How do we really run safe during a winter lockdown?

Running Tips

If you type “winter running lockdown tips” into google what would you expect to find?

I’ll save you the journey to your google tab – you get a lot of advice on dressing warm and warming up. How to keep motivated. 10 best windproof jackets.

Now, search for “winter running lockdown tips… women”. One key word. And the whole narrative begins to shift.

Spatters of safety seep in. “Avoid running in the dark”, “Don’t run alone”, “No headphones”.

On researching this I was irked.

The gender gap has always been obvious, to women at least.

We’ve never been afforded the same feeling of comfort on the streets as our male running peers.

A sort of comfort where you never even have to consider anyone, perhaps, would feel uncomfortable. No shiver-inducing imagery of what’s lurking down the poorly lit underpass you must use to avoid the still frantic rush hour traffic. No turning back on the Thames Path at the last minute because you realise the street lights stop here. No pre-run safety check ins with friends “I’m running here, I’ll be an hour. I’ll let you know when I’m home”.

Privilege is a funny word.

It refers to luxuries only a few of us are afforded, yet everyone should have.

My issue isn’t with male runners who run fearless and carefree. It’s with the fact we’ve begun to sit, quite comfortably, with the vast majority of fear being bestowed on women.

Why, when I went to my search bar, did the same safety tips not seemingly apply to all runners. Why must I, a woman, think about more than the most comfortable head torch or best stretching tips to ensure I don’t pull a cold muscle.

I would argue those ‘whys’ can be answered with this – We’ve grown up with the priority being to keep ourselves safe, rather than keeping each other safe.

So, winter running tips – for all of us. Practical and longterm solutions, what do you reckon? Including what we can do to keep each other safe in the running community?

Those articles aren’t wrong. In fact, when I’ve been asked by friends I’ve managed to kerang into a running addiction my first tip is usually this:

Hi-Viz is imperative.

I don’t care if you’re sticking to a well lit area. I don’t care that you prefer your sexy all-black nike kit. Yeah, you look hot but you look hotter alive. Wear it. It’s dark, the street lighting isn’t consistent enough to not. First tip of running safely in winter is get home without tyre marks on your back. Looking like a dork in a luminous bib is 10/10 more attractive than dressing for the crossroads catwalk.

Community action;

Alerting other of your presence will help keep them safe too – cyclists, pedestrians and other runners with feel safer with you approaching them if they’re aware of your presence early. No one likes a face bobbing toward the all of a sudden from the shadows!

Speaking of lighting…

Let’s be honest, the best lit areas are the roadside routes. Which is what many of us are stuck running on, especially in London. My favourite daytime running routes are a stark contrast to my make-do nighttime ones! Trees are replaced with lampposts, the river with the flow of traffic. Unfortunately, street lighting isn’t just going to pop up over night and in rural areas there are legitimate reasons, such a wildlife, for the lack of light pollution.

In this case you have three options – you can brave whatever beasties may be lurking in the dark, pound the more polluted pavements near roads and high streets, or avoid running post 4pm completely.

Running in the dark is near on impossible to avoid so:

Ensure you don high-vis, a head torch and, most importantly, let someone know about where you’re heading and how long you’ll be. Yes, I hate this too. I despise the fact that I have to let my housemate know where she might find me should something go wrong. But it’s imperative.

Community action:

Speaking to your local councils about built up areas with a lack of safe pedestrian lighting. It won’t alway amount to anything but it’s worth a shot. If street lights are turned off early in your areas request that they are left on longer. As runners we see the hours only postal workers and milkman see, and they’d probably appreciate the additional safety too.

Location, location location

As mentioned above, I loathe the fact I have to let someone know of my whereabouts. It sets some really dark thoughts festering at the back of your mind. I’m also aware that not everyone has someone who can just check in on them or fetch the at the drop of the hat.

In the absence of an available rescuer there are a few really decent safety features on apps out there. Strava Beacon and Garmin Live track being a couple of examples. Both allow GPS tracking of your location which then is able to be relayed to an emergency contact.

Not everyone will have access to these devices, however, in which case it’s important to have a designated contact you can rely on to know where you’re heading and how long you’ll be. Even if you’re in a densely populated area, it’s just sensible.

Community action:

Input routes you feel comfortable running on route plotting apps like Strava and Komoot. Make the public so other runners can follow your lead in finishing the best, and safest, nighttime routes in their areas. Although, be prepared to lose your Local Legend crown this way!

