We’re always hearing about the importance of mixing up your workout routine. Adding variety is said to not only prevent mental boredom and burnout but also help prevent overtraining and overuse injuries from repetitive movements.
Plus, a well-rounded workout routine challenges different muscles and components of your fitness, allowing you to keep getting stronger and fitter without your body hitting a plateau from too much of the same thing.
Rarely, however, do we think about walking backwards or the benefits of walking backwards.
As strange as it looks and feels initially, walking backwards can be a fantastic ace up your proverbial running jacket sleeve. The benefits of walking backwards for your body might just translate to better running.
If you’re like most runners, you’re probably either scratching your head or laughing at this suggestion and trust us, we were initially dubious, too.
However, after putting together this guide on walking backwards, we are now converts and believe that adding walking backwards to your training program is the perfect way to shake things up and add some fun, function, and challenge to your routine.
In this guide, we will cover:
- 6 Unexpected Benefits of Walking Backwards
- How to Walk Backwards Safely
Let’s get started!
6 Unexpected Benefits of Walking Backwards
When we talk about variety in a running program, we usually focus on incorporating different types of workouts and runs, such as tempo runs, critical velocity training workouts, intervals, hills, long runs, and recovery runs.
Adding cross-training is another key aspect of keeping your training program balanced and healthy. Cycling, rowing, strength training, elliptical machines, swimming, and even walking are great adjuncts to your runs and common forms of low-impact cross-training for runners.
But, what about the benefits of walking backwards?
We have to get the obvious question out of the way: “Why would you walk backwards?” After all, we are theoretically “designed”—or at least conditioned—to walk forward. That said, as it turns out, by exclusively walking normally, we might be missing out on some unexpected benefits of walking backwards.
#1: Walking Backwards Utilizes Muscles Differently
One study found significant differences in muscle activation between forward and backwards walking and running as demonstrated by electromyography (EMG) and joint kinetics.
In forward running, muscle activity of the vastus lateralis and vastus medialis oblique (quads) was largely eccentric and concentric, while the same muscles contract isometrically and concentrically during backwards running.
While this may sound like a relatively useless finding, it has potential therapeutic benefits for physical therapy and rehab settings. Isometric contractions of the quads can improve knee extensor strength more safely and effectively than eccentric contractions.
In practical terms, this means that running or walking backwards, rather than forward, might be more helpful when trying to build quad strength or return from a knee injury or knee pain brought about by quad muscle weakness.
For example, one of the primary causes of runner’s knee is weakness in the vastus medialis oblique (VMO), so adding some backwards walking or running into your rehab program may be an effective way to increase strength and stability in this muscle.
#2: Walking Backwards Improves Balance and Stability
According to one study, some of the benefits of walking backwards is that it can improve balance, step length, and walking speed.
Balance is especially challenged by walking backwards because you can’t see where you are going, so you lack visual inputs to assist your spatial and body awareness.
If you struggle with the mind-body connection or your kinesthetic awareness (inane sense of where your body is in space), adding backwards walking to your routine can potentially help you have a better sense of your limb and body positioning.
#3: Walking Backwards Burns More Calories
The Compendium of Physical Activities notes that a brisk normal walk at 3.5 mph is about 4.3 METs (metabolic equivalents) while walking backward at the same speed is 6.0 METs. The higher the METs, the higher your caloric expenditure.
Moreover, this metabolic demand increases even more substantially if you walk backwards up an incline. Walking backwards at a 5% grade is 8.0 METs. In this way, you can do high-intensity interval training (HIIT) in a low-impact way by walking backwards uphill.
#4: Walking Backwards Can Improve Your Cardiorespiratory Fitness
Runners want to do whatever they can to improve their VO2 max, a measure of aerobic capacity.
In addition to hitting your race pace intervals and speed workouts, there is also evidence to suggest that a training program consisting of backwards walking can improve cardiovascular fitness and body composition.
After completing the backwards training intervention program, subjects had a significant decrease in oxygen consumption during both forward and backward exercise on the treadmill at submaximal intensities, and their predictive VO2 max values for the 20-m shuttle test improved significantly. Finally, their body fat percentage decreased by 2.4%.
#5: Walking Backwards May Reduce Knee Pain
Walking backwards may be a good idea if you have osteoarthritis in your knees.
A study that compared the effects of a 6-week backward versus forward walking program versus a control group on pain, functional disability, quadriceps muscle strength, and physical performance in participants with knee osteoarthritis.
At the end of the intervention, the backwards walking group had a greater reduction in pain intensity and functional disability than the control group, along with greater improvement in the quadriceps muscle strength.
Results were similar when compared to the forward walking group (the backwards training was slightly more effective, but not to a statistically significant degree), showing that either forward or backwards locomotion can be beneficial for reducing pain and improving function and leg strength in individuals with knee osteoarthritis.
#6: Walking Backwards Is Good for Your Brain
Much like learning a brand new sport, walking backwards puts your brain out of its comfort zone and challenges your coordination and movement patterns in ways that we rarely experience as adults. This keeps your brain sharp and builds new neural connections.
Some experts say that walking backwards can also foster more creativity, and most people find it fun!
How to Walk Backwards Safely
Walking backwards is as simple as it sounds, but simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy.
Reach back with your big toe, and then roll through your foot towards your heel. Use your arms to reach back with each stride. Keep your torso upright and chest up.
For safety, it’s best to start indoors in a hallway or somewhere where you won’t crash into things, or in an open grassy area away from cars and obstacles.
You can also practice walking backwards on a track or treadmill. When using the treadmill, start at a very slow speed and use the handrails if necessary. Over time, work up to a speed of 3.5 mph or so.
Ready to give it a try? Let us know how it goes!
If you would like to train to walk/run a marathon, maybe not backwards, check out our Run Walk Marathon Training Guide.