Want to get fitter? Running backwards is the way forward

Want to get fitter? Running backwards is the way forward

Want to get fitter Running backwards is the way forward

2:09 AM on 23rd May 2011

On a breezy afternoon in a South London park, my attempts at boosting my fitness are heading in the wrong direction.

Bemused onlookers can’t help but take a second glance as backward-running expert Karl Twomey and I trot past in reverse, picking up speed as I become more adept to the technical aspects of 2011’s most unexpected fitness trend.

Last year saw joggers ditch their trainers to try barefoot running — said to burn calories faster and be kinder to the feet; this summer has seen a rise in the popularity of reverse running.

Reverse running: Peta Bee has a lesson in jogging backwards from Karl Twomey

Reverse running: Peta Bee has a lesson in jogging backwards from Karl Twomey

Enthusiasts claim there are endless benefits to the approach, not least because it entails less of the pounding associated with regular jogging and so protects your joints, while also gobbling up a fifth more calories than running forward.

Twomey took up reverse running in September when, while training for the London Marathon, he realised it was kinder to his knees than the forward motion.

He eventually completed the 26.2-mile event running backwards every step of the way in a startlingly quick four hours and 16 minutes, with no injuries or niggles. But that’s not all.

‘Your balance improves and so does your peripheral vision — and even your hearing as you become more attuned to what’s happening around you,’ says Twomey. ‘And it also gives you toned muscles.’

S uch is the demand for this unlikely sport that in July, enthusiasts can take part in the first reverse fun run, to be held in Crystal Palace Park, South-East London. In August, the UK backward-running championships will be in Manchester.

But is it really anything more than just a wacky fad Despite its fashionable status, reverse running is not new. It emerged as an activity in its own right in the Seventies, when sports doctors began recommending it to injured athletes.

Best foot backwards: Running in reverse is said to make you fitter than running forwards

Best foot backwards: Running in reverse is said to make you fitter than running forwards

Since then, it has become an essential part of training in sports such as boxing and hockey. Physiotherapists approve because running backwards reduces impact on the joints. It’s often recommended for rehabilitation from knee and back problems.

Overall, many experts say, it is a more efficient way of moving: a fast-forward route to fitness.

Research at the University of Oregon in the U.S. indicates that reverse runners need to move at only 80 per cent of the speed of forward runners to gain the same physiological and fitness benefits.

A study at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University shows that the technique improved cardiovascular fitness. Researchers looked at the effects of a six-week, thrice-weekly backward-running programme on female students compared with a group who stuck to their regular activity schedule.

At the end of the study, the reverse runners were found to have significant decreases in oxygen consumption, meaning they had become aerobically fitter, and had lost an average 2.5 per cent body fat.


Here are James Bamber’s tips for
running in reverse:

Choose a flat, wide running surface free of potholes.Identify a distance of 50m to 100m in a straight line and walk it first to check for dips or rocks.Beginners often find it helpful to run with a partner. As one runs backwards over a short distance, the other runs forwards.Lean back, pushing off from your forefoot to drive backwards.Try not to look behind too often.Begin by incorporating backward running into your warm-up or cool down. Increase the time and distance you are running in reverse.More details: reverserunning.com

James Bamber, organiser of the UK’s backward races, says there are other subtle advantages. ‘Because you land and push off from the forefoot, your big toes are strengthened, which aids good posture,’ he says.

‘It improves co-ordination and has been proven to help cognitive functioning and reaction speed as a result.’

Bamber says that running one lap of an athletics track backwards provides the fitness equivalent of running six laps forwards and that 100 steps in reverse produces the same benefits as 1,000 steps straight ahead.

Indeed, during my introduction to reverse running with Twomey, I began to feel tired far sooner than I do on my usual daily runs. The muscles that were aching were not my thighs, but those in my calves and around my hips.

‘It’s a very different action,’ says Twomy. ‘And you feel the burn in different places.’

There are, of course, drawbacks — not least that you are constantly twisting to see where you are going. That can cause neck strain and, in my case, send you veering off course. Has Twomey ever had any collisions

‘Oh yes, when I started out I bumped into bins, lamp-posts, trees and even people,’ he says.

It’s because of its particular challenges, says Twomey, that backwards running requires more focus. ‘You can’t switch off,’ he says. ‘It’s more mentally exhausting than running in that meditative zone you can hit running forwards.’

After my session, I can see the sport’s appeal. It challenges the body and mind in a way you can’t appreciate until you try it for yourself. ‘Other runners look at you as if you are mad when you go past them in reverse,’ says Twomey. ‘They can’t believe it.

‘And then you spot them a few minutes later having a go at it themselves. It’s can be addictive.’

For more information, go to reverserunning.com