Human running at low and intermediate speeds is characterized by a greater average force exerted after 'landing', when muscle-tendon units are stretched ('hard landing'), and a lower average force exerted before 'takeoff', when muscle-tendon units shorten ('soft takeoff'). This landing-takeoff asymmetry is consistent with the force-velocity relation of the 'motor' (i.e. with the basic property of muscle to resist stretching with a force greater than that developed during shortening), but it may also be due to the 'machine' (e.g. to the asymmetric lever system of the foot operating during stance). Hard landing and soft takeoff-never the reverse-were found in running, hopping and trotting animals using diverse lever systems, suggesting that the different machines evolved to comply with the basic force-velocity relation of the motor. Here we measure the mechanical energy of the centre of mass of the body in backward running, an exercise where the normal coupling between motor and machine is voluntarily disrupted, in order to see the relevance of the motor-machine interplay in human running. We find that the landing-takeoff asymmetry is reversed. The resulting 'soft landing' and 'hard takeoff' are associated with a reduced efficiency of positive work production. We conclude that the landing-takeoff asymmetry found in running, hopping and trotting is the expression of a convenient interplay between motor and machine. More metabolic energy must be spent in the opposite case when muscle is forced to work against its basic property (i.e. when it must exert a greater force during shortening and a lower force during stretching).