Legit or Grift? Is Running Backwards An Effective Workout? 

Or is 'retro running' just an effective way to trip over stuff?

When I first started running back in middle school, we used to do a bunch of warm-up drills at the beginning of practice such as high knees, butt kicks, and my personal favorite—running backwards.

At the time, I thought that running backwards was just a fun way to get us excited and laughing before workouts, but it turns out that there are quite a number of benefits of running backwards that are unique from running forward.

Although you might not be aspiring to abandon running forwards to become a full-time backwards runner (yes, that’s a thing!) trying to set the next world record for running a marathon backwards, incorporating some backwards running, can be a great way to strengthen some of the opposing muscle groups and potentially prevent injuries.

In this guide, we will discuss what backwards running, also known as retro running is, its benefits, and tips for running backwards in your own running routine.

Wooden dolls running backwards.

What Is Retro Running?

Retro running, also called reverse running, is running in the backward direction instead of running forward.

It may sound bizarre, but there are some incredible backwards runners who complete half marathons and full marathons running backwards.

For example, Shantelle Gaston-Hird, the female world record holder for the backwards half marathon, ran 2:16:03 at the Manchester half marathon, which is a decent time for the half marathon even if you are running forwards!

Now, imagine running a full marathon with a retro running stride.

It sounds tough, right?

The world record for the retro running marathon is an impressive 3:43:39 by Xu Zhenjun1Fastest marathon running backwards (male). (2004, October 16). Guinness World Records. https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/fastest-marathon-running-backwards-(male) in Beijing.

As a running coach, I’m certainly not suggesting that you start logging many miles running backwards, but there are benefits to incorporating some backwards running drills or retro running sprints as part of your warm-up or amidst some easy runs on your training plan.

A person running in a park.

What Are the Benefits Of Running Backwards?

Here are some of the top benefits of running backwards:

#1: Retro Running May Improve Posture And Running Form

Long distance runners who have been running for a long time often get sloppy with their running form.

For example, as a running coach, I see many half marathon and marathon runners have poor posture, particularly towards the end of the race where they may hunch their shoulders or lean back, compromising your breathing and running economy.

Running backwards requires maintaining a straight back and keeping your shoulders down.

Moreover, because it feels unnatural, you must be mindful and present the entire time you are doing a retro running workout or drill, which helps you think about proper running technique and form.

This can help challenge neuromuscular coordination to see positive adaptations that improve posture and proper running form, even when you are running forward.

A bird's eye view of a marathon.

#2: Retro Running Is Good for Your Knees

One study found2Flynn, T. W., & Soutas-Little, R. W. (1993). Mechanical Power and Muscle Action during Forward and Backward Running. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy17(2), 108–112. https://doi.org/10.2519/jospt.1993.17.2.108 significant differences in the activation of the lower limb muscle groups when running backwards vs running forwards.

Namely, with retro running, the quadriceps contract isometrically,3Wada, M., Fujii, T., Inagaki, Y., Nagano, T., & Tanaka, Y. (2018). Isometric Contraction of the Quadriceps Improves the Accuracy of Intra-Articular Injections into the Knee Joint via the Superolateral Approach. JBJS Open Access3(4), e0003. https://doi.org/10.2106/jbjs.oa.18.00003 which is a type of muscle contraction that can strengthen the quads without putting as much stress on the knee joints.

This is one of the best benefits of retro running for runners prone to knee pain or rehabbing from knee injuries.

#3: Retro Backwards Strengthens Leg Muscles

I always encourage runners to do strength training and cross-training workouts 2-3 times per week to increase overall muscle strength and prevent muscle imbalances caused by the repetitive nature of running.

Strengthening different muscles and opposing muscle groups and using the lower-body muscles in different ways can help reduce the risk of injury and make you a faster runner.

Backwards running strengthens the quads and shin muscle groups (tibialis anterior) and the posterior chain muscles, such as the hamstrings, calf muscles, and glutes.

These are similar muscle groups used with running forward, but these muscles contract in different ways when you run backwards.

A person running along the ocean.

#4: Retro Running Improves Balance and Stability 

Because you can’t easily see where you are going, there is a lack of visual inputs to assist your spatial and body awareness when you run backwards.

