Crime is opportunistic. As runners we are frequently out alone, at odd times, and in lonely places. According to most statistics running is a very safe pursuit. You can make it even safer with a few precautions and a little knowledge. This article will give you some suggestions on how to both avoid confrontations and behave skillfully if you are faced with a dangerous situation.
Note: This article is not a primer on how to fight. If you fight you will get hurt and possibly cripple another person. While there are situations where physical conflict is unavoidable, the primary goal of self-defense is to escape. The author has chosen to use the male pronouns "he" and "him" to refer to an attacker. This has been done mainly for convenience, although statistically most attackers would be men.
A good runner is a safe runner
The natural world can be broken down into two categories: predators and prey. On the African plains there are herds of zebras and lions stalking them. When lions hunt, they sneak up on the herd and scare them into running. By making the prey take flight, the predators get a chance to see how they move and identify the easy targets: the old, young, lame, or sick. They are looking for any movement irregularities or timidity that would identify an easy victim. Unfortunately, human societies have predators as well and they behave in much the same way. Prison studies with professional criminals have shown that they always choose the same types of people as victims. They are looking for the same signs as the lions. They use movement, posture, and presentation to find the easy victims and avoid the targets that will put up too much fight.
As runners we need to ensure that while we may not be the lion, we avoid being the zebra. All predators are looking for a specific set of traits in a victim. A good candidate won't see the attack coming or put up resistance. They will be quiet, timid, distracted or look lost, with poor posture and slow uncoordinated movement.
The skills that make you a better runner will also make you a safer runner. Running with good posture, keeping your head up and your body relaxed with a long confident stride is probably your best defense. A potential predator will take one look at you and decide to wait for easier prey.
Increase your awareness quotient
People who have been attacked always say the same two things: "I never saw it coming" and "It happened so fast". Awareness, like any other skill, is developed through practice. It starts simply by always knowing what is going on around you. A distracted runner is an easy target, so leave your phone, headphones, and music at home. Next, keep an inventory of the people around you. There is no reason to be paranoid and see attackers everywhere. Know who is around you in much the same way you see cars at an intersection. If someone is menacing or dangerous, you will see it. If you see them first they may go somewhere else. And, if you are attacked, you will know if there is help around.
You should also be aware of your environment. Are there blind spots coming up? Are you cornering yourself? Has that car passed you already? Again, we are not trying to make you paranoid, but if you know what is around, you can make better decisions.
Two of your best awareness skills are your intuition and your fear. They are never wrong! Intuition and fear are deeper parts of your brain speaking to your conscious mind and they exist to keep you safe. We are the only animal that feels fear and ignores it or tries to rationalize it away. If you have nagging feelings, persistent thoughts, anxieties, hunches, gut feelings, doubts, hesitations, or suspicions, pay close attention to what they are trying to tell you. Do not try to explain or rationalize your feelings, act on them. Something is going on and your conscious mind has not seen it yet.
This brings us to the next awareness skill: flexibility. Do not let your ego get involved. If something does not feel right you need to be willing to change. Alter your route, cross the street, go a different way. Would you rather feel a little dumb because you changed your running plan based on a vague uneasiness, or really stupid because you did not and got mugged?
It is possible that you might do everything right and still face a confrontation. You need to accept it. If you are thinking "This can't be happening to me" then you can't deal with it. One of the best, though difficult, ways to do this is to try to enjoy it. Even if you lose something or get hurt, it is a chance to learn something about yourself and the world.
Next you need to relax. Relaxation is the holy grail of self-defense. If you are relaxed you can make good decisions, improve your reaction time, fight off panic, and keep control of yourself. To relax quickly you need to breathe, and in particular, exhale. When you panic you hold your breath and everything in your body tightens up. When you are in any stressful situation, self-defense or otherwise, take a long slow breath. As you exhale, allow your body to drop. Bend your knees, flex your quads, drop your shoulders and smile to loosen your jaw. Now you are ready to react to whatever might come next. The act of relaxing might even end the confrontation because most predators need fear in their victims to feel secure.
As you exhale let go of any anger. Anger makes you predictable and easy to manipulate. You can get mad about the situation later, but right now you just can't afford the luxury.
Now that you are relaxed, remember that you are still not the zebra. All of the earlier rules about posture and presentation are even more important when you are face to face with the lion. Victims are unsure of themselves, want to be polite, not be a bother, and are scared. You can't show any of these signs. Stand proud. Make eye contact and speak with a loud clear voice. A fake is as good as the real thing. They won't know what you are really feeling, and if you fake confidence well enough, you might even believe it yourself.
Once confronted you are in a relationship with your attacker.
Your behavior will affect their behavior and there is a finite amount of power. Do not negotiate. You can't allow the attacker to make decisions for you because any power you give up will automatically become his. Even if you decide to give up your wallet or a watch you can do so with strength and integrity. You also need to know what you will fight for. It is never a good idea to fight for things. We do not know a single great martial artist who would not gladly give up a wallet instead of getting into a street fight.
Try to assess what your attacker wants. You want to get out of the situation as safely as possible, and to do this you need to know what is going on. Part of this process is to avoid assumptions. Do not assume it is just a mugging, or that he is not dangerous or he is alone. Make judgments based on what you actually know to be true. Remember that your goal is to get out of the situation without having a physical conflict and that time is on your side. The longer the confrontation lasts the more likely it is he will get caught.
