Runner safety isn’t something runners love to talk about, but this downside of running is a topic we need to keep top of mind. The reasons are obvious: We’ve all seen the headlines, heard the stories or experienced harassment ourselves. (Especially if you’re a woman, a member of the LGBTQ community or both.) It can be dangerous out there, but there are ways we can protect ourselves and be as safe as possible.
To help us with a set of guidelines on how to be safe, protect ourselves and ultimately defend ourselves, we consulted Sandra Gallagher-Mohler, CEO and run coach at IRunTons, and Aquil Bey, founder of Tailored Defense Training in Baltimore.
MAINTAIN SITUATIONAL AWARENESS
Seeing and hearing the world around you is a key first step in detecting any dangers you might face.
KNOW YOUR ROUTE
Familiarize yourself with the trail or streets you plan to run, so you can notice if anything is amiss. “Know what right looks like,” Bey says. “Know what right doesn’t look like.”
KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN
We’ve all been creeped out by a lurking car or a person whose presence just seems, for lack of a better word, shady. The sooner you see someone who makes you uncomfortable, the sooner you can adjust accordingly. (More on that below.) This extends to the moments before and after you run, too. “[If you’re] sending that last text or something, you’re not aware that someone has been watching you the last 10 minutes,” Gallagher-Mohler says.
KEEP YOUR HEAD UP
“Run with your head up and enjoy the scenery,” Bey says. “When you do that, you look more aware and a criminal will be less likely to attack you because you seem more aware. If you’re looking down, struggling, you look like a softball target.“
KEEP THE VOLUME DOWN
For your safety and your spiritual connection to the world around you, you’d ideally skip the earbuds and tune into nature instead. But we also understand a good playlist can keep you focused or push you harder. No matter how hard you worked on your run mix, it’s a good idea to leave at least one earbud out. (If you’re running near traffic, Bey recommends leaving the streetside earbud out.)
DON’T BLOCK YOUR EYES AND EARS
Ear warmers, hats and hoods can all be necessary gear for a frigid run. But those things can hinder your peripheral vision or block out the sound around you. Be mindful of this, and try to avoid combining, say, ear muffs and earbuds.
RUN IN A GROUP
This one’s obvious but worth repeating: There’s safety in numbers. If you run alone, make sure you use live-tracking on MapMyRun.
CONTROL YOUR ENVIRONMENT AS BEST YOU CAN
“What you don’t want to do is set patterns,” Bey says. “That means don’t run every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 7 a.m.–8 a.m., taking the same route.” Instead, mix and match, and avoid repeating yourself as much as possible. (A bonus benefit: Adding variety is a great way to keep yourself engaged with running.) “A lot of times these attacks aren’t random at all,” Bey says. “They’re only random to the victims. They’re sometimes from someone casing them. They’ve seen them before on this route at this time.”
TECHNOLOGY CAN BE BOTH FRIEND AND FOE
“If you’re tracking your run publicly and always start and stop in same places, that’s not wise,” Gallagher-Mohler says. “If you leave every morning from the same place at 5 a.m., you’ve made yourself a target. I wish it wasn’t so but you have.”
That said, it’s a good idea to make your profile private so only the people you know can follow you. You can also use your fitness tracker to your benefit by letting a friend, partner or roommate know when you’re using it — that way, they can see when and where something went amiss if you’re not back by a certain time.
TRUST YOUR GUT
“As women, we are often taught that we are overly sensitive and even paranoid,” Gallagher-Mohler says. “But if you live it, you understand it. Every single run you go on someone’s cat-calling.”
Toward that end, Bey suggests staying focused on what’s in your control before things become potentially unsafe. “You can’t control an individual’s actions, but you can control your environment,” Bey says. “If you feel creeped out by individuals that you’re coming up on, you can turn around and run the other way. You can make up that distance another way.”
Some runners bring a lot of gear with them — water bottles, even weights. But these things can be a hindrance if you need to protect yourself quickly or run to safety. Only carry what you need.
Bey thinks of self-defense as concentric circles. At the outermost circle is situational awareness and avoidance — basically, using your eyes and ears to be in touch with your surroundings and responding to anything unusual before a confrontation. The innermost circles are defending yourself in an actual attack, using gear (the middle circle) or your body (the innermost circle). While nothing is foolproof — and while we obviously hope you never have to use this — here are some things Bey and Gallagher-Mohler suggest:
Yes, certain gear might help you defend yourself. Yes, certain moves might help. But neither will help you if you haven’t practiced them beforehand, so using them is second nature — after all, you’ll be in a stressful situation where every second is critical. “You gotta know [your gear and your moves], and not only that, you gotta practice them,” Gallagher-Mohler says. “Great, you have mace. Do you know how to open it?”
Bey always carries pepper spray. Gallagher-Mohler carries a device that emits a high-piercing sound on her keychain. (“All you do is pull a tab to activate it,” she says. “I’ve never used it but my friend who gave it to me did.”) You and only you know what you are comfortable with carrying and operating — but again, nothing offers an absolute guarantee of safety.
KNOW YOUR ATTACKERS’ VULNERABILITIES
As Bey explains: “Understand a base level of anatomy. Everyone has the same vulnerabilities [no matter their size or strength]. The eyes — you can’t strengthen those, so try to strike there. If they’re not available, go for the nose; try to disrupt their breathing. Throat is another option. There’s no muscle to build up there — there’s a difference between a person’s neck and throat. Their groin, if you can. Again, that’s a soft target that can’t be built up.
“Understand that the closer someone gets to you, the more effective and empowered you are to defend yourself. Everything I’ve said is accessible and not likely to be hidden by what someone’s wearing. It doesn’t require strength, it simply requires precision. Again, regardless of height. Again if they’re on you or behind you, you have access.
“In addition to understanding your attacker’s vulnerability, you have to understand your anatomical weapons. Your spray could run out, you could drop it or it could just not work. But we have anatomical weapons: our minds, being aware. We can utilize our voice by yelling, telling people to back up, get away. Attract attention — most criminals don’t want attention, they don’t want struggle. Use your hands for palm strikes, fingers to strike the eyes. We have our elbows, knees, feet. We can stomp or go for a groin strike or even a head strike.”
Again, practice makes perfect, and that’s what a self-defense class is for — to help you rehearse your moves before you might need to use them.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The odds are you’ll never need to use any of this. But, unfortunately, those odds aren’t zero. “It’s not that we need to be afraid to run,” Bey says. “We just have to be aware of what’s going on around us. If there’s something we see, we just have to plan accordingly. It’s not that we have to run in fear, but we also can’t run in a vacuum. There’s people out there, that’s who they are — they’re looking for someone to attack. And we don’t want to be their victims.”