Self Defense for Runners: Tips and Tools to Stay Safe

solo female runner at night

 Phillip Suddick/Getty Images

In This Article

An outdoor run is arguably one of the best ways to burn calories and enjoy the benefits of being outside. Not only do you boost your health and improve your cardiovascular endurance, but being outside is considered a restorative environment by mental health experts.

It may also help you reduce stress, restore mental fatigue, improve mood, boost self-esteem, and elevate your perceived health.

But there are risks associated with outdoor running as well. Every year countless runners are injured or killed in accidents and assaults that occur while running. While it is not possible to prevent every tragedy, there are some steps you can take to stay safe when you head out the door. Using keen self-defense tips, tools, and tactics can also help provide peace of mind.

Potential Dangers

Running is the third most popular exercise activity, according to data compiled in 2016 by the U.S. Department of Labor and Statistics with about 60 million people participate in running, jogging, or trail running. Interestingly, those numbers were compiled before the onset of COVID-19 in 2020.

Since health clubs and fitness studios were forced to shut down temporarily during the pandemic, the popularity of running has increased. And to abide by social distancing guidelines, many people started running alone.

Solo running can present personal safety risks for all runners, but especially for women, runners of color, and athletes who must run in the dark due to scheduling constraints.

John Honerkamp is a USATF running coach and the founder of Run Kamp and The Run Collective (TRC). The mission of TRC, in part, is to promote safe running practices.

To this end, it founded Runner Safety Awareness Week where participants learn from safety experts and from those who work with marginalized communities about the risks faced by women and BIPOC runners. Participants also have the chance to learn self-defense techniques to stay safe when running alone.

"Running alone, especially in the early morning or late evening, is a big concern for me and many of the runners I work with," says Honerkamp. "Since the onset of COVID-19, we've had a lot of newer runners that might not be thinking about safety issues beyond pandemic concerns. A solo run can help protect you from COVID-19, but you can be putting yourself more at risk if you are not aware of smart safety practices."

In short, running alone increases your vulnerability. A solo runner may be deep in thought, distracted by music, or simply focussed on form or other running elements. This lack of awareness may increase your chances of becoming a target for serious crime such as rape or sexual assault, but also for lesser crimes such as simple assault.

What Is Simple Assault?

Simple assault is defined by the Department of Justice as an attack without a weapon resulting either in no physical injury, or a minor physical injury. But of course, just because no physical injury occurs, doesn't mean that there is no harm.

According to data compiled by the Department of Justice, about 65% of total violent victimizations were simple assault, with the remaining 35% being rape or sexual assault, robbery, or aggravated assault. There were fewer simple assaults in 2019 than there were in 2018, but more than there were in 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Assault isn't the only safety concern for outdoor exercisers. Runners are also at risk for traffic accidents (including crashes with bikes, cars, or motorized scooters), trips and falls, and animal attacks.

How to Prevent an Attack

The best defense is a smart offense. There are precautions you can take to protect yourself during a run. Safety experts and police departments around the country provide safety tips for runners, walkers, and cyclists. For the most part, the tips focus on increasing your visibility and awareness.

The following tips are compiled from resources provided by police departments and public safety experts in Washington D.C., , Los Angeles , and Minneapolis.

  • Carry a phone but keep it stowed away and out of sight.
  • Carry a whistle and an ID.
  • Don’t leave your house unlocked. Carry a key. Have your door key ready before you reach your home.
  • Don't wear jewelry, carry cash, or run with other valuables in sight.
  • Exercise caution if anyone in a car asks you for directions. If you answer, keep a full arm's length from the car.
  • Face oncoming traffic so that you can see approaching vehicles.
  • If you think you are being followed, change direction and head for open stores, theaters, or a lighted house.
  • Ignore verbal harassment. Use discretion in acknowledging strangers. Look directly at others and be observant, but keep your distance and keep moving.
  • Jog on a familiar route but vary your daily routes and the time of your run.
  • Plan your route ahead. Know where safe spaces are located along the course, including businesses and stores that are open.
  • Run in pairs, in a group, or with a dog when possible.
  • Run in open spaces, away from bushes, parked cars, or alcoves where someone could hide.
  • Run with confidence. Keep your head up and your eyes alert.
  • Tell a friend or family member where you are going and when you will return. Have them track you using a smartphone app if possible.
  • Trust your intuition. If you are unsure about an area or a person or feel unsafe, leave immediately.
  • Wear reflective material so motorists can easily see you.

While most of these suggestions are geared for preventing a personal assault, they are also smart measures to prevent or mitigate other types of dangers—such as animal attacks or vehicle accidents.

If you are prepared with an ID, a cell phone, and if your loved ones know where you are, you are more likely to get help quickly in the event of an accident.

