Saturday, May 17, 2014

Self-Defense Moves For Runners

Recently Runner's World published a video titled "How to Stay Safe on the Run", a topic we can ALL relate to, no matter where or when we do our running. Day or night, crowds or solitude, highway shoulders or urban sidewalks or forest trails, there are always potential hazards to look out for, and paying close attention to our surroundings isn't something we can ever let slip.

The Runner's World video addresses a particular type of hazard: another person who is potentially trying to harm you. In it, a police officer goes through several types of attacks (attacker grabs your arm, bear hugs you from behind, or comes at you directly). Speaking as a martial artist, I can confirm that all of the techniques the officer explains in the video are legitimate and likely to work, provided a) they are executed with skill & gusto & b) the attacker is not all that invested in hurting you.

But those are some pretty big "if's." And that is what worries me when I see or hear people talking about self-defense like it's something you can learn from watching a video or attending a day-long workshop: people see how easy and simple it looks & maybe try it a few times with a friendly, cooperative partner, and it gives them a false sense of security, which in some cases can even lead to people taking addition risks because they feel overconfident. The fact of the matter is that being able to use self-defense techniques like breaking someone's grab or escaping a choke hold effectively when someone is actually trying to hurt you requires A LOT of practice. There are couple of reasons for this.

For one, it's a skill, and you have to learn to do it properly. It took me several years to feel very confident in my ability to break grabs & escape holds & what have you immediately, without thinking or pausing to go, "Okay, I put my hand here, and grab you here...Wait, how does this go?" Just like you can't learn to play a complicated piano piece by watching a YouTube video, you can't learn self-defense that way either. (And in the heat of the moment when you're afraid for your life, what are the odds that you'll be able to call it to mind anyway?)

For another, you have to do it often enough to undo all the conditioning that civilized humans (especially women) have that tells us we shouldn't be aggressive & violent towards other people. Yes, some of the time we have a fight-or-flight thing that kicks in when we really need it, but you might be surprised how often people freeze up in the face of violence and can't bring themselves to get aggressive with their attackers. (I hate to say it, but this is often especially true for women. See Harriet J.'s amazing post on why, if we teach women that there are only certain ways they may acceptably behave, we should not be surprised when they behave in those ways.) If you have it in your head that these self-defense moves are something you might need to do one day, get a partner & practice, practice, practice, until you can do it immediately & accurately, every time, without a second thought.

Don't get me wrong; backed into a corner, I'm not saying don't do whatever you have to to defend yourself. I'm just saying, don't count on something to save you in a stressful, chaotic situation that you haven't practiced a thousand times with full speed & power & can do on auto-pilot.

So if you haven't practiced that bear hug break a thousand times, what can you do? So many things!! Here is some straight-talk about combat & self-defense from someone who's been doing it for 12 years. I give you...

The Top 5 Self-Defense Moves For Runners
(and, actually, anyone, including martial artists):

MOVE #1: Stay out of situations where you might need to defend yourself. I can't say this enough times. The best way to get out of a dangerous situation is to do whatever you can not to get into it in the first place. Sometimes people have made remarks about how it must be really nice not to have to worry about walking down dangerous streets or being out alone at night or someone deciding to mess with me because "you know how to defend yourself." Wrong. If anything, my martial arts training has made me that much aware of how dangerous those situations can be and how much and how quickly things can go horribly wrong any time you have to resort to defending yourself with physical force. It's not a trump card; it's an absolute last resort, with dubious odds at that. All martial arts training does is give you a fighting chance, maybe, depending on the situation.

The best self-defense move out there is avoiding risky situations. If you must run in the dark, pick your route carefully & try to go with a buddy or stay where there are plenty of people. If you must run where there are no people, stick to daylight and stay in areas where you have good lines of sight (as opposed to lots of good places for potential attackers to hide). If you must run with headphones, keep the volume turned down so that you can hear footsteps and voices of those around you (or go with one headphone only). If you're already doing something slightly risky like running alone in the dark or somewhere unfamiliar or in an area where there aren't other people around, leave the headphones at home.

MOVE #2: Pay attention to your surroundings. This is a habit I developed through karate without even realizing it. When I walk into a store or parking lot or bar or BART station or whatever, I find myself pausing for a moment to take in the whole scene. Who is standing where? Where is their attention directed? Anything seem weird or out of place? Eventually that habit worked itself into running as well. Any time I feel like I'm already taking chances with Move #1, this spidey sense goes into overdrive.

I think it's hard for a lot of us to really pay close attention to our surrounding when we're out running because it's so easy to get caught up either in your thoughts or in paying attention to your body. It's easy to just put one foot in front of the other without much thought for what's going on around us. But try to develop that habit if you can. Try to look at people while you run. Try to listen to their voices and the other sounds they're making. Pay attention to where and how people are standing/walking and where their attention is.

