This Coach Wants To Be The Next World Champion In Backward Running

Originally published on July 15, 2018 10:20 am

At Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kan., track and cross country coach Aaron Yoder spends a lot of time on the treadmill. That's not so unusual, until you watch what what he's doing — running backward.

Yoder has been training for this weekend's world championships for backward running, also called retro running, in Bologna, Italy. Yoder is recognized by the Guinness World Records as a record-holder in three retro running events: the 1 mile (5 minutes, 54.25 seconds), 1000 meter, and 4x400-meter relay. Plus, he's awaiting ratification for a world record in the 200 meter, which he ran last year on the campus track.

A few years ago, doctors advised him to stop running entirely. He was a high school champion in the mile, but by his mid 20s, a chronically injured left knee led to arthritis.

Running backward, however, made Yoder feel more comfortable.

"A big difference is the stress you put on your joints," Yoder, 32, said. "When you're running backward, you don't have as much pressure on your knee because you're landing behind yourself."

Dr. Brian Ware, a podiatrist in Kansas City and a runner himself, says he understands Yoder's reluctance to give up running all together.

"With runners it's a mindset. We do not like to take time off," Ware says.

Ware also backs up Yoder's claims that running backward is easier on the joints.

He adds that there's another benefit to backward running.

"The posture is a little bit better backward running. When you tend to get fatigued in forward running, your back muscles get overused because you lean forward," Ware said.

Running backward piqued Yoder's interest during his middle school years in Peabody, Kan. He says saying he did it "because I was trying to get in better shape for other sports."

Retro running is popular in Europe, and this is the seventh International RetroRunning World Championships, which are held every other year.

Noah Smucker, one of Yoder's former athletes at Bethany, says Yoder's backward treadmill habit caught his attention at first — mostly because of how much time Yoder spent on it. It was enough to wear out and break one of the heavy-duty training center treadmills.

"I always knew he was a little different," he says. "When I saw him do that, I definitely knew he was a something different."

Aaron Yoder takes that as a compliment. Though he says he comes from a family that likes to stay active, no one else in the family ran backward.

"My mom would tell of [when] we would go out in the country — she'd have her bike — and she would time me while I did some mile runs," he said. "They just said, 'Aaron is just doing what he does.'"

But things have changed. Yoder's twin brother and his parents are now retro runners and also competing in the world championships.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Runners from all over the world are in Bologna, Italy, as the city hosts the Retro-running Championships. And an elite runner from Kansas is competing for yet another record in running backwards. That's right, they run in reverse, as Greg Echlin reports from Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF TREADMILL RUNNING)

GREG ECHLIN, BYLINE: Aaron Yoder spends a lot of time on the treadmill, running the wrong way. The 32-year-old track and cross-country coach at Bethany College in Kansas mostly trains on a treadmill. When he ventures outside, he's extra careful.

AARON YODER: The nice thing about backwards running is your senses are heightened. So you're hearing, and you're just feeling the ground. And, like, you can just hear cars coming.

ECHLIN: Yoder first became interested in running backward as a kid.

YODER: I bought this rinky-dink treadmill at Wal-Mart with my money and realized it just didn't go fast enough. So I just did it just as kind of an extension to training for football and basketball and track and field. I just found that I could get a better workout running backwards.

ECHLIN: Then three years ago, he got serious about it when doctors advised him to stop traditional running because of arthritis in his knees. Dr. Brian Ware, a podiatrist in Kansas City, says he likes the idea of running backward to ease pressure on the joints, feet and ankles. Plus, there's another benefit.

BRIAN WARE: The posture is a little bit better, backwards running, because we tend to get fatigued when forward running. Your back muscles get overused because you lean forward.

ECHLIN: Yoder's influence on backward running has spread to the runners he has coached at Bethany. Runner Noah Smucker is one of them, and admits it was strange to watch Yoder train, until he saw Yoder wear out the treadmill.

NOAH SMUCKER: I thought - I always knew he was a little different. But when I saw him do that, I definitely knew he was something, something different.

ECHLIN: Different indeed. Going into this weekend's world championships, Yoder holds three records recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records, and he's awaiting ratification on a fourth. He's joined at the World Championships by his twin brother and his parents, who also took up retro-running. Yoder says if only there were some events in the U.S. for retro-runners, that would be a "step forward." For NPR News, I'm Greg Echlin in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.