How to Defend Yourself

If the worst-case scenario occurs and an attack happens, there are a few different ways to deal with the assault. Some runners carry a self-defense tool to fend off an attacker. Others prepare in advance with self-defense classes.

Self Defense Gear

There are several different products that cast light or emit a loud sound in the event of an attack. For example, Knuckle Lights is designed to be carried in your hand while running, and the Doberman Security Jogger Alarm is worn on your arm and emits a 110-decibel alarm if necessary.

Pepper spray is probably the most common tool that runners carry to protect themselves in the event of an attack, although some runners also carry mace.

The canisters are usually small enough to hold in your hand and many come with a hand strap. Most have a 10–12-foot range and contain multiple blasts. You can even purchase practice pepper spray to test out so that you feel more prepared for an attack.

There are also other self-defense tools for runners on the market. For example, a product called Tigerlady is modeled after a cat's claws and sits in your hand to attack an assailant. Another product called Go Guarded is worn on your finger and features a serrated blade that can be exposed if needed. Some runners purchase and carry stun guns and there are also devices that you can attach to your shoe.

Self-defense tools such as pepper spray, mace, stun guns, and other gear that may inflict harm are not legal in all states. Check your state laws before purchasing or carrying one of these safety devices.

Community Self Defense Programs

A few research studies have shown that taking a self-defense class may be able to reduce the incidence of violence, especially sexual violence on women. Self-defense programs are sometimes offered in the workplace, on college campuses, or in community centers.

A study published in 2014 in the journal Violence Against Women evaluated a 10-week, university-based, feminist self-defense class to examine the effectiveness of self-defense training over a 1-year follow-up period.

The study author followed 117 college students who received self-defense training and compared them to a control group of 169 students who did not. Most (but not all) participants took a follow-up survey one year later.

The author's analysis indicated that women who participate in self-defense training are less likely to experience sexual assault and are more confident in their ability to effectively resist assault than similar women who have not taken such a class.

It is important to note, however, that a controlled study evaluating the effectiveness of self-defense training in the event of an attack is not possible (or ethical).

Limited government evaluations of self-defense and rape awareness training have yielded mixed results. According to a report filed by the National Institute on Justice, evaluations of sexual assault prevention programs found that only 14% reported positive results and 80% reported mixed results. Positive results were usually defined as changes in attitudes or an increase in knowledge.

However, the report contained important and actionable information. In the event of an attack, the report's author states that self-protective actions significantly reduce the risk that a rape will be completed. 

According to the Department of Justice report, certain actions reduce the risk of rape more than 80% compared to nonresistance. The most effective actions, according to victims, are:

  • Attacking or struggling against their attacker
  • Running away
  • Verbally warning the attacker

Self Defense Classes

Runners and people from all walks of life are learning martial arts and self-defense tactics to protect themselves. Some people enroll in classes like kickboxing or martial arts as a novel way to improve fitness. But others seek tools to add to their self-protection arsenal.

Lisa Cichowlas is a Level 3 Krav Maga Instructor. She and her husband Pawel run Krav Maga Detroit. Krav Maga is a self-defense system developed for the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli security forces of the Israeli Army. The combat discipline has also become popular in the U.S. because the techniques can be used by anyone regardless of size, fitness level, or strength.

Cichowlas says that runners train at Krav Maga to expand their self-defense skill set should they face a dangerous situation. 

"You never know when a nice evening jog could turn into a fight-or-flight situation," she says. Cichowlas also adds that since the onset of COVID-19 they are seeing an increase in inquiries.

According to Cichowlas, some runners that she trains may jog with a weapon (such as a pepper spray or a tactical key chain) for self-defense purposes. But she says that if you are ever faced with fighting for your life, you want to have options available so you can get home. 

"No matter what weapon or gadget you might have, the foundation must be the mindset," she says. "That’s where Krav Maga training shines. We work on mindset in every class and in every drill. We forge it under stress so our students will not freeze when the moment of truth comes."

While it is best to take a Krav Maga class for comprehensive safety training, Cichowlas says that any runner can use a kick to the groin in the event of an assault. The kick is effective because you maintain distance from an attacker. Cichowlas says that you should use your shin and kick hard like you are kicking a soccer ball.

"Think of your leg as your own personal baseball bat," she says.

A Word From Verywell

No runner ever wants to think about the possibility of an attack. Most people who run think of their time on the road as an opportunity to get away from the stresses of life and disengage from day-to-day struggles. But the truth is that every runner is vulnerable to some extent.

Taking simple steps to prevent an attack is one way to secure your safety. But if you run alone, especially early in the morning or late at night, taking a self-defense class or investing in a self-defense tool can offer additional peace of mind.

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Article Sources
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