Adding backwards running to your training plan can potentially help you have a better sense of your limb and body positioning and improve your balance and coordination.

#5: Retro Running Burns More Calories

If you are running for weight loss, you will appreciate that one of the benefits of retro running is that it burns about 30% more calories than running forward.4Flynn, T. W., Connery, S. M., Smutok, M. A., Zeballos, R. J., & Weisman, I. M. (1994). Comparison of cardiopulmonary responses to forward and backward walking and running. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise26(1), 89–94. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8133744/

This is likely because your running economy with backwards running is much worse than running forwards. After all, the biomechanics of the lower limbs with retro running are not as efficient from an energy standpoint.

#6: Retro Running Can Improve Your Cardiorespiratory Fitness

There is also evidence to suggest5Terblanche, E., Page, C., Kroff, J., & Venter, R. E. (2005). The Effect of Backward Locomotion Training on the Body Composition and Cardiorespiratory Fitness of Young Women. International Journal of Sports Medicine26(3), 214–219. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-2004-820997 that a training program consisting of backwards walking and running can improve cardiovascular fitness (VO2 max) and decrease body fat more effectively than forward running.

Of course, you won’t start seeing a significant decrease in your body fat unless you do a lot of retro running workouts and follow a calorie- controlled diet.

A person trail running.

#7: Retro Running Is Good for Your Brain

Reverse running makes your brain work harder because we are accustomed to running forward.

Some experts say that running backwards can also foster creativity,6Walking backwards boosts creativity. (n.d.). BPS. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from https://www.bps.org.uk/research-digest/walking-backwards-boosts-creativity and most runners find it fun!

How to Start Retro Running Safely

Retro running is simple: you run backwards.

However, simple doesn’t necessarily mean that it is easy.

Here are some tips on how to try running backwards safely:

#1: Understand Proper Retro Running Form

When you run forwards, you swing your arms to drive your legs forward, but with retro running, you want to pump your arms backwards to drive your legs behind you.

Instead of having a heel-to-toe transition, you will have a toe-to-heel transition so that your toes make ground contact and you push off from the balls of the feet or heel, depending on whether you are doing backward jogging or sprints. 

With retro sprinting, you should reach backward with your big toe and then push off with the balls of your feet.

With retro jogging, you should reach backwards with your big toe and then push off towards your rear foot.

Strive to have a soft landing on the toes and balls of your feet, using your calf muscles, hamstrings, and tibialis anterior (shin muscles) to pull your leg backward.

Then, press powerfully through the balls of the feet for a hard takeoff. 

Keep your torso upright, core muscles tight, shoulders back, and chest up.

A person running outside.

#2: Practice Running Backwards Safely

The first time you try running backward, practice in a grassy field where you won’t run into anything or on a treadmill jogging at a very slow speed.

Your back should be facing the consul, and you can grab onto the handrails if you feel like you will fall. Make sure to use the safety clip.

You can also wear a helmet, elbow pads, and knee pads if you are afraid of falling when you try retro running outdoors until you get used to the balance and coordination necessary to stay upright while traveling backward.

Periodically glance quickly over your shoulder to ensure that you are running in a relatively straight line and that there is nothing behind you that you will trip on or crash into.

#3: Start Slowly

Even if you are used to running most days of the week, if you are new to retro running, you shouldn’t jump into long backwards running workouts.

Retro running should be almost seen as a new type of exercise altogether. You should start with just a few minutes of easy backward jogging on grass or a couple of short backward “sprints” before trying longer retro running sessions.

As your muscles, joints, and nervous system get accustomed to the feeling of backwards running, you can start increasing the duration of your retro running training sessions.

Ready to give retro running a try? Let us know how it goes!

For some other beneficial running drills, check out our next guide:


Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

1 thought on “Legit or Grift? Is Running Backwards An Effective Workout? ”

  1. In my teens (70s) I ran backwards just to be weird. I reaped the rewards the first time I played cornerback in rough games of tackle. Up until today, I had no idea I had company.
    Thank everyone bass akward enough to pull this off!


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.