Running in reverse

RX

Backward running, also known as reverse or retro running, is not as celebrated as barefoot running and will never be mistaken for the natural way to run. But a small body of science suggests that backward running enables people to avoid or recover from common injuries, burn extra calories, sharpen balance and, not least, mix up their daily routine.

The technique is simple enough. Most of us have done it, at least in a modified, abbreviated form, and probably recently, perhaps hopping back from a curb as a bus went by or pushing away from the oven with a roasting pan in both hands. But training with backward running is different. Biomechanically, it is forward motion's doppelgänger. In a study published last year, biomechanics researchers at the University of Milan in Italy had a group of runners stride forward and backward at a steady pace along a track equipped with force sensors and cameras.

They found that, as expected, the runners struck the ground near the back of their feet when going forward and rolled onto the front of their feet for takeoff. When they went backward though, they landed near the front of their feet and took off from the heels. They tended to lean slightly forward even when running backward. As a result, their muscles fired differently. In forward running, the muscles and tendons were pulled taut during landing and responded by coiling, a process that creates elastic energy (think rubber bands) that is then released during toe-off. When running backward, muscles and tendons were coiled during landing and stretched at takeoff. The backward runners' legs didn't benefit from stored elastic energy. In fact, the researchers found, running backward required nearly 30 percent more energy than running forward at the same speed. But backward running also produced far less hard pounding.

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