I knew nothing about Retro Running which is the term for running backwards, until I chanced upon the UK Retro Running Championships which were being held in Heaton Park about 8 years ago. The park is close to my house so I knew the venue better than anyone, although I hadn’t even tried running 50 metres backwards before I raced against around 70 competitors from around the country. The winner was Garret who had come from Dublin and had offered €1000 if anyone could beat him. This experienced retro runner finished almost 3 minutes ahead of me on a course which was just over a mile long. As we were going backwards I was unsure how many people were ahead of me, so on finishing I was delighted to find out I was third place overall. With a bit of actual training who knows what I might achieve! I returned the following year after a handful of early morning training runs in the park. I improved my time by over a minute and claimed the veteran’s prize.
Although the UK event was only held another couple of times, and didn’t really grow in popularity, I found there was a community of maverick athletes around the country and also globally. Elsewhere in the world it seemed that retro running was taken a bit more seriously. Italy and Germany appeared to be the two global powerhouses of retro running and every two years a World Championship event is staged. In 2016 I travelled to Essen to represent my country. I was one of only two British athletes in Germany and when my fellow compatriot staggered through the last 10 metres of his 100m heat and couldn’t compete any further, the weight of the nation fell upon my shoulders. There were 2 days of track racing covering all distances from 100m through to 10km. I took veteran bronze in the 3,000m on the Friday and silver in the 5,000m on the following day. On the Sunday, a half marathon was being held in a former colliery on the outskirts of Essen. Granted there wasn’t a massive field of runners prepared to run that far, less than 30 of us, but I took veteran gold having spent most of the race in second place. Definitely the highlight of my athletics life as you don’t get to proudly hold your flag and sing your national anthem too often.
Through retro running I’ve met some really impressive athletes: Thomas Dold holds a number of world records and I saw him run 38:50 for a 10k at Essen. Aaron Yoder and his twin brother Dan went head to head over 400m and both clocked the fastest recorded time of 1:07 at Bologna in 2018. Back in Britain I helped local runner Shantelle Gaston Hird to reclaim her Guinness World Record at the last Manchester Half. In a busy and congested race I ran forwards to guide her as she ran 2 hours 16 mins. She’s working with Manchester Metropolitan University to provide some data about retro running and to hopefully give some scientific credence to its benefits.
Has Retro running made me a better runner? I’m pretty sure it has. Despite being in my late 40s my parkrun time has improved and I’ve pushed my age grading to over 82%. I set a half marathon PB at Macclesfield a few months ago when everybody told me it wasn’t a PB course. I’d recommend retro running as a complementary exercise, most people only hear of it as part of rehab from knee injuries. It’s certainly easier on the knees whilst working your calf and quad muscles hard. Cardio wise you notice it’s tougher running backwards than forwards so makes for a more intensive workout and handy if you’re short of time – try it on a treadmill. It promotes better posture too, encouraging you on to your forefoot and away from heal striking. Might it prevent injury too by counter balancing a high mileage of forward running? I don’t have any evidence but it is essentially a form of cross training which is usually a good thing for regular runners to consider. The only word of warning is that it’s not suitable for anyone with a history of Achilles issues as you are putting more of a strain on that part of your body.
Don’t you fall over though? No, not if you choose your routes carefully. Heaton Park with its wide smooth tarmac paths has been perfect. I wouldn’t try retro running along pavements. But don’t you feel a bit daft? Well yes you do at first but once you’re confident that you won’t fall over you can run with more conviction. Pairing with a forward running buddy is a good idea and they can help you with sighting. A familiar route enables you to reduce the number of times you look over your shoulder to once every 20 or 30 strides.
So now I’m sure many of you would like to give it a try, what are the next steps? I’m part of a small team who will be hosting the next World Championships at Lee Valley Stadium in North London. It will be held between 24th and 26th July. For more information please follow us on Twitter @Retrorun2020.
We’re confident that over 100 people will be coming from around the world but we’d like to match this number with GB athletes. There’s a shortage of ladies in the sport so with a bit of training and particularly if you qualify for the veteran (40) or super veteran (55) age classes I can almost promise you a World Championship medal. Shantelle and myself will be holding early morning training sessions at Longford park in the spring and I’ll be touring around Greater Manchester encouraging people to try some retro running on a Saturday morning as part of your pre parkrun warm up.
For more tales of my backwards running: https://holmesinho2.wordpress.com/category/backward-running/
My Facebook ‘athlete’ page: https://www.facebook.com/heatonparkbackwardsrunner/
Retro running on Twitter: https://twitter.com/retrorun2020
Retro running world championship on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/8th-IRR-Retro-Running-World-Championships-111443913609347/