Is Running Backwards the Secret to Reclaiming the Knees of Your Youth?

Forget how goofy it looks. "Retro-running" burns calories, challenges the brain and cleans up creaky legs.

January 12, 2022 6:48 am
Is Running Backwards the Secret to Reclaiming the Knees of Your Youth?

Here’s my initial review after running a full mile backwards yesterday at my local track, copied and pasted from the Notes app in my iPhone: “Felt like a dumbass/looked like a douchebag.”

Even within the anonymity of the seventh lane, it was difficult not to get self-conscious while retro-running for four laps. It’s the coldest time of the year, but the track still gets its fair sure of visitors who’d rather not deal with icy patches on the sidewalks, and people stared at me with confusion all the while.

The more curious among them, I’d like to think, were wondering whether I was onto something. The barefoot running movement, for instance, while far from ubiquitous, has gotten enough play that people aren’t overly surprised to see someone running around a turf field without socks in.

So, what of backwards running? Are there any performance benefits? Is it worth incorporating it into a regular training regimen? The majority of my life’s retrograde motion was ages ago, as a warmup drill — we’d backpedal 15 yards at a time to activate the quads before football and basketball games.

This time around, I was drawn to backwards running after seeing a couple of claims making the rounds on social media. The first: that 100 steps backwards is equivalent to 1,000 steps forwards. The second, in a similar vein: one lap backwards around a track is equal to six normal laps. Each declaration seemed somewhat unlikely, yet was presented as incontrovertible science.

That first claim is actually based on an old Chinese adage: “A hundred steps backward are worth a thousand steps forward.” The origin of the adage is unclear, but appears to be linked to the “exploits of an itinerant immortal” in the Classic of Mountains and Seas, a canonical text from pre-Qin China. Among other myths in the scripture was a story about a man who could walk backwards at an astonishing pace. Some scholars interrupted the tale as a metaphor for erasing the sins of one’s past, but at any rate, the practice has long been associated with good health in China.

My track experiment led me to two key discoveries. For starters, that 10:1 scale factor is wonky. I can’t claim to have taken 14,000 steps when I only took 1,400. (Each backwards lap took me about 350 steps — if you try it out for yourself, your result will vary based on your height and pace.) As a general rule of thumb, there are 2,000 steps to a mile. So, was my one-mile of backwards movement really equivalent to a seven-mile run? Of course not. You can look at the second claim — one backwards lap equals six normal laps — and that shaves off a mile, but again, it feels more than a bit bombastic to claim that four backpedaled laps count as 24 traditional laps, a sum that would almost certainly feel like mental torture.

And yet, retro running is really, really hard. Not for the reasons you’re thinking, like making sure you don’t crash into an elderly couple that’s out for a stroll, but for the demands it makes of unfamiliar muscle patterns. By the end of four laps, I didn’t feel like I’d run seven miles. I’m familiar with that sensation. This was a different one, similar to strength training your upper body after taking months off from the gym, or the soreness you get after moving laterally (perhaps during pickup basketball) for the first time in a while.

According to Kieran Knight, a certified fitness trainer, it all boils down to “using muscles opposing the ones you usually use.” He says, “Your quads, shins, and calves are being put to more work. They don’t usually undergo that sort of training, so the activity becomes harder. I’d compare retro running to uphill running — it trains your muscles differently while promoting muscular balance.”

When you move your body backwards, the muscles in your lower half are receiving weight instead of pushing into (and springing off) the ground. This shift in motion starts at the actual impact with the ground, where the heel is pushing down instead of the ball of the foot. It’s a disorienting rewiring that has to happen in real time, lest you fall over and hurt yourself. The whole process requires enormous energy and investment from your brain. Another health expert, Kyle Risley, compares it to “trying to brush your teeth with your off-hand.”

In this case, the added challenge increases your balance, sense of proprioception (also known as the body’s understanding of where it is in space) and more likely than not, the amount of calories burned. The internet is all over the place on how many more calories you can burn running backwards instead of forwards. Some say up to 50%, but take that with a grain of salt, considering the original 10:1 scale factor was derived from a proverb. The point, though, is that there’s definitely some sort of increase in calorie-burning. Retro movement works.

Even more intriguing than its metabolic benefits, though, is that the activity appears to have restorative benefits for the body, and especially for the knees. A study published in the Journal of Biomechanics found that “BR had reduced PFJCF compared to FR.” Translation: backwards running doesn’t compound pain from patellofemoral joint compression forces (a relationship between ground force and the vector of the knee) in the same way that forward running does.

In fact, while forward running can put certain knees — especially those with a history of traumatic injury — under significant duress, backwards running actually strengthens the area. It does so by engaging little-known muscles and tendons such as the tibialis anterior (located along the shins) and the vastus medialis muscles (just inside of each knee).

There’s a ton of anecdotal evidence to support the longevity-boosting effects of backwards running, like marathon trainees marveling over results after they’ve added it to their training routines, but there’s also solid scientific evidence, like a study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, which confirmed that the activity can “improve cardiorespiratory fitness and change body composition.”

The key appears to be mixing backwards running into your forward running regimen. You shouldn’t give up forward running forever. Not only is that wildly impractical, but you also wouldn’t get to see all the positives that retro-running can bring to your conventional routine.

Where should you start? I recommend avoiding a nosy, busy track for now, and instead opting for a treadmill in the corner of the gym. You’re there to try “deadmills,” a concept popularized by Ben Patrick (more commonly known as @kneesovertoesguy on Instagram) and Derek Williams (more commonly known as (@mr1nf1n1ty). The duo is dedicated to “bullet-proofing” knees through a system called resisted backward training. Both have a history of torn ligaments. Both are currently able to dunk.

They’re religious about their backward movement — glances from strangers be damned — and use a combination of sleds, slantboards and straps to increase range of motion at their knee joints and create more “bounce” in their legs. If the pitch seems a bit too specific to a performance-minded athlete, keep in mind that ACL tears in teens aren’t the only menace plaguing American knees. Every year, over 36 million senior citizens lose their balance. One in five leads to a broken bone or head injury. Fortifying your knees should be a lifelong pursuit.

You can start on a treadmill. Situate yourself atop one, holding the bars on each side. Do not turn it on (hence the “deadmill” nickname). Then just walk backwards, using your power and momentum to move the belt. You can hang out there as long as you like (go for three minutes if you can), or turn around, now facing the screen, and push back against it. This will feel extremely difficult and unnatural, but it’s the godsend your legs never knew they needed. See a demo here.

Ultimately, no, 100 steps backwards isn’t equivalent to 1,000 steps forward. But that’s a good thing! That many steps forward can do a real number on your knees. The 100 backwards steps have value in their own right, as a chance to activate the brain’s sense of balance, burn calories in a creative way and bolster your knees for the long haul. With those kinds of benefits waiting, who cares who’s watching?

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