In determining your attackers motivations you will need to abandon some normal social conventions. It is a good idea to be abrupt and even rude. Being rude to a stranger won't turn him from a good person into a bad one. You also need to use your common sense. Some confrontations start out as an extraordinary kindness or an attempt to team up with you for some purpose. For example someone might, without solicitation, offer to run with you and log your times. Is this something you would do? Remember that "No" is a complete sentence and you do not need to justify it to anyone. Say it with conviction and be very wary of anyone who tries to negotiate it.
Do not just meekly concede once the attacker makes his wants known. Remember the power balance. You can use the situation to create an escape or exit. If someone is demanding your wallet toss it on the ground away from you and run the other way. This forces the attacker to choose, and if he really just wants your wallet you will never see him again. If he chases you and leaves the wallet at least you know you are dealing with a physical assault and can be prepared for it. It is also never a good idea to be in the same place as an attacker, your car, and your keys. Do not ever get in the car and go somewhere of their choosing. Give up your car and throw your keys as far as you can, running in the opposite direction.
There is nothing wrong with asking for help if you feel you are being threatened. The problem is that most people will try to avoid getting involved in situations they do not understand. If you ask for help be very specific about the predicament and what you want done about it. Saying things like "I do not know this person and he is attacking me" or "This stranger is after me" are much more effective than "Help me". People also respond well to being told exactly what to do. If you point at someone and say "Call the police now" or "Come stand next to me" they probably will.
An interesting aspect of this phenomenon is that people who define themselves as outside society are more likely to help you than other more mainstream people are. If you are being chased, running into a gay leather bar is probably safer than a nice restaurant.
If you need help and there is no one around, do not just run and scream help. You will be ignored. Yell "Fire!" instead. Everyone is concerned about fires, and someone will come out to investigate.
Sometimes you can't avoid a physical altercation. Physical self-defense has three goals: cause fear, cause pain, or disable your attacker. The best self-defense techniques do all three. Time is against you in a fight. It is to your advantage to end it quickly because the longer it goes on, the more likely you will be seriously hurt. There is no question of morality here. If you have been attacked you need to use however much force you can bring to bear on your opponent. Do too much instead of too little. This is why it is important to be sure about the situation before the fighting starts and why we do not fight for property.
A lot of physical conflicts are determined by the control of space. A predator will try to control the neutral space between you and put you at a disadvantage by violating your personal space and making you retreat. He will also try to back you into a wall or corner if he can. You need to protect your space by refusing to retreat. Hold your ground, moving only slightly to the side if necessary. It is also crucial that you do not look away or into the attackers eyes. This could distract you and let him land the first blow.
Balance is the most important attribute in a fight, not speed or power. No attack or technique is effective if you are off balance. Balance is a learned skill and will even help your running stride. It is worth the time to practice it.
A lot of attacks start with a grab. There is nothing to fear in a grab. In fact being grabbed gives you a number of advantages. He has committed a weapon while you have not. If someone grabs your wrist or shoulder remember that the rest of your body is still completely free. It is okay to move without removing the hand. They have also given you something to damage. If they grab your shirt you can respond by breaking the fingers, wrist, or elbow of the grabbing arm.
In a fight every part of your body is a legitimate weapon. You can kick, stomp, knee, push, punch, elbow, slap, pinch, bite, head butt, or even use your voice. Similarly, every part of the attacker is fair game. In general you want to use hard weapons on soft targets and vice versa. Remember the three goals of physical self-defense mentioned earlier. Targets like the eyes, knees and throat are not well protected by muscle and accomplish all three.
During the fight you may find yourself on the ground. This is not necessarily a bad place to be. If you stay relaxed and on balance you can easily counterattack from the ground. Grabbing a leg and rolling is a good way to severely damage his knees and ankles. Going to the ground can be a very smart tactic against high kicks, pushes, and to avoid stronger punchers.
In an attack you should feel free to use any weapons at your disposal. Keys, sticks, bottles, fanny packs, or anything else at hand can be a big advantage. Carrying a weapon like pepper spray or mace is a personal decision. If you do carry something, never use it to threaten someone. They will take it away from you. If the situation calls for it, then use it without ever letting them know you have it. You should also remember that it might not work and have a back up plan.
If your attacker has a weapon you need to be very careful. Everything depends on whether you decide he is going to use it anyway. If you do not think they will use it and they are not physically assaulting you then give them whatever they want. If you think they will use it whatever you do (there are crazy people out there) then you have to be patient and try to find a good opening. The only proven suggestion in that case is go in very low and very fast, and be prepared to be cut or shot.
Run with joy
This article started by reminding you that running is statistically very safe. If you stay a little more aware and in touch with your intuition you can make it even safer. Just because you give some thought and preparation to the worst case scenarios does not mean you should develop paranoia or fear of your fellow runners. Even as you acknowledge the dangerous possibilities you should run with all the joy in the world.
This article was expressly written for Run The Planet by Angus McIntosh, a personal trainer, Penguin runner, martial artist, and aikido black belt. He is also founder and president of Realworld Personal Defense, a nonprofit educational corporation. He can be reached at his website (www.realworldpersonaldefense.org).