How Do You Know when to Fight or Run?

August 19, 2019

How Do You Know when to Fight or Run?


“Swimmers take your mark” ……my son is preparing for his very first special Olympics regional competition. He, along with 500 other competitors, have been working diligently at making sure they know exactly the right time to leave their starting position. I’ve been doing more walking recently and installed an app on my phone that tracks my starting position and distance to help monitor my progress.    I’ve also noticed the runners in my area tracking their routes too. Regardless of the fitness routine or sport, everyone needs to accurately track when to start and when to finish in order to maximize success of their desired outcome.

In a situation of self-defense, these definitive starting and ending points quickly become blurred by the natural influence of adrenaline and tunnel vision. In a state of “fight or flight” the essence of “real time” slows down dramatically—where five seconds can feel like five hours! I’ve always taught that the art of “Run-Fu” is a very effective defense mechanism for avoiding bad situations. However, the one burning question I am frequently asked is “How do I know when to fight or when it’s ok to run away?”

The first part of this answer has more to do with your surroundings and personal assessment.    Is the area public or isolated?   Is it during business hours or after? What is your own physical condition? Are you able to run short or long distance? Perhaps you can’t run well at all due to bad knees or other physical limitation. This is where the pre-planning thought process needs to happen -- not while you are actively in the heat of battle!  

In the moment, your brain will not be able to process and answer all these questions while experiencing adrenaline. Under stress your body will only be capable of relying on gross motor movement and very little thought.  So, asking yourself and answering these questions ahead of time is critical to your own initial reaction time.

The 2 Car Length Rule
Those in law enforcement with extensive field experience use this fundamental rule: “If an assailant is closer than 21 feet, which is roughly 2 car lengths, you are better off standing your ground than running away.” The reason is a committed criminal can close this distance within 1.5 seconds. That means if someone is within 2 car lengths of your personal space, it barely gives you enough time to turn around and take that first step in the opposite direction. Now the assailant will be on your back and are fighting someone you can’t see. Obviously, it’s much better to fight someone off who you CAN see! In the real world of street fighting, there isn’t an app or a signal to tell you when it’s ok to start or stop.

The better you understand the physical dynamics of your body against an assailant’s reaction time (as it relates to your own), the more educated you will be on when it’s ok to run and when it’s risky to do so.  Self-defense is a personal decision.  Know yourself and understand the advantages and limitations of your own surroundings.    By putting these attributes into regular practice, the more efficient and confident your action plan will be!


Rachel Cheeseman is a 2nd degree black belt and has studied the martial arts for the past 28 years.  She founded Street Smart Self Defense Academy in Erie, PA 17 years ago to empower women, due to the rape of her sister in her off-campus college apartment. She is a certified instructor for the national full-contact self-defense program called “Model Mugging” and a certified instructor for the MUNIO Self Defense Workshops. Rachel is also a member of and former seminar instructor for the American Women’s Self Defense Association, and she has been inducted into the USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame, Action Martial Arts Magazine Hall of Honors and the World Karate Union Hall of Fame.

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