your body’s innate ability to sense the movement, position, location and orientation of your limbs and other body parts—without actually looking—to determine its spatial orientation and maintain balance.”Your balance and coordination can be improved through locomotion drills. Running backward challenges your movement patterns, therefore improving your proprioception,” notes Gaston-Hird. “Reverse running also forces you to become aware of your posture and position through the running motion,” she adds. “Initially, you feel like Bambi on ice as your nervous system goes into overdrive to coordinate your limbs. But once you get into a rhythm and relax, the motion starts to feel normal,” says the UK-based triathlon athlete.
- It increases your peripheral vision. “Reverse running trains your eyes, brain and body in ways other movement patterns don’t,” says Gaston-Hird. It can help increase your body awareness and reaction time by training both your proprioception and peripheral vision, she adds. This, in turn, can help athletes level up their overall performance.
- It can improve your muscle balance. “Running backward strengthens the posterior chain—meaning, all the muscles at the back of the body,” says Gaston-Hird. “If you strengthen the posterior chain, it means that your anterior chain—the muscles at the front of the body—won’t have to work as hard. This muscle balance can improve your overall endurance,” explains Gaston-Hird. “You’ll be able to go for longer as the front of your body isn’t doing double the workload since the back of your body is doing its part. So essentially going backward is the way to get better at going forward,” she notes.
- It can boost your mental health. “I’ve found reverse running to be a great right brain exercise,” says Yoder. “It definitely helps improve creativity,” he adds. It’s also a form of mindfulness exercise. “When you’re retro running you’re so aware of your movement and environment because you don’t want to fall over that you don’t notice people around you. Or have the opportunity to think about all the things you need to get done later,” says Gaston-Hird. This intense awareness helps you stay in the present without getting sidetracked by distractions, interpretations or judgment—allowing you to better regulate your emotions and take control of your thoughts.
Who can benefit from backward running?
“Anyone that plays a sport that involves repetitive motion like cycling and running will benefit from retro running,” says Gaston-Hird.
“I also think that amateur runners can benefit from it as it will help them balance out the body if all they’re doing is running forward,” notes Yoder.
In addition, “some runners with the rare condition called runner’s dystonia have found that running in reverse is easier than running forwards,” says Julie Sapper, running coach, Boston marathon veteran and co-founder of Run Farther & Faster.
Moreover, “those who struggle with knee pain, shin splints and hamstring injuries can benefit from retro running as well—since the faster turnover rate and better posture helps alleviate pain in those areas,” says Yoder.
How to practice backward running safely
Here’s what the experts want you to keep in mind before you hop in your running shoes and head out to the neighborhood park:
- Choose an open space. “The biggest factor one should consider is the place to do retro running,” says Yoder. He recommends picking a flat, clear and wide surface to run on like a track. Grassy and wide spaces like a football pitch are also perfect, suggests Gaston-Hird.
- Watch your posture. “Always stay upright when running backward, you don’t want to lean back,” cautions Yoder. Also, make sure you don’t over-rotate when you’re running backward. “Aim to keep your hips and shoulders facing forwards,” says Gaston-Hird. “I do something called the ‘retro flirt’ where you just rotate your shoulders slightly to glance behind to see what obstacles are in the way,” she adds. Alternate the shoulders you look over. If the inside of your knee starts to hurt when you twist to the side, it’s a telltale sign you are overrotating, says the retro running expert.
- Start small. “Any sudden change to running form is not advisable as your body is not used to that movement pattern,” says Lisa Levin, certified running coach and co-founder of Run Farther & Faster. If you’re interested in trying reverse running, start gradually with run/walk intervals for 30 seconds, she suggests. Alternatively, you could do two miles of forward running and a half mile backward and build up from there to help the body adjust, says Yoder.
- Don’t do it alone. “Aside from increasing your risk of tripping on potholes and other obstructions as a result of not being able to see what’s in front of you, running backward is also dangerous for fellow runners and cyclists you may encounter while facing the other direction,” says Sapper. “It’s best to start with a friend and get them to run forward while you run backward then switch directions,” suggests Gaston-Hird. “The key is to trust yourself and to not turn around too much. Alternatively, you can run on a treadmill. I would start off holding the side rails and walking. Then start to build the pace to a jog and go up from there,” she suggests.