Ok, scary talk now

Long hair? Tie it up in a bun or in a style flat to your head, or tuck it into your clothes. I’ve avoided talking about attacks so far because I’m not one to want to spread fear amongst the community – I want my work to be about positive awareness. However, in the rare event that you do find yourself being attacked you want there to be as little for the perpetrator to hold on to as possible. Serious talk but it’s important I mention it.

Community action;

Report anything or anyone unnerving or suspicious to the authorities. Even if you weren’t approached there may be a pattern negative experiences in the area. The more accounts that are reported the more likely it is to be investigated. This pre-emptive measure may just save someones life in the future.

Ring a ding ding

I never leave to run without my phone 80% because I’m a millennial with a hardcore screen time addiction, 10% selfies and 10% safety. Ok, maybe the safety aspect is a bit higher.

Phones are a blessing, not a curse. And for the negatives they carry (additional weight, distracting) their benefits for safety vastly outwit any reason not to carry them.

Whether its contacting your partner to come and get your after a crappy run, google maps aiding your poor navigation or contacting the authorities in the worst case scenarios they are bloody brilliant.

On more than one occasion I’ve used mine as a prop to pretend to be having a chinwag with a distant pal when there’s been someone passing who’s let off bad vibes “I’ll be home in 5 minutes, see you then”.

They’re additional peace of mind in every way.

Oh and podcasts, love a podcast. Kept to a low volume in the dark, of course. Got to be aware of your surroundings.

Community Action

Apps such as Safe&TheCity allow you to track and plot safe commute routes, find your nearest emergency services and report action of public harassment. Anywhere from poor street lighting to being harassed by a passer by, you can live time track your experience. By building up a map of areas of concern we are able to help others take the safest route to their destination whilst also alerting the appropriate authorities of any risk or incident. Isn’t technology amazing!

We can’t stop the imbalance in runners safety over night.

It takes graft, time and activism.

But most importantly, it takes action from the community to recognise what makes us feel unsafe and act in the interest of each other.

The smallest actions such as giving each other a wide berth when we pass, making our presence known sooner, rather than later, and being aware of others vulnerabilities will go a long way toward community safety.

As runners we need to incentivise this action ourselves. Until our peers safety and comfort is our priority there will continue to be imbalance and injustice. Speak to each other and listen to experiences other than your own. Educate yourself and act on these stories.

As the evenings creep forward slowly and the days inch longer gradually it’s important not to forget these tips.

Not everyone has the privilege of running in safe, well lit, neighbourly areas.

Be kind and accept that you may not entirely know anothers cirumstance.

Act, speak and run with understanding.

Run with kindness.

Run safe.

Winter Running – Is it Safe?

street harassment

So, lockdown 2.0, hey? Who’d have thought at the beginning of April that we’d be back here again (or still?), but this time with the looming presence of darkness hanging over us at about 4pm.

I’ll be completely honest, I’m a fair weather runner. There’s no better reason to run than a crisp, autumn day. Sea blue skies, crunchy carrot coloured leaves, feeling the sharp stab of cold air as you inhale those first, heavy breaths.

The idea of heading out after work, dreary grey pavements reflected in dreary grey skies if you’re lucky, pitch black usually, doesn’t fill most people with anything close to resembling enthusiasm.

And then the rain. The. Rain. Whilst I like to think I look like a character from a romantic drama, swept up in a storm into the arms of her lover, I’m pretty certain I appear more on the “drowned rat” aesthetic spectrum.

Winter running can be bleak. I get that, and I’m definitely not the first person to acknowledge it. But is there more that we’re looking past here? Whilst the rain, the dark and the cold appear, on the forefront, to be the obvious negatives, what about the symptoms of these conditions? What about the safety of winter running?

With the government restricting those of us in England to exercise outside during the second corona virus wave they seem to have overlooked the logistics of this for women.

In the first UK-wide lockdown there was a substantial rise in public sexual harassment on our streets. Plan UK found that 1 in 5 young women and girls had experienced some form of street harassment during the spring lockdown. Cat calling, heckling, being followed and abused increased exponentially. Runners World UK recently published an article stating that 46% of female runners in the UK say they’d been harassed on the run.

My shock isn’t at the numbers. My shock, initially, was at the time of the spike in this harassment. It has been theorised that perpetrators of street harassment felt protected by the quietness. That solitary women striding our streets appeared more obvious as targets than before. The vast outdoor isolation of lockdown enabled predatory people to spot lone runners and not be held accountable due to minimal on lookers. And where there were by-standers, there was a reluctance to interfere in “other peoples business”.

But street harassment is everyones business.

