Nike run coach Dora Atim on the realities of being a female runner in winter

Speaking at the Strong Women x Nike run club, coach Dora Atim got real about what it means to be a female runner right now.

One of the most unfair aspects of being a woman is having to think about safety. It’s bloody infuriating to have to think twice about running through the local common at 7pm during the winter or plotting the brightest route back from the night bus stop. And as much as some of us might want to pretend that it’s not an issue, for the vast majority of women, safety is a primary barrier to running.

In fact, even professional run coaches aren’t immune to feeling anxious about their safety while clocking up the miles. Nike run coach, founder of Black Trail Runners and overall running legend Dora Atim knows only too well the challenges women face during the winter months (and beyond) and she’s all about being proactive in deciding what steps to take.

Speaking at the recent Nike x Strong Women run club session, held at the Battersea Live Store, Atim opened up about her own experiences. 

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“It’s no secret that running as a woman is quite scary and challenging,” she told the crowd of women preparing to head out for a dark, breezy 5k. “But every woman deserves to run and we should feel that we can run whenever we want, wherever we want – and feel safe.”

Unfortunately, that’s not always been the case for Atim. “I’ve been stalked because someone’s tracked me down from my GPS, I’ve been followed because I run at different times – not always at night, but during the day. But you can encounter things at any time, in any place, anywhere.”

When asked how she’s overcome these incidents, she admits that it’s been a struggle. “As someone who’s hyper-visual in the running space, I don’t have the answer for how we can be safe while running. All I can do is speak about my experiences, share my tips and continue to build a community so we can just like come together to go further, stronger and longer.” 

How to deal with unwanted attention while running

When asked by the audience what to do if someone approaches you on a run, Atim recalled that back in the day – before she became Coach Dora – people “would be met with equal madness”. Today, however, she’s torn between ignoring and addressing the issue. “My theory is that everyone’s mad, and I stand by it.”

She recently had her phone stolen while out and about. “A few years ago, I’d have chased that man down the street and dragged him off his bike… but I just let it go. It’s only a phone. With men shouting things in the street, I’ve had all sorts like, ‘Oh, look at those tits!’ It’s horrendous and so stressful, but you just have to let it go. It’s just going to piss you off to argue with a man who’s probably going to come back with some condescending rubbish like ‘Cheer up!’ or ‘Can’t you take a joke?’

Coach Dora describes the realities of dealing with unwanted attention.

“I hate to be the person telling women to ignore it, but you’ve got to choose your battles wisely. You don’t know what people are capable of and it’s absolutely not worth it.”

Now, most people – of any gender – are brought up being told to ignore horrid remarks or to give up their personal possessions if mugged for their own safety. And while that’s obviously a sensible idea, it’s hardly the most empowering message to give. After all, why should we turn the other cheek if we’re being publicly abused? Why can’t we fight our own corner if we’re interrupted while minding our own business?

That’s clearly something that Atim’s struggled with, too: “There have been times when someone’s shouted something. I’ve ignored it, then come home and cried. Why do I have to take the high road? If you go low, I want to go to the earth’s crust with you – but it’s just not worth it. If I do go back to a man, he might attack me.

“It’s such a horrible thing to experience and it’s not fair that that’s our reality.”

It’s vital that when these things happen, we don’t allow them to completely knock our confidence and Atim believes that taking practical steps to ensure our safety can make us feel comfortable getting back out there. 

How to stay safe while running solo

Atim is all about doing what you can to feel safe, and then owning your run. That means making sure you’re wearing the right clothes (think: bright in the winter, ergonomic in the summer), telling people when and where you’re going running, making your own choice about headphones and thinking about your visibility on social media and tracking apps.

“I want to run whenever I want to, but I need to be sensible and be safe. It’s like anything – you’ve got to take steps and accountability and own it.

When she’s not working at Nike, Atim is a mentor to a bunch of teenage girls. She says the girls are split when it comes to running: “One group is like, ‘I’m not doing it; I don’t feel safe,’ and the other lot are like, ‘F– it, I’m going to go out, no one’s the boss of me.’ And I’m like, ‘Exactly – because you’ve taken the steps, as long as you feel comfortable that you’ve done everything in your power to feel safer, then absolutely go for it.’” 

Dora Atim’s top tips for safety in running

Mix up your routes

“Someone sadly was able to establish my running routine. It wasn’t terrible – it was someone going, ‘Oh, I’ve seen you run every day at 7am and you go round this road,’ and that made me realise that I definitely needed to mix it up.”

If you always run the same 5k loop at the same time of day, get adventurous. Use apps like Strava to plot out different, popular routes near you that are used by runners. It’s not only safer but it’ll improve your overall training – getting used to different distances and terrains. You’re also far less likely to get bored.

Wear bright clothing

It’s a no-brainer, but if you’re running in the dark, avoid navy and black colours as you’re far less visible to cars, cyclists and walkers. Go as bright as you dare. In the summer, wear what makes you feel good.

“I used to feel super self-conscious wearing shorts or a sports bra, but when it’s 30°C, I’m going to wear whatever I want and everyone else is going to have to deal with it,” says Atim.

Choose appropriate shoes for the weather

In the winter, you’re going to have to navigate puddles, uneven paving and mud. Make sure you have the right shoes for tricky terrain.

Don’t post in real time

Atim jokes that she doesn’t post in real time because she’s busy curating content. The real reason, however, is “if I’ve posted in Hyde Park at 8am every day, that puts me at risk and I don’t want to be a Debby Downer, but that is how it is. I never put a map (of my run) on Instagram.”

Hide the start and end of your route on Strava

A really simple step is simply hiding the beginning and end of your running route on whichever app you use to record. That makes it hard for anyone viewing your run to know where you live or hang out. Set it to hide the first and last kilometre for maximum privacy. That’s also great because it gives you a decent warm-up and cool-down without having to worry about section PBs (every cloud!).

Run down busy streets

Again, it’s up to you – but in the dark, you probably are better off running in areas where there are more people.

“I don’t like running down busy streets, but [if it’s between] a super dead street or a busy street, I’ll run down the latter. I’ve got no choice but to run somewhere,” Atim admits.

Nike hosts free run clubs weekly around the UK. You can find out more here.


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