I have a client who has been to physical therapy for a lower leg injury (shin splints/tendinitis in the anterior compartment) and was told to run backwards. He swears this has helped him to recover and strengthen his lower leg muscles. Is this training method effective to use as part of a program for a runner to build strength and maintain lower leg balance and support? What is the benefit of doing backwards running training for a runner?
Thank you for this very good question. We all know of someone (perhaps even ourselves) that has suffered a running related injury/setback (shin splints/tendonitis, etc.). The question becomes, "Why are there so many injuries due to running? What can be done about them?"
Research tells us that at the end of a marathon, the muscular system is so fatigued that it becomes only a very limited supporter of the osteoligamentous system (bones and connective tissue), and it is the fascia and ligaments themselves that become the major contributor to kinetic chain integrity. The problem is that these structures (ligaments and tendons) are NOT designed to be tension regulators. In other words, it is quite often a breakdown in the neuromuscular system (the nerves feeding the muscles) and NOT the tendons and ligaments, which leads to the unmitigated stresses placed on the body, leading to injury.
So it is the neuromuscular system that should be a major focus of our efforts to help with running. (Of course, daily stress, hydration and diet should never be overlooked).
The short answer to your question about performing backwards running is yes … unequivocally!!
Backwards (or retro) running has been used for sometime in a rehabilitation setting. It is useful to realize the benefits of this modality, as it SHOULD be used in a training (prehab) situation and not just a rehab one.
From a biomechanical standpoint, backwards walking or running has some differences to normal walking/running. First and foremost, the kinetic chain is loaded differently. Instead of the heel striking the ground first, the forefoot does. As the forefoot strikes, it is in a valgus position (relative the rearfoot), which means that it is "locked" and can transmit forces up the kinetic chain. By doing this, it causes reactions up the kinetic chain that "load" (stretch) among others - the soleus/gastroc complex, the quads and hip flexors and abdominal complex – making these muscles stronger. There is also a reduction in the peak compressive forces that exist in the patellofemoral joint in backwards compared to forwards running. This is due to the increased activation of the quadriceps during backwards ambulation. Another benefit to backwards walking/running comes from the propulsion phase. The knee extensors and hip flexors, in concert with the spinal erectors, provide a strong contraction to move you backwards. It has been said that in running, there are three VERY important groups of muscles called the three “Bs.” It is crucial that these areas are functioning properly so that our performance stays high, and our risk of injury stays low. These are the muscles of the Big toe (hallux group), Butt (gluteal complex) and the Belly (abdominal complex). Backwards walking/running is a great way to train these areas. Firstly, as stated previously, the toes will be the first structure to contact the ground. This load phase will strengthen these important muscles. Secondly, during the swing phase of backwards ambulation, it is the glute complex that accelerates the leg swing into extension, thereby providing the necessary stimulus to extend the hip (actively stretching the hip flexors) and strengthening the glutes. Thirdly, from a proprioceptive standpoint, the spinal engine (the spine segments and their muscle attachments) must work in a very different manner and serve to strengthen the Belly (abdominals).
I suggest you start off with backwards walking (not running), realizing that it will be challenging for your client/athlete. You may wish to choose a flat area outside with no obstacles around. Start with a 15–30 second walk and monitor them closely – they might even get a little dizzy and lose their balance. You can create backwards walking intervals that are used between other exercises as active recovery. After a period of time doing 15–30 second intervals (I would recommended at least six sessions), you can increase the time depending on the success of your client. Remember, if they are having difficulty, regress the duration. Once they are comfortable with their movement, gradually increase the duration (over time) to two minutes. If they are experiencing pain and/or if they are unsuccessful at the exercise (lose their balance, cannot move properly), these are a trainer’s default buttons - regress or avoid the exercise. Once they are successful at a two minute retro-walk, then you can begin a retro-run strategy following the same parameters as listed about for the walk.
Other benefits of backwards walking/running:
- It is a great way to fight the effects of "rounded posture." The body must now open up (i.e., extend the spine, retract the chin and protract and depress the scapula) in order to force its center of gravity to push posteriorly. If you are having problems correcting “faulty computer posture” with your client, try having your client/athlete walk backwards. A spine that is not so rounded has a better ability to rotate, improving forward running efficiency and performance.
- It “steps up” our nervous system. The most important contributor to movement is our nervous system. Many of us do not realize that our nervous system is dynamic (in other words, it learns and literally grows!). Movement in all planes and in different ways (i.e., moving backwards) will make our nervous system more intelligent. This will ultimately protect us against potential injury!
- It is a great way to warm up before a running race. Many times, I will see individuals statically stretch before a long road race. This puts our nervous system to sleep. Next time try multiplanar movements (including backwards walking/running); these dynamic movements will supercharge your nervous system and prepare it for dynamic motion.
- It is fun! Include retro-walking/running as part of your workout circuits. It is a great way to burn extra calories and a great way to work the neuromuscular system.
In short, using backwards walking/running is a perfect adjunct to any workout given to clients/athletes.
For more information on this line of thinking, I highly suggest Gary Gray’s Functional Video Digest Series on Running.
Good luck, and have fun!
- DeVita P, Stribling J 1991 Lower extremity joint kinetics and energetics during backwards running. Med Sci Sports Exerc 23 (5): 602-10
- Flynn TW, Soutas-Little RW 1993 Mechanical power and muscle action during forward and backward running. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 17 (2): 108-12
- Eisner WD, Bode SD, Nyland J, Caborn DN 1999 Electromyographic timing analysis of forward and backward cycling. Med Sci Sports Exerc 31 (3): 55
- Flynn TW, Soutas-Little RW 1995 Patellofemoral joint compression forces in forward and backward running. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 21 (5): 277-82
- Vleeming A, Mooney V, Dorman T, Snijders C, Stoeckart R 1999 Movement, stability & low back pain – the essential role of the pelvic. Churchill Livingstone
- Gary Gray’s Kinetic Chain Transformation seminar – 2004 Wynn Marketing
- Leonard CT 1998 The Neuroscience of Human Movement. Mosby