self defense for women

7 Effective Self-Defense Techniques for Women Runners

Listen up ladies: stop putting off that self-defense class.

In fact, put it on your calendar right now.

Oliver Valenzuela, a local runner and Kajukenbo instructor, is teaching free self-defense classes for women in various local running groups. He’s already instructed a class for DAR and the Wascallys, and he has more classes set for Fleet Feet Fresno and Sierra Challenge Express this month.

“It’s important that the people that I run with have the ability to run freely without having to worry about being accosted or being hurt,” Valenzuela says. “We run to keep in shape and we’d like to do it in a state that’s free — not worrying about ‘is anyone going to hurt me?’”

It is something that we should be worried about. Even if you’re the hakuna matata type like me, you should at least be aware and be prepared. (Yeah, that was two Lion King references in the same sentence.)

Three percent of women runners have been grabbed, groped or otherwise physically assaulted, according to a Runner’s World surveyAnd a whopping 30% have been followed by a person in a vehicle, on a bike or on foot — apparently the stalker didn’t get close enough to grab them.

This isn’t just something happening somewhere else in the country — it’s happening right here in Fresno, at the most popular place to go for a run: Woodward Park.

Just two weeks ago, a homeless man allegedly stopped a woman who was running along the Lewis S. Eaton Trail in Woodward Park near Rice Road (that’s the first bridge you come to as you make your way east).

He asked her for a hug.

Police detained the man on a 5150 hold, which is cop speak for keeping someone for 24 hours while they undergo a psych evaluation because they might be a danger to themselves or others.  

Another mentally impaired homeless man was just sentenced to 6 months in jail and 3 years of probation for masturbating in front of two women at Woodward Park last year. He was about 10 feet from the Lewis S. Eaton Trail near Friant and Fort Washington. 

And those are just the incidences that have been reported to news outlets. I’ve seen a handful of Facebook posts over the years from local women who have been grabbed or groped while running at Woodward Park.

Just this week in San Rafael, a woman runner was groped three times by the same man while she ran her usual route. She fought him off each time.

The bottom line is there are weirdos and predators out there, and they seem to think that we, as women runners, are prime targets.

So stop thinking, “It won’t happen to me.”

It could.

By attending one of Valenzuela’s free classes, you’ll be better prepared if you’re ever ambushed during a run.

This Isn’t Karate Class

I took the class with nearly 20 other Wascally women runners on Wednesday evening. We gathered in a shaded, grassy area of Railroad Park at Peach and Alluvial avenues. Valenzuela invited an a male student from his class to assist in demonstrations, and we started off the class by learning how to punch properly.

self defense for women

Oliver Valenzuela, left, and his student teach us how to punch with a straight arm and wrist.

Now, I took a semester of kickboxing in college and I learned some self-defense moves in my daughter’s karate class last year. So I went into the class thinking I was going to brush up on the skills I’ve learned over the years.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the techniques I learned in Valenzuela’s class are unlike any of the tactics I’ve been taught. Perhaps that’s because the come from a discipline I had never heard of: Kajukenbo.

“It may not be pretty, but it’s effective,” Valenzuela says. “If you need to pick up a board to defend yourself, pick up a board. If you need to run away, then run away.”

We partnered up and got to see just how effective his techniques are. (We don’t actually hurt each other, we but not-so-gently act out how an attacker might come at us, and how we’d fight back and get away.)

Everything Valenzuela teaches comes from Kajukenbo, a mixed martial art incorporating Karate, Jujitsu and Kempo, developed in the 1940s in Hawaii, he says. He was trained in the Bay Area and has been practicing Kajukenbo since the early ’80s.

“It’s not just kicking, jumping in the air and making it look real nice — it’s more self-defense,” he says.

I agree — it didn’t look pretty.

I partnered up with my good friend Erika for the drills, and we cracked up at ourselves as we practiced the moves in slow motion. At one point she even fell on the ground at my feet as we practiced escaping a grab from behind. We stopped laughing long enough for me to help her up.

self defense for women

Erika Toribio punches my hand with a straight wrist, with her first and second knuckles contacting the target with the most force.

7 Kajukenbo Self-Defense Techniques

  1. Always protect your “center line.” Draw an imaginary line from the top of your head to down to your crotch. Turn sideways and protect that line in the center of your body from attackers.
  2. Punch with a straight wrist, with the knuckles of your pointer and middle fingers hitting your target. Thumbs should cross over your balled-up pointer and middle fingers between the first and second knuckles.
  3. Kick with a snapping motion, as opposed to a pushing motion. With your knee high, the ball of your foot should hit the target and then quickly snap back toward you and then back to the ground.
  4. Aim for an assailant’s most vulnerable spots: the groin, throat, nose and eyes.
  5. If an attacker comes at you from the front, step to the side, out of their way, and immediately draw your hands up to protect your face. (“If a car is coming, you don’t stop and let it hit you. You don’t back up, because it’s still going to hit you,” Valenzuela explains. “You get out of the way by going sideways.”)
  6. If an attacker bear hugs you from behind, squat. Plant your feet and do a full-on, deep squat with your arms outstretched in front of you. When you feel their hold loosen, use your elbows or fists to hit them in the groin or stomach and run away.
  7. If someone grabs you by the hair, use both of your hands to grab their wrist — this gives you more control. Then step backwards towards them and spin inward while still holding onto their wrist and pulling them downward. They’ll have to release your hair or they’ll end up with a broken wrist or arm.

These are just some of the self-defense techniques we learned, and this list is in no way a replacement for Valenzuela’s class. You really need to practice these moves in real life to get the hang of them and properly prepare yourself should you ever be attacked.

Upcoming Classes

  • 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 14 — Sierra Challenge Express members — Railroad Park
  • 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 16 — Wicked Fast Wascally Wunnahs — Railroad Park
  • 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 22 — Fleet Feet Fresno runners — Clovis West High School

“People who have already taken the class or trained with me are welcome to come back for a refresher,” Valenzuela says. “The reason why I focus on runners — walkers and runners, actually — is because we’re the ones out there and people see us by ourselves sometimes and we look like we’re vulnerable. I concentrate mainly on women because they’re going to be more vulnerable than a man running.”

Sorry guys, that means these classes are women-only. Valenzuela says he has found that having gender-specific classes is more conducive to the learning process.

But here’s one thing guys can do: offer to run with your women running friends. Bike alongside them, if you can’t keep up.

If they ask you to join them for a run, please don’t say no. They’re asking for a reason: they want to feel safe while they train.

Besides offering these free classes this month, Valenzuela teaches Kajukenbo privately in his home.

“In my formal class, we work on attacks from different angles, we work on attacks with a knife or a weapon,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll just surprise my students, because you never know what’s going to happen. You just have to kind of be prepared.”

Of course, he relates it to running.

“If you run a marathon, you know what’s going to happen. But sometimes things just happen at mile 18 that never happened before and you learn how to deal with it,” he explains. “If you have the tools to be able to deal with basic self-defense, then that’s what you use at the time. You always go back to what’s basic and what’s effective.”


Farin Montañez is an ultrarunning mom of two, a member of the San Joaquin Running race team, a diehard Wascally, and the volunteer coordinator for the upcoming Two Cities Marathon & Half. She blogs about going vegan at SpiritedVeg.com.

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