Building Community in Womens Running

When’s the last time you heard a guy tell you he altered his running plans for fear of personal safety?

Yeah, that’s what I thought. But have you hear any women say that??

I have. But it took me some time to hear and understand their concerns.

Having run for over 20 years and coached over the past 10 years, it’s become increasingly clear to me that how we approach women’s running needs to change because even in the safest communities, most women fear enough for their personal safety that they’re unlikely to run, hike, or workout on their own in any but the most public of spaces during daylight. Until that changes, and though I hope it will, we, all of us, men and women, have an opportunity to bring people together for group runs, hikes, and workouts to create safety through community.

Friends and members of the community come out to support coach Shyamal Kapadia at his first 100 mile race. 

Friends and members of the community come out to support coach Shyamal Kapadia at his first 100 mile race. 

For the first 10 years of my running experience I ran competitively, for stress relief, to socialize sometimes, and for charity. But then, at the suggestion of a friend, I began coaching other people to run. The process was enthralling and I am proud to say helping others discover a lasting passion in running is at least as gratifying as my own running experience and goal achievement has been. Over 8+ years I had the good fortune to coach a few hundred mostly novice runners towards half and full marathon goals in these groups. Each runner was unique in their background, but nearly all were able to complete their goal events by training with our groups. The most successful runners regularly attended group workouts on weekdays and weekends. In fact, those who attended workouts were nearly 40% more likely to finish their goal event. I was never sure why most people didn’t show up to workouts, but thought it may have been due to a long list of reasons...excuses. And even if they didn’t show up at workouts, why couldn’t they train on their own? What was holding them back? It’s worth mentioning that 70-80% of those I coached in groups were women.

For the last two years I’ve been coaching runners in a new context, one-on-one, taking a deep dive into personal aspirations of a few individuals training for marathons and longer, on road and trails, a completely different challenge than coaching to the mode(s) for a group of 20-100 runners. I’m afforded the opportunity to learn so much more about that one person and pour all my effort into helping them achieve their goal. With my female clients it became immediately clear that usually they were concerned about personal safety when it came to early morning or evening workouts. Basically, if it was dark and we couldn’t locate a lit area or find a workout partner or modify the workout for the treadmill (and that was tolerable enough), women were unlikely to workout. These were just not conversations that came up with my male clients.

It was an ‘Aha!’ moment for me when I realized that concern for safety might be a significant reason why all female runners, not just my small stable of clients, would not achieve fitness goals that were in every other way achievable. It made me mad and sad. How could this be the society we have created, in a relatively well-to-do, otherwise-safe region of the US? And was it just running or could this fear factor be impacting how/where women engage in other outdoor activities?

I do think we can do something about this fear: fitness through community. By making it easier for groups of people with similar interests and goals to organize events together we can empower more women to achieve their fitness goals.