A veteran marathoner, Albert Freese was definitely looking to turn his life around.
"After completing the Western States 100-mile run from Squaw Valley to Auburn, Calif., in 1984, I thought there was only one thing left to accomplish, and that's running backward," said Freese, a 41-year-old electronics technician from Seal Beach.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 26, 1987 Home Edition View Part 5 Page 21 Column 3 View Desk 1 inches; 16 words Type of Material: Correction
The name of Nancy Ditz, female winner of the first two Los Angeles Marathons, was misspelled in View on Tuesday.
A few months later, he lined up tail-first in the 1985 Long Beach Marathon and finished the course in 4 hours, 9 minutes and 7 seconds, only 73 seconds off the world retro-running or running-backward mark of 4:07:54. From that point, Freese has enjoyed the challenge of living life on the flip side.
"Running backward in a marathon is like running 45 miles forward," said Freese, whose California license plate spells MR BKWD. "When you run frontward, you can look and see where you're going. You can daydream about anything you want. You can change your stride or slow down or put it into automatic.
"Running backward, you physically and mentally have to be on your toes. Every step that you take has to be very, very exact. For one thing, you are going a different way from everybody else. It's easy to run along with the crowd, but when you're different, it's more difficult."
Freese's reverse psychology makes him a running maverick, but retro-running is gaining in popularity among more mainstream runners as a fitness craze and as a training supplement to forward running.
Its supporters claim it improves muscle balance, promotes healing of injuries, enhances aerobic conditioning and increases caloric expenditure.
Rod Dixon, New Zealand's Olympic medalist in the 1,500 meters in 1972 and winner of the New York City Marathon in 1983, has long used retro-running in his long-distance training. He compares its benefits to those of doing leg curls and leg extensions in the weight room.
"I think it is so very necessary to work every muscle group and exercise them in a balanced way," said Dixon, who is currently training for the L.A. Marathon, which he hopes to use as a springboard for the 1988 Olympics.
Fred Lebow, president of the New York Road Runner's club and founder of the New York City Marathon, does an about-face after he hits the so-called runner's wall about 18 to 20 miles into a marathon.
"In the past I would normally go into a walk," Lebow said. "Now I do retro-running. It gives your forward-moving muscle fibers a chance to turn around."
Frank Shorter, winner of the marathon in the 1972 Olympics at Munich and a track-and-field analyst for NBC at the recent World Games in Rome, counsels caution before taking the backward plunge.
"My instinct is not to discount its validity," Shorter said, "but it is important to know what is the motive of the person making the claim. Is the person a sports physician from Ball State who has done serious research in the lab or is it someone from Hermosa Beach who is running backward in the sand?"
Nancy Deitz, the female winner of the first two Los Angeles Marathons in 1986 and 1987, lines up on the side of Shorter.
"I have enough trouble finding the hours in the day to run forward," Deitz said.
Dr. Barry Bates, founder and director of the University of Oregon's biomechanical and sports-medicine laboratory in Eugene, Ore., has given retro-runners a strong leg to stand on, confirming with his stop-action projectors, graphic digitizers and scientific data what many have claimed from experience.
"We thought if we're really supposed to be the gurus of running, in the running-injury business, that we may as well take a hard look at all these claims," Bates said.
Basically, Bates limited his investigation of retro-running to the lower extremities, the hip, knee and ankle joints and their supporting muscle groups. Specifically, he wanted to know whether retro-running could be used as a tool in both rehabilitation and sports conditioning.
In two separate studies, he found that the range of motion in the hip is greatly reduced.
"Right away, you can see how that might do some good for someone with a hip injury," Bates said. "They can perform, but they are not stretching things out as much."
The knee, on the other hand, undergoes an increased range of motion, Bates said, but remains stable during the critical first third of movement until shifting into a better position for push-off.
Lots of Muscle Activity
"For postoperative knees," Bates said, "doctors want to get a lot of muscle activity around the knee joint without a lot of movement, especially during the initial impact phase when the knee is most vulnerable. Retro achieves this."
Retro-running, it turns out, supports the ankle in a similar way. The range of motion increases in the ankle, but the ankle is flexed in a relatively fixed position in the initial impact or support phase.