I’m plodding along a muddy path on Wandsworth Common, glancing over my shoulder as a pair of mothers exchange bemused glances. “Where are you going?” laughs a passing dog-walker whose labradoodle seems to think I’m playing a game. “You’re going the wrong way!”
How little my fellow park-users know. I’m not actually taking part in some mad team-building exercise or the victim of a sad prank. The real reason I find myself running backwards (yes, really) through my local stomping ground? I’m attempting 2022’s hottest new fitness trend: reverse running, or backwards running, known professionally as retro running (it’s a legitimate sport).
According to a survey by PureGym, there has been a 50 per cent increase in online searches for reverse running recently and it’s the latest buzzword amongst London’s fitterati, particularly those looking to avoid or manage injuries, as apparently it reduces impact on your body. #backwardsrunning videos have been viewed more than 100,000 times on TikTok and there’s even a world championships each year.
When the next championships will take place is not confirmed, but there’s certainly a growing appetite among running circles, says Nigel Holmes, 50, a retro running gold-medalist. The software tester got into the sport by accident after coming across a championship in Manchester, and insists he’s only fallen over three times in the last decade (“I’ve fallen over much more going forwards”).
So how does he manage to stay upright? And why would he choose to run in reverse when he could, I don’t know, face the direction he’s going in? First, Holmes says it’s important not to compare the two. While forwards will always be the default direction for (most) runners, reverse running is a handy cross-training interval exercise that’s easy to add into your repertoire and helps to challenge your body in different ways.
In fact, expert Dr Robert K Stevenson - author of the Backwards Running manual, published in 2013 - claims the benefits are so effective that it should become an essential part of every runner’s fitness regime. “It’s a more intensive workout - I’ve definitely got quicker as a forwards runner because of it,” says Holmes, listing the upsides to his fitness since he took up retro running: improved posture and balance, greater toning in his calves, quads and core, and a stronger posterior chain.
“We all hunch in front of our desk, our steering wheel, our phones... and we all wonder why we have back issues,” says Shantelle Gaston-Hird, 32, the UK’s fastest retro runner who can run a backwards half marathon in two hours 27 minutes. “Retro running strengthens that posterior chain, reducing aches and pains.”
Fat burning is another benefit. According to a study published in the Journal of Strength Conditioning Research in 2016, backwards running results in greater muscle activity and heart and lung activation than its forwards counterpart. Apparently you’ll burn 30 per cent more calories, too - female students at an American university who replaced their normal workout with a backwards running three times a week lost 2.5 per cent of their body fat in six weeks.
It’s also a perfect exercise for those who are injured and for reducing the risk of injury (as long as you don’t run into a lamp-post). Scientists from Cardiff and Milan universities recently found that reverse runners pound the earth more softly, reducing impact on the knees.
Putney-based physio Lucy Sacarello says it’s best to offload injuries with a range of cross-training exercises from cycling to the stepper, but reverse running can make an effective rehab exercise to add to the repertoire, adds Barry’s trainer Lucy Usher. “Start with around three to five minutes after your warm-up or even use it as your warm-up, and see how you find it,” she suggests.
Gaston-Hird says she’s had fewer catcalls since running in reverse, and that it feels like meditation because her brain is distracted from everyday worries as she’s thinking about her feet. There are additional mental health benefits, too. Not only does having the bravery to do something different and risk being laughed at boost confidence, there’s also something fun about making people around you laugh (with you, we hope).
Running in reverse is a great talking point and Holmes says it’s helped him meet a new crowd of people at parkruns because “you see people coming towards you and can look them in the eye while you chat”. (A word of warning: if you do plan to try it at your local parkrun, make sure you keep carefully to the side).
Holmes’ backwards parkrun personal best is less than 28 minutes - embarrassingly, only a few minutes’ slower than my forwards pace - and he says he’s reached a point where he can go 20 or 30 strides at a time before looking over his shoulder. But before you go crashing into a full reverse 5k, some advice for retro running newbies: start small. Usher recommends beginning on a treadmill. “It’s a flat surface so it’ll never change underneath your feet - plus, you can hold onto the handrails if you need a little extra support.”
And when you do take it outside, Holmes suggests going with a friend so you can take turns to look out for each other. Early mornings work well if you don’t want to risk too many onlookers, and choose somewhere familiar and away from traffic, like your local park. Wide, smooth paths with no trip hazards are ideal, says Holmes - if you’re feeling wobbly, move to the grass to give yourself a softer landing and try going uphill. It’s harder but more stable.
Holmes recommends trying one minute on, then one minute off, and taking it up from there. “You’ll feel a burn in your calves and abs immediately,” he tells me - and he’s not wrong. It turns out backwards running isn’t just about reversing your direction, but reversing your mindset altogether. People will stare, but if I have a set of abs by summer, will I really care?