I’ve spoken before about by-stander accountability. I may write about it soon. But, to summarise, it is our responsibility to call out crap when we see it. It is one of the first steps to minimising the effects of a harasser. If a perpetrator realises their actions won’t be stood for, that, in fact, their car flung comments aren’t as original as they think they are, then they will begin to feel some sense of awareness.

With companionless exercise now encouraged by law, these matters may be only heightened in the winter months. We’re standing out more than ever. With high visibility clothes a necessity in the dimly lit suburban streets I’ve felt, all the more, like a moving target on my evening runs.

As silly as it sounds, there’s a gender bias in the assumption that running under the rare flash of a sodium street light is the same for women as it is for men.

I spoke to a male friend recently about having to put a cork in my sunset thames path runs for the year due to complete lack of lighting despite it being a well populated thoroughfare for pedestrians and cyclists alike. While his fears concluded with trampling through muddy puddles and being unable to see the scenic, but low hanging, branches mine took a much bleaker turn.

To the thought of being tomorrows newspaper headline.

“Women missing, last seen on towpath, she should have run faster”

And whilst my fears are unfounded from personal experience, I was told enough growing up, as all little girls are, to be constantly aware and on the look out for danger. Running alone in the dark, for a lot of women, is intimidating.

And many women agree.

I’ve spoken to female runners who are perturbed by being catcalled, followed, mugged, or worse. I’ve spoken to those who cross the street to avoid hooded strangers and habitually grasp their keys in their Wolverine like grip. Always ready to claw at anonymous threats. We take the long route home because it’s better lit, steer clear of the shadowed public parks because “public” doesn’t feel such a welcome when any unknown could be waiting in the trees.

It’s clear that, at the best of times, women feel unsafe running. So what can we do to avoid feeling the fear this lockdown?

Whilst I greatly begrudge the fact that the onus is on women to change their behaviour to feel safe, rather than on society to put an end to the problematic nature of misogyny, here are some small actions I would recommend taking this lockdown:

Buddy Up
Be aware that, as of writing this, you are allowed to meet up with another person outside for exercise. Having company for a run will help calm the sense of anxiety you may feel on a solo jaunt.

Lightbulb Moment
Sticking to well lit areas is all very well and good if you can but this completely overlooks the fact that we may have to adapt our behaviour to keep ourselves safe, rather than the liability being on the people who build our cities and streets. There are dangers in being forced to run along busy roads or more populated areas which may also bring a sense of vulnerability in a street harassment and covid sense. So, write to your local council about poor street lighting you deem to be a danger to the public. Even if nothing is done in an immediate sense it is always beneficial to raise these concerns with our MPs. They work for us. It’s their job to keep us safe.

Track and Trace
Take advantage of the numerous safety features on your fitness devices and smart phones. Strava Beacon and Garmin LiveTrack are two great tracking options available. Or for the London dwellers, the Safe & The City app allows you to report incidents from poor lighting to being followed in real time, which then collates these incidents to build up a map of the safest routes around the city.

Oldy but a Goody
Of course the time old telling-someone-where-you’re-going technique is a must for all runners no matter who you are, what, when or why you’re running.

Use the Force
Ironically, be mindful of what you’re wearing. Yes, yes, I know – sounds like I’m slut shaming. Hear me out – I’m the first person to call out victim blaming when people criticise women’s clothing, however in winter, please, wear hi-viz. At the least, you’ll look like a speedy lightsaber racing through the streets, at the most it could save your life or help people locate you if you become incapacitated in any way. The amount of times I’ve plodded along a badly lit section of the Thames Path and narrowly avoided a darkly-clad dog walker has shook me up more times than I care to say. Also, a head torch! Especially handy when your frozen fingers are fumbling to find your keys.

You Do You
Finally, do what you feel is comfortable. Society has a way to go with allowing us to reclaim our streets. Not being harassed or assaulted is still a “woman problem”, a “victims problem” – we are still being burdened with the responsibility of not being attacked, rather than teaching people not to become attackers. If you don’t feel safe running at night, do what you need to do until we possess our freedom. There will be a day where we will own the pavements. We’ll take back the roads from the fools in ford fiestas who hassle us.

So, is winter running safe?

Winter running is wonderful. The frosty sunsets are picturesque, the dusks can be tranquil, the trails and mud are the most fun you’ll have all year and seeing the city lit up under the spill of the shop windows florescent hue makes you see the streets in a different perspective.

There is beauty and joy to be found in running in the rain, embracing the drowned rat demeanour I spoke about earlier.

Yes. Despite my ramblings I believe that there are ways to enjoy the roads and trails as much as we did in those sunnier months. It’s our right to.

Does society have a lot of work to do to make women feel safe running in the winter?

Big time.

And that time is now.