Aaron Yoder laces up his Nike running shoes on a windy but warm day in the middle of rural Kansas.
They are dusty from running on the endless dirt roads the countryside provides, but they have flashes of orange that piece through the light brown film. It is the perfect shoe to match his personality as he starts jogging and laughs as we follow in a car next to him.
“Now the competitive side comes out, and I’m like, ‘I’m gonna race this damn thing!'" he says with a smile that flashes across his face.
Yoder jogs nearly every day each week. If it is not with the track team he coaches at Bethany College in Lindsborg, it is by himself with his thoughts.
“This is just something I like to use as an outlet, and it’s my way of training,” he says as he kicks more dust onto the top of his shoes.
I say the top because Yoder does not run as you would expect. There is no seeing how far he has yet to go, only how far he has come.
“When I go and run outside of Lindsborg, I definitely get some looks,” he says, chuckling. “Here in Lindsborg, I would probably only get looks if I ran forward because everyone knows.”
Yoder is the world’s fastest backward runner. Where most of us might use significant strides to leap our way forwards, Yoder uses smaller strides that push him miles each day.
“I’ve probably had every injury you could imagine to a certain point where it was like I pretty much rode the donkey till it dies,” he said. “I just couldn’t run anymore, and I was like, ‘well, I have another opportunity here.’”
Yoder first discovered considered backward running as a primary form of exercise nearly 10 years ago after a doctor’s visit for a torn meniscus revealed severe arthritis in his knees.
Yoder's stubborn determination wanted to keep him going through the pain, but the doctor he saw said he would have to stop unless he wanted a knee replacement by the age of 30.
“It literally feels like I’m flying because you don’t really see your legs. They’re kind of behind you, so you almost feel like you’re a floating torso,” Yoder said laughing.
The thing is, Aaron’s form of exercise, retro-running, is a thing.
There are world championships where backward runners from around the globe compete in the same track events traditional runners do.
There is also a petition to include retro-running in the Olympics.
“Have I ever told a patient they’ve had to run backward, specifically? No,” said Valerie Wilkins, a physical therapist at Sky Ridge Medical Center in Colorado. “But that doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits.”
Studies have dived into the world of retro-running and found there are, as Wilkins says, benefits that potentially outweigh the benefits of traditional running.
The National Institutes of Health published a study that found that running at 80% effort backward produces the same amount of strain on the body as running with 100% effort forwards.
The University of Oregon also published research that shows retro-running can have these potential benefits:
- Facilitate balance
- Develop a strong foundation upon which to improve performance
- Facilitate greater neuro-muscular function
- Prevent injuries
“Theoretically, when you run forwards, every time that you land, you’re kind of doing a mini-squat, so you have to absorb the shock through the knee,” said Wilkins. “When you run backward, you use different joint mechanics, so you have reduced range of motion, so there’s less pressure and impact on the front of the knee.”
For Yoder, specifically, recognition is the other benefit that no one else can claim. He has retro-running records recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records for the mile (5 minutes, 54.25 seconds), 1000 meter, and 4x400-meter relay.
But even those do not keep pace with the mental benefits he has received. Shortly before his knee diagnosis in 2012, Yoder lost his grandmother, a close friend, and was going through a break-up, all while the track program at Bethany College was in jeopardy.
“There’s a tendency, especially as Americans, to be forward-thinking and goal-oriented, and that’s good, but by running backward, it allowed me- and especially in that time- to not look at how far I have to go because it’s going to be insurmountable,” said Yoder. “Instead, I simply looked at how far I’ve come. What I had on my plate at that time, I’m like I cannot do this, but then running backward, it started changing; just do what you can today.”
When Yoder runs outside of Lindsborg, people may laugh, scoff, and think what he is doing is all silly, but to Yoder, it took him going backward to move forward.
“It means the world to me,” he said. “I’m blessed to have an opportunity and legs and a body to do that even if it’s backward.”