Groped, catcalled, intimidated: The reality of being a woman running in winter

46% of women change their outdoor exercise routine as a direct result of the darker months.

Groped, catcalled, intimidated: The reality of being a woman running in winter
women runners
Winter means women run less (Pictures: Supplied )

‘I was running down a road I would typically go down and a man was walking towards me. As I ran past, he reached out and grabbed my bum which really startled me,’ remembers Yimika Onabiyi, 51, who stopped running after this experience of assault in London.

‘I wasn’t going to do anything about it but the thought of it happening to another woman and the support of my family encouraged me to speak to the police.

‘They gave me a case number and flagged they would patrol the area more. I no longer felt safe.’

During the pandemic, she got back into running – but only during full daylight.

‘I bumped into another lady running at one point and she asked if I wanted to join a running group, which is how I found Black Girls Do Run. I now run about four times a week, with multiple groups including Black Girls Do Run, West Side Runners and Nove.’

Yimika’s story isn’t a lone case. New data from This Girl Can found 46% of women change their outdoor exercise routine or habits as a direct result of the darker months.

Almost two-thirds (60%) were concerned about the risk of sexual harassment or intimidation after the sun sets.

Yimika was assaulted while running (Picture: Yimika)

This Girl Can is hosting a run today (30 October) in Westminster, called #LetsLiftTheCurfew, to raise awareness of the issues women face when getting active outdoors.

Yimika feels good physically and mentally when she runs, and when she has to stop due to fears about her safety, her wellbeing suffers.

‘I would only ever run by myself on the weekends when it is light outside,’ she says.

‘It is a real shame that my routine has changed but I have to consider my safety to avoid anything happening to me.

‘I always wear bright colours when it starts to get dark and wear running lights to make sure I feel safe, even when running as a group.’

With the clocks just having gone back, and opportunities to run in the light growing slimmer, 40% of women feel limited when it comes to fitness, and more than a quarter feel sad or frustrated. 

Jane Rose, 50, an avid runner from London, feels more ‘apprehensive’ about training during winter.

‘I feel like I have to be a lot more wary of my surroundings and keep an eye out for anything that doesn’t look quite right too,’ she says.

‘Running in the summer months is a lot easier as I don’t always have to have my wits about me.

‘I tend to train alone and prefer running in the mornings, but the winter months make this harder for me – I feel like I have to run on the main roads so I am visible to traffic and feel more seen.’

Jane says winter messes up her training schedule (Picture: Jane)

She’s had men beep and jeer at her from their cars, and on one occasion she had to cut her workout short, as she had a bad feeling about a man nearby who kept running into her pathway.

‘I find that when running in the morning in the winter months, every noise I hear makes me feel uncomfortable or like somebody is there,’ she adds. The paranoia is rooted in memories of intimidating behaviour.

‘I am constantly looking left/right to check for people behind me, worried about tripping over pathways and watching my back.

‘All this extra planning can mess up my training plan.’

Jessica Moore, 33, from Southampton, is the founder of running group Solent Running Sisters, and says safety is a ‘huge thing’ for everyone who takes part.

Running is good for Jessica’s mental health (Picture: Jessica Moore)

‘It matters because without the safety of being in a group, many of our members would drastically reduce their exercise time in the winter due to not wanting to be exercising alone in the dark,’ she says.

‘We still get cat calls when out on group runs, but they are less intimidating and easier to handle when you’re running with a group of friends.’

The group run with chest torches, hi-vis clothing, and reflective gear.

Attendees have reported how grateful they are for the group, with many claiming they never used to run in the winter before joining.

‘A couple of our runners joined us due to different attacks in our local area and they no longer felt safe to be out after dark alone,’ she adds.

‘Many of our members commented that the club helps them to deal with their mental health and if they didn’t have us to run with during the winter months, due to safety concerns, they wouldn’t run at all, which would then have a detrimental impact on their health, both physical and mental.

‘We have a slogan that we never leave a sister behind. At races we support and cheer to the end, no runner is too slow.’

running group
The running group (Picture: Jessica)

For Jessica personally, running helps her cope with anxiety.

‘I know I am not alone in saying that running helps with my mental health, so being able to continue running through the darker months, safely with my club makes a huge difference.’

How to help women feel more safe running at night

The onus shouldn’t be on women to change their routines once the clocks change. Kate Dale from This Girl Can previously gave these suggestions to help women feel safer.:

Don’t ‘compliment’ women
Even if you think it’s a compliment, don’t make comments to women who are out exercising. Women don’t want or need their running style, their clothing, or their bodies to be commented on. It’s at best irritating and often intimidating, especially when we’re on our own – we just want to be left alone to exercise in peace.

Cross the road
If you’re behind a woman while out running, cross the road to make her feel more comfortable and at ease. This is a small but selfless gesture, and the acknowledgement of personal space will go a long way in alleviating worries about being approached from behind.

Help to crave out time
Whether it’s friends, partners, mothers, sisters, daughters, or otherwise – be supportive if the women in your life want to get active. And if exercising in daylight is what makes your partner, or friend, feel comfortable, try to support her to be able to do this. Have a chat to find out whether there’s anything you can do to help her to get out for a run or walk in the daylight and feel safe. 

Kate Dale, from This Girl Can, said: ‘It’s not right that for nearly half the year, we feel we have fewer options to be active in the ways that work for us.

‘And even if we go out despite these fears, it’s harder to get the joy, freedom and confidence that physical activity can bring if you’re constantly looking over your shoulder or monitoring your surroundings.

‘Helping women feel safe when getting active is not a singular responsibility; we need everyone to engage with the issue.’

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