Why I run alone (and how to do it safely as a woman)
A record number of first-time female joggers are taking to the streets. Here’s why and how they should continue post-lockdown
“Why don’t you check out that club? Could be more fun than running by yourself.”
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard this. I started running as a teenager, and since then I’ve been encouraged to join everything from casual jogging groups to professional associations by do-gooding friends wanting to boost my social life and family worried about a girl running alone.
I’ve flirted with the idea, and even gave it a go a few times, but quickly realised it wasn’t for me. I despise treadmills (actually, gyms full stop) and so I’ve spent the last 20-odd years pounding the pavements alone. It’s how I’ve trained for six marathons (and counting), is the basis of my Sunday morning ritual, and has helped my postpartum recovery.
Female runners now outnumber their male counterparts
With around one-fifth of the global population now in lockdown, there’s been a huge uptick in the number of people running, and it’s struck me how many of them are women. Indeed, even in the pre-Covid-19 world, female runners had started to outnumber their male counterparts.
Many of them aren’t taking to the streets alone by choice; rather, it’s because during lockdown this is a rare form of sanctioned outdoor activity. But they should know that those do-gooders I mentioned at the start are wrong on both counts. Running by yourself is a joy. And while attacks on sole female runners are a tragic reality, it doesn’t have to be dangerous. By taking certain precautions you can safely reap the rewards of setting out alone.
Why run solo?
For me, this is the biggest upside. It may be the only real ‘alone time’ you have all week and is a rare opportunity to process your thoughts and let your mind wander. After a bad day, an argument, or finding myself in a rut, the combination of endorphins and solitude is cathartic. Scientists have found that exercise increases blood flow to the part of our brains associated with clear thinking. It’s easier to tap into this mindfulness when there is no one around to distract you.
It’s an opportunity to discover new areas. Through marathon training, I’ve weaved my way through the most vibrant suburbs of south London — from Brixton to Crystal Palace, Dulwich to Balham. My sense of direction is better than those born and bred in these areas. Along the way, I’ve made countless discoveries including independent cafés, vintage clothing shops and cozy neighbourhood pubs which I never would have found otherwise. It’s also proved an efficient (and successful) way of scoping out new apartments.
There is a secret, unspoken language that binds runners, and it’s embodied by ‘the nod’. Whenever two solo runners cross paths there is always a slight tilt of the head, a type of acknowledgment that you are in this together. For me, it brings a wonderful sense of belonging and connection and gives a burst of energy if I’m struggling. I’ve regularly run in various countries and attest to the fact it happens everywhere, albeit with a local twist. In Australia it’s often accompanied by ‘G’day’, in New York it can extend to a pat on the shoulder, while the mild-mannered Brits are usually more restrained.
Set your pace
Running alone means you don’t risk pushing yourself to keep up with, nor feel obliged to slow down for, anyone else. It means you are less likely to injure yourself and more likely to return from a run feeling satisfied.
And, of course, there’s the flexibility. The lack of commitment means you run when, how far and where you want. It doesn’t risk becoming just another event to schedule into your busy week.
Attacks on female runners
For all of these reasons, I’ve persisted with running solo despite the risks. A recent Runners World survey found that 84% of women jogging have been harassed, with some of these situations tragically resulting in death.
In two decades I’ve only had one close encounter, and it frightened me
In two decades I’ve only had one close encounter. During an early morning run when I was in my early 20s, a guy in his late teens ran up alongside me and refused to leave. He was only joking around and apologized for scaring me, but it was frightening.
Safety tips and tricks
Since that incident, I’ve been much more cautious. To all the women who have taken up running during lockdown, I urge you to continue, but also to take these precautions.
1. Don’t run in the dark
I realise this can be difficult for those who work full-time. One option is to run from your workplace before starting, after finishing or during your lunch break. Otherwise, keep your runs to the weekend. The exception to this rule is running in areas where you know people will be around, even at night. If this is you, wear white or hi-vis clothing.
2. Don’t run in isolated areas
Again, depending on where you live and work this may be difficult. If so, get creative about where and when you set out.
3. Share your route…
Tell a friend or family member where you are running and when you should be home.
4. …but not with everyone
MapMyRun is a fantastic app for tracking distances and creating routes. But avoid using the ‘friends’ functionality which shares your movements with other users. You never know how they are going to use it.
5. Mix things up
Don’t do the same run every week, in case someone has been watching you.
6. Safety apps
For those who run with their phone, a useful app is Red Panic Button. When it trouble this allows you to quickly alert, and send your GPS coordinates to, a few emergency contacts.
7. Be sensible with music
If you run with headphones, remove them if you find yourself in an isolated area, it’s starting to get dark or you spot any suspicious-looking individuals. In these situations you should also be aware of your body language. Look around confidently to show you are alert, aware of your surroundings and not lost.
8. Dogs — woman’s best friend?
Running with a dog is a common tactic, however only do this if your beloved pet is fit enough. When I was 16 I took my blue heeler for a jog early one evening, forgetting that it had been years since we’d ran together. She was too old to run such a distance, and I ended up almost dragging her home in the dark. It was scary, and I’m still filled with guilt at putting her through such an ordeal.
9. Road running
Don’t be afraid to run along the middle of an empty road. It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s more difficult for someone to catch you unawares when in the centre of a well-lit street. Any screams and struggles are more likely to be heard and seen by someone inside, and there is more space to escape. All of this is less likely if you are on a dark footpath.
10. Keys as a weapon
Keep your keys in your hand. This can be a little uncomfortable so just take the ones you need to open your front door. Holding one between your fingers can be used to help defend yourself.
Every time I see a solo female runner I want to share these tips and urge them to keep going. If that’s you, I hope you know you can run alone without fear.