News, Culture & Society

No, it’s not a joke – reverse running is the hot new way to keep fit

Three mornings a week, regular as clockwork, I head out for my run. Set to autopilot, I plod contentedly along trails and through fields, distracted by daydreams or engrossed in a podcast.

I have minimal interaction with passers-by and that’s the way I like it. Not today, though. My run is requiring Herculean amounts of effort and concentration. My heart rate is soaring and I’m unsteady on my feet. I’m attracting a lot of attention. Dogs bark as I pass, while their owners look bemused.

Other runners avoid eye contact and give me a wide berth. A gaggle of schoolboys snigger as I nearly stagger into a ditch.

Am I drunk? That may be preferable. I’m actually trying out the latest fitness fad: reverse running, also known as retro running. The theory isn’t complicated — you simply run backwards — and for mid-life runners like me, it could be the perfect addition to a workout.

Kerry Potter, 46, (pictured) tried the reverse running, also known as retro running trend in her sleepy Oxfordshire market town

At 46, with the usual wear and tear of ageing, I’m super-aware of how high-impact exercise such as jogging can affect joints. Running backwards, however, exerts far less pressure on your knees.

Reverse running is one of the big trends of 2022 according to gym chain Pure Gym, whose research revealed a 50 per cent increase in online searches for the term last year. On social media there are astonishing videos of people sprinting backwards on treadmills without killing themselves, with hundreds of thousands of views.

However, it’s a tricky skill to master — one that should only be attempted if you’re physically fit. Sadly news of its trendiness hasn’t yet reached my sleepy Oxfordshire market town. When I try to drum up buddies on my community Facebook group someone raises concerns about ploughing into dog muck, while another enquires if it’s April Fool’s Day.

But for Jamie Alderton, it’s a deadly serious business. The former soldier turned business coach for personal trainers is a reverse running world record holder. In 2017, he ran 63 miles backwards in 24 hours for charity.

‘I found out I was good at reverse running when I was in the Army,’ he says. ‘They used to beast us by making us run backwards up a hill in Salisbury. I was the only person who enjoyed it. After I left the Army, I discovered there was this whole world of retro runners and various championships.’ And the benefits outweigh the, well, sheer daftness of it, says Jamie.

‘It puts less pressure on your knees and shins than normal running, and it builds up endurance and strength in the places where a lot of runners get injuries.

‘You have to run slower when going backwards which helps with recovery, so you speed up when you turn around.’ I notice this when I intersperse my normal 5k run with short intervals of backwards running, and my final time is only marginally slower than usual.

Kerry (pictured) said this running technique positively invites men to call ‘You’re going the wrong way, love’

Kerry (pictured) said this running technique positively invites men to call ‘You’re going the wrong way, love’

Anya Lahiri, master trainer at Barry’s, the celebrity-magnet gym frequented by the Beckhams, is also a fan. ‘It can really help with posture as you have to hold yourself more upright,’ she says.

‘It’s a fantastic way to even out the muscles used when running forward and focus on the less-used calves, quads and shins. Plus, it strengthens the glutes and a lot of the core is activated to maintain balance.’

It can be a more effective calorie burner than normal running, too. A study at Stellenbosch University in South Africa saw female students who reverse ran three times per week for six weeks become fitter and lose, on average, 2.5 per cent body fat.

Nicola Kennedy, physiotherapist at Powerhouse Performance Club in Oxfordshire, deploys it for rehab purposes. ‘It’s good for when you’re recovering from things such as ligament tears, broken ankles and Achilles injuries,’ she says.

This invites men to call: “You’re going the wrong way, love” 

‘It requires concentration, coordination and effort, which help stimulate the cardiovascular and neuromuscular systems. It can give people a better awareness of their body.’

Nicola advises starting off on a treadmill if you’re nervous, as it’s a flat, smooth surface, or running along the white lines of a football pitch to help you stay on track. I try the latter and it makes it so much easier. Headphones are a no-no — you can’t see, so you need to be able to hear — and she urges me to stick to interval training.

Unfortunately, though, all the pros of reverse running are offset by one major con: it makes you look like a wally. As a lone female runner I’m conditioned to avoid attracting attention from passing men, and this technique positively invites them to call ‘You’re going the wrong way, love’.

Kerry (pictured) admits that she panicked about the possibility that she might permanently crick her neck as she had to look over her shoulder while reverse running

Kerry (pictured) admits that she panicked about the possibility that she might permanently crick her neck as she had to look over her shoulder while reverse running

Then there’s the dogs. I’m wary of them, having endured my fair share of being chased and yapped at. ‘When you’re running backwards, dogs think you’re running towards them so they get confused and freak out,’ warns Jamie. There is also the danger of falling over. I’m clumsy at the best of times, face-planting frequently while running forwards. I ruined two consecutive family holidays by ending up in hospital and on crutches after tripping up in Cornwall and France.

While reverse running I have to look over my shoulder so much that I panic that I might permanently crick my neck. Jamie has an ingenious solution: rear-view ‘spy’ sunglasses with built-in mirrors so you can see behind you. I wonder, however, if that might be a (backwards) step too far for me.

I panic that I might permanently crick my neck 

Still, I persevere. Next time, I bully my friend Kate into coming with me and it’s a revelation. It’s more fun, less mortifying and there’s safety in numbers.

Kate points out the potential mental health benefits — it makes you laugh and you have to focus so hard on not falling over that you’re very much in the moment.

She also finds it exhilarating doing something silly, recalling the Friends episode where Rachel is embarrassed to run around Central Park with Phoebe because of her outlandish gait, before getting on board with how liberating it feels.

We run backwards down a trail, before being interrupted by the urgent bell of a cyclist, into whom we are about to plough. He looks furious, before laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation.

A fitness technique that creates an entente cordiale between cyclists and pedestrians? Maybe there is something in it after all.