A simple training technique with many benefits: running backwards

There’s a little bit of science supporting the benefits of backwards running, also known as retro running or reverse running. Not a ton of science but just enough for me to recommend that you give this some consideration in your training, regardless of sport. You’d use backwards running occasionally to change up your typical training routine. Kids are naturally better at running backwards than adults, so don’t be surprised if your younger athletes take to it more smoothly.

Here are some possible benefits of backwards running:

Help rehab injuries. Backwards running can be an effective strategy as part of recovery from lower extremity and spine injuries. Muscle firing patterns are very different in backwards vs. forwards running, creating more of a “soft landing hard takeoff” which can be useful to reduce joint loads. This study showed reduced knee cap compressive forces with backwards running, which can be helpful for athletes with knee cap tracking issues, patellar tendonitis, or Osgood-Schlatter syndrome.

Improve muscular balance and efficient body fat reduction. Backwards running is an effective means to strengthening the opposing muscles groups used in forward running and helps to balance your quad-to-hamstring strength ratio. This study of college aged women showed greater fat loss in backwards vs forward running training programs.

Improves coordination especially for defensive positioning. Many sports require defending an opponent while rapidly moving backwards. Training with backwards running can improve in-game performance.

Adds variety to your training. Backwards running, cariocas, skips, bounds, and lateral shuffles will all add variety to your typical training which just feels good to do! And you only need a small amount to go a long way. Incorporating a few minutes of backwards running into your normal running routine can spice up your runs, add a little variety, and burn more calories too. It’s like learning to run like a kid again and the challenge keeps your mind fresh and motivated.

One word of caution that I hope is obvious: it’s hard to see where you’re going when running backwards so be careful where you do this!

It’s best to learn to run backward on a track, an open field, or a treadmill. You’ll be surprised at just how challenging it is, and starting slowly is key. You might start by adding two to four 30-second intervals of backward running at the end of your easy runs, or coaches can use backwards running as part of your pre-training warmup.

As you progress, you can lengthen the time of each interval, add more intervals, and even incorporate them into your runs just like a speed work.

Key Points:
• Backwards running can be used in training, with several benefits.
• Forces across the kneecap are reduced compared to forward running, this backwards running can be a useful tool for athletes with pain in the front of the knee.
• Backwards running can also improve in-game performance in many sports.

(Dr. Dev K. Mishra, a Clinical Assistant Professor of orthopedic surgery at Stanford University, is the creator of the online injury-management course, now a requirement for US Club Soccer coaches and staff members. Mishra writes about injury management at Blog, where this article has previously appeared.)

4 comments about "A simple training technique with many benefits: running backwards".
  1. Ed M, November 30, 2017 at 11:22 a.m.

    Running backwards may seem like a good idea especially when a doctor makes a statement in an article. However, form my personal experience running backwards as a training idea will do more harm than good. Humans are not designed bio-mechnaically to run backwards in the way described in the article. An occasional movement/run backwards lets say in a soccer game is ok but using it to train will place too much stress on the achilles and arch. That tendon rubbing against the heel will cause that famed "dump bump" and more. Including a moevement backwards in practice or warm ups is probably fine. Using it to way.

  2. Bob Ashpole, November 30, 2017 at 1:39 p.m.

    Interesting suggestion, Dr. Mishra. Another suggestion I have run across of often overlooked beneficial movements is crawling, which exercises the core. 

  3. I w Nowozeniuk, November 30, 2017 at 4:12 p.m.

    Every motion needs to be exercised at different levels of intensity in achieving a meaningful purpose. So the good Doctor makes a lot of sense. I would suggest that youth coaches make more emphasis on developing balance with and w/o the ball.

  4. Jay Wall, December 1, 2017 at 7:53 a.m.

    Published studies of movement patterns in actual games document that players move backwards up to almost 10% of the time as defenders and less in other field positions.

    These studies also document other movement patterns other than straight ahead movement all of the time. Included among these patterns are jab step turns, drop step turns and turns to the left and right. Practicing all movement patterns found in actual games improves player performance and helps avoid injuries by teaching players the correct and least injury prone ways to move. Also to move in a direction a player does not usually move. For example, most players usually turn more frequently in the direction of the side of their dominant eye.

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