Running Defensively

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Every year we read about runners who are struck by cars, bitten by dogs, or physically attacked while running.  In this episode Coach Angie shares important safety tips on how to be a defensive runner. 💪

Running Defensively

When I talk about safety for runners it’s a topic that I wish we could avoid. I wish we lived in a world where people looked out for the highest good of everyone. Unfortunately we live in a world where people are distracted and tired while driving which can lead to accidental runner deaths.

  • In May 25 year old Kara Hall was struck and killed by a vehicle in New York State.
  • In July Oz Griebel age 71, a former candidate for Connecticut governor, was struck by a car while running. He later died in the hospital.
  • In August a 19 year old Michigan woman named Nadia Zeigler was hit by a truck while running and died at the scene.

We also live in a world here some people feel they have the right to harass runners and a world where many people of color don’t feel safe while running.

In 2016 Runner’s World did a survey of runners and found that 4% of men and 43% of women have been harassed while running. This unfortunate fact is underscored nearly every year when a runner is attacked and/or killed while running.

  • Back on February 23rd, 2020 we had the tragic attack and murder of Ahmaud Abery in Georgia.
  • In August Sarmistha Sen of Texas was attacked and killed in what is believed to be a random incident.
  • Later in August Sydney Southernald from Arkansas was killed in another attack.
  • A former Comrades Marathon champion named Nick Bester was trail running in South Africa when he was attacked by three men, stripped of his clothing, tied up, beaten with rocks, and apparently left for dead. He managed to crawl down the mountain to get help and has subsequently undergone several surgeries.

I don’t mention these examples so that you feel continually stressed out and hyper-vigilant while running (or that you avoid going for runs). Statistically we’re more likely to be attacked or harmed by someone we already know, rather than a complete stranger.

However, it’s important to be proactive runners and also realize that not everyone has the same experience running that we do. Many runners are the target of harassment simply because of the color of their skin or the shape of their body.

There has been an increased focus on runner safety in the past few years but it’s typically focused on women. That’s why it’s important to engage in the conversation about how runners of color can be safe. I’ve read numerous accounts and articles from people of color about the sense of vulnerability that they have while out running.

A helpful piece on this topic is a NY Times article called Running While Black- Our Readers Respond. It talks about how many runners of color have had disturbing experiences while running and because of that they often make exhaustive mental checklists about how to respond to various scenarios. This can create barriers to running and decrease a person’s enjoyment of the experience.

We can’t address every single safety scenario in this episode but I’d say that situational awareness is the most important thing that you can do to remove barriers to safety. I’m always surprised when I encounter runners who don’t seem to be following basic running safety guidelines.

How to be a Defensive Runner

Here are 14 tips to be proactive about your safety (and one bonus tip for drivers…since most of us drive).

1. Tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back. That way if you don’t return they can get a head start on making sure that you’re safe. This is especially important if you’ll be in an area with poor cell reception or if you’re running in a new area.

2. Stay alert and aware. The burden to stay safe mostly falls on us. Notice your environment and the people, vehicles, and landmarks around you. Follow your intuition—if your gut is telling you that something is wrong, it probably is. Run clear of parked cars, bushes, dark areas and anything else suspicious if possible.

3. Run with a partner. There is generally safety in numbers. This can be especially helpful if you’re running in a new location. I realize that this isn’t always possible or practical.

4. Wear some form of ID like the RoadID or put your driver’s license in your pocket. Carry your cell phone so that you can call for help as needed.

5. Be visible. In low light conditions colors like white, yellow, and florescent orange are best. In addition, a reflective vest, arm/leg bands, headlamp or hand/shoe lights can be helpful. The Noxgear Tracer 360 LED light vest is a great way to stay visible. When planning to be visible take into consideration the amount of light at the beginning and end of your run. I’m always a little worried when I see runners wearing all dark colors while running because it gives vehicles less time to see and react to your presence.

6. Vary your route and routine. Predictability can make you an easy target. Consider hiding your home or work location on social media sites and run apps. If someone is targeting you these apps would make it very easy to track your movements.

7. Run against traffic (in the US that would be the left side of the road). Be prepared to move over for traffic. Try to make eye contact with the driver to make sure they see you. Don’t assume vehicles can see you. The driver could be texting, picking something up, putting makeup on, or any number of distracting things.

8. Don’t wear both earphones– If you listen to music, podcasts, or audiobooks keep the volume down and don’t put both earbuds in. Consider using AfterShokz which are bone conduction headphones or earbuds which allow sound transparency so you can still hear road noises. Under no conditions (except maybe treadmill running) should you use noise cancelling headphones. Even if you’re on a trail you lose so much situational awareness by blocking out sounds.

9. If a vehicle drives past you more than once get the license plate number and car description, make it obvious that you see the car, and keep your distance. By making eye contact it lets the person know that you’re aware of your situation and are being vigilant.

10. If you are confronted by someone try not to let them get close and run toward a more populated area (generally there is safety in numbers). Maintain awareness of your environment and don’t panic (which can be hard when the amygdala triggers the flight/fight/freeze response). Ignore verbal insults and harassment and keep running.

11. Do not stop and approach a car to give directions. We all have that instinct to be helpful but this can compromise your safety. Try pointing or shrugging your shoulders and keep moving.

12. Give unfamiliar animals a wide berth (even dogs on a leash). We recently had an Academy member who was bitten on the leg by a leashed dog that wasn’t being actively monitored by the owner. Most of my scary running experiences have been from unleashed/unfenced dogs.

13. Consider carrying a self-defense product (after checking country, state and local laws) and know how to use it. I know this is a controversial issue. We’ve had the question about good self-defense products come up in the Social Distancing Run Facebook group and it can really trigger people on both sides of the debate. Some runners question the need to carry a self-defense product and if you’re not comfortable doing that it’s a personal choice. But it’s important to realize that not everyone feels safe and secure on their runs and not to judge those who carry self-defense products.

  • I’ve carried handheld pepper spray for many years after being attacked and bitten by a dog and have had to use it a few times. There’s also a product called Spray Shield which puts out citronella which has no negative side effects. Other self defense products include Tiger Lady, Go Guarded Ring, Guardian Whistle, a personal safety alarm by She’s Birdie, the SaferRun ripcord siren by Nathan, the Terminator mini stun gun, Booby Trap Bras, Doberman Security wrist light and alarm, and Kuba Kickz Self Defense Control (for shoes). There are even gun holsters targeted for exercise. There are some good safety apps like the Road ID app with the “smart crumb” feature, the Strava Beacon App, the React Mobile Personal Safety App, Glympse, and RunRaegis. The Timex One GPS watch has a feature that broadcasts your position to chosen contacts.

14. Take a self defense class or course. Being willing to defend yourself is the most important place to start. When you have emergency conditioning you’re more likely to be able to act instead of freeze which is a very common reaction. Learning how to react in an emergency situation and practicing defending yourself is empowering. If you are being attacked go for sensitive areas like the eyes, nose, throat, and groin. If you have long hair consider a tight braid instead of a ponytail which can be grabbed more easily or a hat that covers your hair.

15. Be an alert driver. As a driver make sure to move over as much as possible for a runner and be vigilant about cyclists on the roads too. Don’t honk or shout things out the window at runners, even if you’re trying to be friendly. The best way to recognize a runner is to give them space and possibly a friendly wave.


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