Back to the Future


Sometimes it pays to take a few steps back. How to use reverse physiology to trick your muscles into adapting and developing in different but highly beneficial ways.

A single exercise that improves balance, develops neuromuscular function, strengthens the quadriceps, results in better posture, and delivers a host of other benefits? 

Sounds too good to be true, but it does exist, and research confirms its positive effects. The only catch is that it requires you to take a few steps back. Yes, for the first time in your life you can slip into reverse gear and still feel you’re accomplishing something. 

Retro fitness, once the domain of elite athletes with a penchant for the unconventional, has finally gone mainstream. And its greatest impact is being felt among runners, who lessen their risk of injury a little more with every backward step. 

“Reverse running reduces stress on the knee because of the changes in lower-extremity kinetics,” explains Dr. Barry Bates, professor emeritus, department of human physiology at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon. 

“Retro movements alter muscle patterns, which is beneficial for those prone to injury.” 

No one suggests you restrict yourself solely to reverse exercise, least of all Dr. Bates, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject, but he does advise making it a featured part of your cross training program. 

“As you get older presumably your goal is no longer winning something, it’s wellness. You move into a model that minimizes repetition so the body can accommodate various stresses without incurring injury. Doing the same thing over and over again causes the system to break down. You have to start distributing the forces on the body in different ways. One alternative is to do backward running.” 

If that rationale isn’t enough to sway you, consider this startling fact: Reverse running places more demands on the cardiovascular system than forward running, so it’s an effective way of improving overall fitness. 

Moving at a comparable forward speed, heart rate function is 15 percent higher when backpedaling, oxygen consumption rises 31 percent, and calorie consumption increases by one third. Numerous muscular-skeletal benefits are also derived, making the body stronger, more flexible and improves posture. 

“To realize these benefits a runner must devote 10 percent of their training program to backpedaling,” says Dr.Bates, who also serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. “There’s no need to go as high as 50 percent, as some advocate. It’s also important to run backwards in a reasonably controlled environment for safety reasons. Choose terrain that’s manageable, and run with a partner.” 

Familiarize yourself with the surface first, so you can run without repeatedly looking over your shoulder, which throws out body alignment. Some people don bicycle helmets with an attached mirror to view their surroundings. Others join hands with a forward running partner who acts as their eyes. Of all the surfaces available for backward running, grass remains the best choice since it readily absorbs the impact of most falls. 

No matter how skilled you become at backward running, you’ll never match your forward capability. Dr. Bates and other researchers have determined that our maximum backward potential is 80 per cent of forward movement. In other words, top backward speed cannot exceed 80 percent of a forward sprint. Physiologically the demands when running four miles per hour backward are the same as those when running five miles per hour forward. And reaching that point would require a prohibitive amount of training. 

Reverse Order:

As good as retro activities are for healthy athletes they’re even better for those recovering from injuries. Rehabilitative programs that include backward running or walking are among the most effective, and here’s why: 

  • Retro movement shortens stride length, minimizing impact forces.
  • Backward activity of any kind reduces range of motion in the knee joint, lessening stress factors.
  • Reverse walking stretches the hamstrings, enabling more efficient weight loading, a key feature of rehabilitative therapy.
  • Backward movement greatly enhances balance and flexibility.

You can achieve similar great results at the club or in the gym by making full-range use of elliptical trainers, spinning bikes and stair climbers. Try pedaling backward on the elliptical, which targets the lower body, working wonders with the quadriceps. Walking backwards on the treadmill also pays dividends in terms of improved balance, posture and coordination. 

Get Back on the Treadmill: 

  • No holding on—keep your hands free.
  • Begin very slowly—one mile per hour sounds about right—and increase by tiny increments as your confidence and balance grows.
  • Walk backwards in short spurts and intervals rather than as a way of life—ideally, spend one or two minutes in reverse during the course of your thirty-minute session, for example.

“Among the many things we’ve learned from our research is that people aren’t built to go backwards,” comments Dr. Bates. “The human body was constructed to move forward. That having been said, we’re built with the capability of going backwards, and there are many good reasons for doing so, but we’re not as efficient backwards as we are forward.”