Put your best foot backwards!
When Achim Aretz runs, you can’t follow him. At a pace where many can’t even move forward, Achim’s ingenuity has caused him to run himself into the record books by completing the world’s fastest backwards half-marathon and full marathon.
On 31st October 2010, Achim Aretz broke the six year old world record set by Chinese Xu Zhenjun over the marathon distance in reverse by 58 seconds, and his new record still holds at 3:42:41, set at the Frankfurt Marathon. Aretz reveals how Kenyan Wilson Kipsang couldn’t believe that a 3:40 hr marathoner could be in the record books. At the Hochwald Middle Rhine Marathon in Koblenz on 28th May 2011, Aretz broke his own previous record in the half marathon retro distance set in 2009, by completing in 1:35:49.
Achim Aretz was born on March 13, 1984 in Essen, Germany. He studied Geosciences in Münster and obtained a doctorate in Darmstadt from the Technical University. How does a passionate runner suddenly decide to run the other way round? The reason is “a crazy idea”. Aretz chanced on retro-running when he woke up with a hangover. To shake it off, he went for a run with a friend. Aretz was so slow that his friend started running backwards to while away the time. Aretz joined in for fun, and found he preferred it. He later discovered from the social network “Studivz“, that there really is an international retro-running scene, and decided to henceforth compete as a retro-runner. He says the attraction was the mental challenge, and the fact that he was developing different muscles compared to runners who run forward. His runs are both solo as well as with friends. “When I am running alone, I have to look back maybe every ten meters. When I am running together with friends, they tell me what lies behind me.”
Medical specialists have confirmed that running backwards allows better recovery from certain knee and ankle injuries. Retro-running has been found to burn more calories with twenty percent less effort than running forward. Performance analyst Mitchell Phillips has underlined the benefits walking or running backwards brings – it is a great way to cool down, and also improves balance and increases neuromuscular efficiency. Phillips describes it as the perfect remedy to cure the imbalances between anterior and posterior chain muscle groups (like the hamstrings and quadriceps, for instance). In his book “Backwards Running“, Robert K. Stevenson describes retro-running as a fantastic activity for physical conditioning and training. It is considered healthy to occasionally tear the body out of everyday movements and break out of set habits. Not only other muscle groups, but also senses such as hearing are strengthened.
“Running backwards has a meditative character“, says Aretz. “I perceive the environment differently when I walk backwards.” He does not see what lies ahead, but what he has already done. His ambition is not to win medals, and the main thing in competitions around the world is an opportunity to meet old acquaintances.
The 35-year old geologist runs up to 80 kilometers a week backwards. He explains how reverse runners start with the forefoot, thereby avoiding the typical rolling over the heel motion that occurs while moving forward. Beginners struggle with sore muscles at the beginning (as in any other sport), and many with knee problems have found it to be a beneficial alternative for relieving pressure on the knees. Several other sportspersons have also incorporated and benefited from retro-running, including boxer Gene Tunney and wrestlers William Muldoon and Ed Schultz.
Achim Aretz shares some tips in the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung for those who want to start running backwards:
Started very slowly and for a short time. It’s best to use a flat surface, such as a tartan/synthetic track. One needs to get used to going into the unknown. Bumpy terrains are not the best places to start to train. Not seeing the track is an unfamiliar situation for the mind and there is always the fear of falling. He cites the most difficult obstacles being dogs who can’t figure out what he’s doing. Training with a partner can be very useful for beginners because the partner can give instructions and set the direction. It helps when the retro-runner does not have to turn his head constantly – which can cause sore neck muscles. In addition, the mind is trained differently, because when one goes forwards and the other backwards, “right” then suddenly becomes “left” and vice versa.
In an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Aretz reveals how Germany is a strong reverse running nation – they have many record holders up to the 5000 meters distance, and Aretz himself hold the records for the half marathon and full marathon distances. Achim Aretz has also authored a book titled “Faszination Marathon Andersherum“, where he talks about his journey as a retro-runner, shares scientific insights into the physical differences between running forward and backward, the challenges to the brain to break out of set patterns, and how changed perceptions bring new ideas and insights into running as well as to life.
~In The Running – Phil Hewitt