Defensive Trail Running

Personal self-defense information for trail runners.

By on November 1, 2016 | Comments

Trail runners aren’t strangers to danger. That’s why, to avoid catastrophe, we plot our routes, plan for adverse conditions, carry adequate water and food, and train appropriately. Unfortunately, as much as we strategize our safe return from each adventure, the unexpected can always occur.

Inclement weather, injuries, getting lost, and wildlife encounters are the most common complications that arise on the trail. However, we often overlook an unsettling element: a possible confrontation with an unpredictable and unfriendly human. “You’ll never know who the scary person is who might try to harm you,” says Todd Williams, two-time 10,000-meter Olympian and founder of RunSafer, a resource that offers self-defense tools for runners. “Those scary people can be very smart. They watch us and learn where and when we’ll be alone.”

The reality is frightening and eye-opening. According to a 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, nearly one in five women and one in 71 men reported experiencing rape at some time in their lives. In a female-specific analysis, the US Department of Justice reported that between 2005 and 2010, 15% of sexual assaults occurred in open areas (including parks and fields) and 29% of assaults occurred while the victim was traveling to or from work or school or while performing a leisure activity away from home. Though these studies don’t specifically indicate if the victims were trail running at the time the incidents occurred, trail runners have sadly made the news this past summer in New York City and rural Massachusetts.

The chances of an assault during a trail run are low, but it’s still something to keep in mind at all times when you are alone off road. “Assaults can occur anywhere at anytime,” says Williams. “It’s when we become complacent about our personal safety and think something like that will never happen to us, that’s the kind of behavior that makes us most vulnerable.” Situational-awareness classes, like those offered by law enforcement, corporations, churches, and other organizations, teach a three-step plan called ADD (Avoid, Deny, Defend). Follow the ADD method whenever you run to decrease the probability of becoming a victim.

Avoid: Don’t give the scary people the opportunity to harm you.

  • Run with others or a dog. Simply put, there is strength in numbers. Join in a group run or ask your friends to tag along. “Potential assaults are less likely to happen when Fido is attached to your wrist and can alert you when someone approaches,” says Williams.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. While it’s nice to be in ‘the zone,’ we must continually check in with our environment. Attackers prey on the unaware. “Stay off the phone and keep your head up,” suggests Williams. “Be confident and make eye contact with people.” If they know you’ve seen them, the element of surprise is lost. When listening to music, keep the volume down and use one ear bud.
  • Change your routine. Altering your route and varying the time of day you work out makes it difficult for a stalker to track your movements and locations. If they don’t know where you are, they can’t attack you.
  • Watch what you share on social media. Tell your trusted friends offline about your favorite trails and experiences but be vague when posting publicly.
  • Tell someone where you’re going, when you plan on returning, and carry a cell phone. Though this may not directly stop an attack, it may reduce the time needed to find you if you are hurt and unable to seek help. Devices, like Revolar, make it easy for you to discreetly and swiftly alert friends and family of your exact location if you find yourself in danger. Apps like Strava Beacon and Road ID allow family and friends to track your movements in real time.

Deny: If you perceive a confrontation, don’t let the stranger get close to you.

  • Create and use a ‘safety name.’ “If you feel you may be in danger have a name (like that of your significant other, friend, or parent) in mind you can start yelling out,” explains Williams. “Even if they aren’t with you, you can plant the seed of doubt in the aggressor’s head that someone is near. They may leave you alone without having to physically fight them.”
  • Don’t get personal. If an unfamiliar individual approaches you, make space and use barriers. Maintain a distance of 12 feet or more and position a rock, tree, bush, or trail sign between the two of you. This gives you time to react (like run or yell for help) if they lunge at you.

Defend: As a last resort, be prepared to fight!

  • Carry a weapon. Pepper spray is one option, but you’ll need to have it readily available. A better tool, if it comes to hand-to-hand combat, is Go Guarded, a sharp self-defense device worn conveniently and securely on the finger. Williams is quick to point out, “Just because you carry a weapon doesn’t mean you’ll know how to use it when someone is attacking. You must train with it to become proficient.”
  • Enroll in a self-defense course. Assaults happen quickly, painfully, and horrifically. For the unprepared, this makes disabling or escaping from an assailant extremely difficult. Learn from experienced instructors on how to handle yourself under duress. Rehearse dangerous scenarios, develop the ability to maintain composure, and practice techniques that will enable you to break free from and/or injure an attacker. RunSafer has a series of videos available that describe some of these basic self-defense techniques.

As trail runners we seek solitude and remote areas, so we obviously can’t eliminate all of the sport’s dangers but we can approach our outings judiciously. “The bottom line is this,” says Williams, “if something doesn’t feel right, get out of there! Listen to your gut feeling and make smart choices to keep yourself out of trouble.”

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you practice any of the self-defense behaviors that Ian describes? If so, can you elaborate or describe how?
  • What other means of self-defense do you practice when trail running?
Ian Torrence

Ian Torrence has more than 12 years of experience coaching runners of all levels. Ian has completed more than 220 ultramarathons, with 50+ wins, since his first ultra finish at the 1994 JFK 50 Mile. Ian and his wife, Emily, are online coaches at Sundog Running. Information about his coaching services can be found at