A Combat Expert’s 11 Self-Defense Moves Every Woman Who Exercises Outdoors Should Know

Updated: Jul. 31, 2023

Practical tips for outdoor exercise safety to make yourself a challenging target, from a 20-year defensive combat specialist.

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Eliza Fletcher was a runner who was so dedicated to her training that she woke up every day at 4 a.m. to jog around her Memphis neighborhood. But on September 2, 2022, the 34-year-old teacher never came home from her routine run. Fletcher’s case is rare, but her story has inspired an important conversation about outdoor fitness safety. One key point that’s come to the minds of many of us: it’s worth getting educated about the basics of self-defense.

While anyone can be a victim of a violent crime, statistically 80% of violent attackers will be men and 82-90% of sexual assault victims are female.

Rob Jackson, a defensive combat expert, says, “There is an increased risk to women when exercising outdoors, but is it significant enough to warrant skipping your favorite exercise? I don’t believe so and I don’t believe in changing portions of our lives due to the risk of people with evil intentions.” Jackson is a 20-year combat veteran with the US Military and US Intelligence Community, and co-founder of Reveille Advisors, a private security company. He continues: “With proper preparation, communications, and a solid game plan, you can make outdoor exercise much safer.”

We hope all your runs (or walks, or bikes) are moments to shake your worries instead of experience any—but in case you ever need to fight back, here are the tips Jackson recommends outdoor exercisers should get familiar with. This isn’t an exhaustive list but rather teaches you how to use what you have immediately available to you in a defensive situation, he says. It might take courage…but you can do it.

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Make yourself a tougher target

Jackson says your top priority should always be to do the best you can to avoid a dangerous situation. To start, understand that would-be attackers typically target people whom they perceive as relatively weak, so a defense plan starts with anything that makes you more difficult to attack in the first place. Here’s how to stay safer when you’re exercising outdoors:

  • Share when you’re leaving, when you intend to be home, and your intended route.
  • Change your route and the time you venture out often.
  • Activate location features on your phone and share your location with a loved one.
  • If your device has a 911 or SOS feature, configure it and know how to activate it quickly.
  • Avoid secluded paths or unlit roads.
  • Run on sidewalks against traffic so a car cannot pull up next to you. (“Roads offer an attacker the ability to abduct you quickly and quietly,” says Jackson, “And once you are abducted into a vehicle, your odds of escape diminish greatly.”
  • Be alert and don’t “zone out” during your workout. Scan your surroundings and be aware of who is around you.
  • Work out with a group of people you know.
  • Avoid wearing your hair down and jogging in overly loose clothing, both of which allow a would-be attacker ways to grab and overpower you.
  • Carry pepper spray, personal alarms or other safety products—openly where they can be seen—and practice using them in advance.
  • Don’t wear both ear buds with the tunes cranked up. Keep the volume at a medium or less, and never use noise-canceling features.

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Yell as loudly as you can

Your first weapon is your voice, so don’t be afraid to use it as self-defense. The bigger scene you cause, the more attention you’ll draw…and the more likely a would-be attacker will be scared off.

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anonymous Woman using pepper spray for self defense outdoors
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Use pepper spray or mace

“This is great both as a visual deterrent and a self-defense tool,” says Jackson, adding that he recommends the gel form rather than a spray mist which can blow back on you.

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Hammer with a “tactical” flashlight

These flashlights are easy to carry when you’re running and can be used as a weapon for self-defense due to their pointed or toothed bezels, says Jackson. Hold the flashlight like a hammer, with the pointed part down, and “hammer” hit your assailant. This protects your fist and is easier to do than a “normal” punch.

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Strike their ear with your palm

An open and firm palm strike to an assailant’s ear is more painful than you might think and is temporarily deafening. “The idea is to stun them enough to flee,” he says.

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Use your elbows

Elbows are a better choice than fists if you end up in a close confrontation. Jackson says if you’re accosted from the front and they are trying to grab your arms or shoulders, swing your elbow up straight and connect with their chin or face.

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Kick hard

The legs tend to be more powerful than the arms, and you can kick from a standing position or from the ground, he says, adding: if you’re on your back, aim up at a 45-degree angle.

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Damage their groin

“Whether it’s with a swift kick, a firm knee, a punch, a twist or a stomp, if you have a clear shot to hurt their genitals, take it,” he says.

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Ruin their eyes

Jackson says in really intimate and intense encounters, your best option is to gouge their eyes. Use your thumbs to press in if you’re very close, or poke them with a hard thrust with all ten fingers extended. Hurting their vision is the goal, allowing you to escape.

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Scratch aggressively

“Not only could you hurt him, but you’re also going to make it nearly impossible for him to be able to explain the wounds on his face and neck,” says Jackson. “Likewise, you’ll have their DNA under your nails.”

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Bite to draw blood

If they come up from behind you and try to bear hug you, their forearm will likely be near your mouth. Bite any exposed part, including the nose, hand, or fingers. “Bite them and don’t be nice about it,” says Jackson.

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A note about weapons

If you’re comfortable and have the training, you can carry a knife or firearm, says Jackson. But if you haven’t trained and practiced with them, specifically for defense, it’s possible that you’ll drop it or have it taken from you and used against you in the heat of the moment. A stun gun may be a better option as it takes less skill to use one, he adds.

“At the end of the day, during an attack, there are no style points,” he says. “Do whatever you can, as loudly as you can, and if you can make him pay in the process, even better.”

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