This move is a double-edged sword, because not only are you more likely to notice something/someone out of place and/or dangerous, but it also gives you an aura of being alert & with it & generally having your shit together. The fact that predators choose their victims based on posture, body language, & other behaviors that indicate a person is timid/passive/not paying attention to their surroundings is extremely well-documented; being alert & with it is like wearing a sign that says, "Not the easiest target, maybe choose someone else."

(Incidentally, this habit has a lot of other side benefits as well. It lets me avoid running into people who are walking right at me who I can just tell by their demeanor are not really "seeing" me and not going to move. It's helped me avoid getting hit and/or backed over by cars. It's helped me dodge more dogs/children/drunk people/construction areas than I could possibly ever remember.)

MOVE #3: Listen to your gut. Getting a weird feeling? Hairs on the back of your neck standing up? Find yourself saying over and over again, "I'm sure it's nothing"? Do whatever you need to to get rid of that feeling--stop & look behind you, go back the way you came, take a different road, duck into a storefront, whatever. The good news about weird gut feelings is that whatever it is you're subconsciously worried about hasn't happened yet, so you still have time to avoid it.

And you know what? Most of the time, maybe even 99.9% of the time, that weird feeling really will be nothing. But people are good at getting weird feelings when something isn't right, and your safety isn't worth gambling with on the off chance that it isn't. Do whatever you need to to feel safe in the moment. Anyone who tries to make you feel silly or dumb about it is not your friend.

MOVE #4: Run away, preferably towards people. If someone really looks/sounds/seems legitimately threatening, put as much distance between them and you as possible as quickly as possible. (This is the great thing about being a runner--odds are good you can outrun anyone giving you the heeby jeebies!) Even though these types of situations are pretty rare, most of the time the person acting threatening isn't all that focused on you in particular or willing to put much effort into continuing to harass you. Most casual threatening behavior is opportunistic, so if you can gun it a bit for a few blocks/tens of yards & get some distance between you, that may take care of things.

If someone does seem pretty focused on you personally and committed to getting at you, run as fast as you possibly can to the closest safe place (again, preferably where there are people). Even someone with truly bad intentions isn't likely to follow you into a group or a well-peopled building. (This is the main reason why running alone, out of sprinting distance of other people, really skeeves me out.)

(Related -- Don't engage with someone who seems threatening, even if they're talking to you. Again, most of the time this stuff is opportunistic, and it's been shown over and over and over again--see Chapter 8 of Gavin de Becker's The Gift of Fear--that by ignoring it and not giving the person the satisfaction of responding, they're less likely to get invested in bothering you. Any attention you give someone in this kind of situation is rewarding the behavior and only likely to escalate it.)

MOVE #5: Make as much noise as possible. A great one to use in conjunction with Move #4. Like I mentioned above, you would be shocked to learn how many assaults take place within earshot of other people where the victim stays disturbingly quiet. (Again, see Harriet's post for the some of the reasons why.) Remember that most assaults are opportunistic, not personal, and most predators are looking for as un-challenging a mark as they can find and the absolute LAST thing they want is to draw attention to themselves. So if someone is acting threatening & you really want them to GTFA from you, scream your little head off & draw as much attention as possible.

Cool. But what are some physical things I can do if someone grabs/corners me that don't take hours and hours of practice?

There are some! Obviously any amount of practice/drill you do with another person is going to make you that much more confident should you ever need to defend yourself with physical force, but the moves below are pretty basic & forgiving in terms of practice or getting them *exactly* right.

  • Kick the shins. HARD. You know how much that hurts! No, this will not put someone on the ground, but it may distract them long enough for you to be able to pull away & run. Always cause a pain distraction before you try to pull away, especially from someone bigger & stronger than you. It's surprisingly effective! Truly, there is never a bad time for a shin kick.

  • Go for the nose! We have a saying in our dojo: No one has a strong nose. It takes remarkably little force to create a LOT of pain & a veritable FOUNTAIN of blood. (I know! I've bloodied noses! I've bloodied my *own* nose!) Noses are really, really easy to break and quite painful (again--I can attest to this personally!), and even if you don't break it, you'll likely distract them long enough to get away.

  • Similarly, fling your fingers at the eyes like you're flinging water off your hands. It has a surprising sting, & anything in the direction of the eyes makes an excellent distraction. I don't recommend trying to jab/claw people's eyes out, because getting involved with the body fluids of strangers is something to avoid if at all possible (though obviously, if you are feeling seriously threatened, you do whatever you have to).

  • Fingernails to the face in any way you can manage. Just raking your hand tiger-claw style down someone's face is pretty darn disconcerting and can also be a great distraction. Consider pairing with a shin kick.

  • Avoid punching if it is not something you have been taught to do & practiced extensively. Instead, pull your fingers back & go with the heel of the hand--just shoot it at at your attacker's face like a rubber band. BAM! It's hard enough to inflict a non-ignorable amount of pain but also padded enough that you're unlikely to hurt yourself. (Poorly executed punches have a habit of spraining/breaking fingers & wrists, and are also unlikely to do much if you haven't practiced it with something hard thousands upon thousands of times.)

  • If you're grabbed bear-hug style from behind, don't try to pry their hands up. Hands are strong. If you can manage a heel kick to the shin, start with that. (Always cause a pain distraction first.) Then, instead of trying to pry the hands away, start with a pinkie & bend it back as far as you can. As with noses, no one has a strong pinky. This is kind of magical in how effective it can be, but be prepared to follow it up right away with a shin kick, whack to the nose, etc.

  • Another possibility if you're grabbed from behind is to heel kick the shin (always cause a pain distraction first), then throw an elbow back into your attacker's ribs/sternum. How possible/effective this is really depends on how you're being grabbed/held, and sometimes it won't really work, but if you can manage it, it can be startlingly effective. Elbows are SHARP and make excellent weapons!

  • YELL. It seems hokey but I am not joking about this. If you have to defend yourself against someone who is trying to hurt you, scream in their face every time you strike or hit them. It seriously freaks people out & can sometimes even cause enough of a distraction to give you a chance to escape. Also, see Move #5 above.

  • ***Don't count on the crotch shot.*** I have lost track of the number of women who believe they are invincible to men because "I'll just kick/knee him in the balls." Maybe you will, and maybe it will work, but more likely you will miss, or won't be able to manage enough force, or he'll move/block you, or you'll make contact & cause some pain but rather than disabling him, it will only serve to make him angry & more violent as adrenaline tends to blunt pain but not emotion. In a chaotic, fast-moving situation, the targeting is trickier than you think, and dudes are really good at protecting the crotch region. Again, I'm not saying don't try it, but know that it is FAR from a trump card & have some other moves in mind to follow up with.

Last but not least, if you ever do find yourself needing to use physical force, remember that the goal is not to incapacitate the person--the goal is to run away. At the first opportunity. As quickly as possible. Do NOT hang out & try to start a boxing match.

Some Final Remarks

First, I want to make it super clear that I'm not suggesting most people are likely to be attacked/assaulted. In general, as far as my understanding of the statistics goes, the odds are very low, especially if you are on top of Move #1 up there. On the other hand, the stakes are staggeringly high, so it's still incredibly important to take your own safety seriously & do whatever you can to minimize your chances of becoming a victim, and to have given *some* amount of thought to what you might do should you get a creepy feeling or find yourself the focus of unwanted attention/unpleasantness.

I am not against self-defense classes (eh...mostly). I am not against learning & practicing self-defense moves (obviously). BUT, I am VERY much against giving people an unrealistic view of what they can depend on when it comes to protecting themselves, and I am very VERY *VERY* against presenting self-defense "moves"/physical force as if they should ever be the first line of defense. Fighting is chaos. There's no predicting how things will go. You never know when someone has a weapon. You never know when someone's buddies may be backing them up. You never know when someone may suddenly grab a broken bottle. In those situations, the odds of a favorable outcome for even the most highly trained martial artist plummet pretty quickly. (Seriously. The more I self-defense I learn and practice, the more terrified of weapons I become, which is a good thing because it means my brain is operating more and more in reality where the odds of an unarmed person successfully fighting off someone with a weapon are just about zero.)

Backed into a corner, truly afraid for my life? No question; I will do everything in my power to lay you out, inflict permanent injuries, & not even think twice about it.

But lemme tell you; first & foremost, I'm going to fight 90% of that battle by doing everything I possibly can to not to be in it in the first place.


  1. This is great advice. I have never considered that self-defense videos/classes might provide a false sense of security, but you make a really good point about that.
    I'm lucky that the vast majority of my runs take place during the day but the times that I have gone running by myself in the dark, I always carry my car key in the quick-stab grip, never wear headphones or hoodies and my eyes are always darting around at anything that might be lurking in the shadows (a cat scared the living shit out of me once), and really just try my best not to do anything stupid.

  2. Wow. Great post. As a small woman who likes running alone, I'm so glad you shared this info.

  3. Great post. Safety while running has been on my mind a lot lately since an odd encounter with a dude a few weeks ago. I will definitely remember that no one has a strong nose or pinkie finger. I carry pepper spray and stay in busy neighborhoods.

  4. Awesome post and great advice, Angela. Fortunately, I haven't felt threatened during any of my runs (yet), but I've definitely had a few instances of my "spidey senses" going off during solo walks at night - usually home from BART or the bus. I pretty much do what you suggest above - look around, get myself to a populated, well-lit area, change my route to see if the person still follows, etc. I should be more alert on solo trail runs -- it seems the more familiar I become with a route, the more lax I get about personal safety issues. Thanks for the reminders!

  5. This is so useful. I am really grateful you posted it. I'm pretty cautious but I'm getting 'braver' and need to be more aware and prepared. Thanks.