Self-defense instructors often recommend running away as the best option when facing a knife. That’s not wrong. But have you been trained in how to run away? It's not always easy.

Defensive instructors generally advise running away as the best or maybe the only realistic option when facing a knife. That's not wrong. But has anybody studying martial arts been trained in how to run away? Most have not. It's not strictly a physical problem. It's that we don't have the right mindset for running away.

In the army, there's a procedure for orderly and safe retreat. There are many considerations. For example, you could be shot in the back, you might need to use or move weapons appropriately, and so on. Soldiers are trained to run away, make turns, change positions and establish safe sectors. That's easier, in a way, than a lone individual because your team provides cover.

Facing a knife, it's difficult. For instance, how far would you run if an attacker showed a knife, perhaps threatening to rob you? An attack may be launched by a younger, fitter person. An elderly person may have issues in running from that kind of attacker. Furthermore, there may be constraints of environment, obstacles and the presence of other people to consider.

At systema camps, we have trained attendees to run away. We began with an ideal open and clear site, a huge field. A group of five or so people were facing an “attacker," who stood 7 to 10 meters away. The attacker would scream and shout while running at the group and brandishing a knife. But even though the “victims" had sufficient distance to work with and they saw and heard the threat clearly, somehow they couldn't run away. Two or three in the group were always “cut."

It seems they didn't know where to run even though they had the entire open field available. People from the other groups were running, as well — more than 100 people from all the different groups crossing one another. Now imagine this had been conducted in the forest — how would they have run away?

In another variation, instead of the victims standing in a line, they'd be more naturally arranged in a semicircle or, even more challenging, a full circle. This left them at a loss as to where they should run. An attacker would charge toward them, and once again, some would get cut every time.

“Most people who observe this Russian fighting style will appreciate the spontaneity with which practitioners can fend off armed and unarmed attacks. It's practical and effective without the nonessentials."
— Floyd Burk, 10th dan

After those drills in camp, it was clear that although people can physically run, they are psychologically unprepared. The students themselves began to realize how hard it can be.

One thing that helped them is doing exercises with their legs, such as walking or running backward with proper breathing. This includes walking and running with and without breath holds, stretching their breath, and breath actions over different durations to match the movements.

This is one of many self-defense situations in which running away is not an option.

It also helps to practice balancing exercises and running through, over and around obstacles. It's very important to learn not to give up. Sometimes people become aware of their own weaknesses or limitations and get so discouraged that they give up on themselves. That's never good.

In some situations, walking away works better than running. Learning to walk with maximal speed and efficiency is good training for sensitizing your body to a number of different elements of movement.

If you've trained to walk with maximum speed and efficiency, it may not always be necessary to run and incur the greater energy expenditure of that response. Fear makes you want to run, while fast walking reduces tension and fear in your body and in the situation.

Running away can be the best option against a knife. But it's also good to have a response in case you can't run.

Do you know how to walk fast? When you step, you need to step with the body right away. The key is to bring your bodyweight directly over the front (stepping) foot. You don't let your body lag. You do not step and then bring the body along afterward. If you step with your bodyweight integrated with your foot movement, you will move significantly faster. Move with your entire body.

Systema is big on deleting tension from the self-defense equation. “You should use your movements to remove excess tension," Vladimir Vasiliev says. “This way, you are always ready and free for your next action."

The same applies to moving backward. You have to move back in such a way that your body catches up to your feet so that your feet are always under the center of gravity of your body. No matter how you turn, the body remains soft. Your movement is calm, without irritating your psyche. That is how you avoid restrictions in your body and unnecessary cuts.

Text by Vladimir Vasiliev and Scott Meredith • Photos by Robert Reiff

Sponsored post • Excerpted by permission from Edge: Secrets of the Russian Blade MastersOrder here.


"A new student joins in. We begin a mass-attack drill, where everyone comes to the center of the gym and is hitting in all directions. Right away, the new guy gets punched on the head, turns to see who did it and gets ready to hit him back. At that moment, he receives a punch from the other side, and, with anger building, he turns to that side, his fist ready to fly in that direction. And then he is hit again from the opposite side. Finally, he realizes that 'punch for punch' doesn't work in a mass attack, so he exhales and starts punching those who are close by and not those who hit him. Unfortunately, most of us have an almost automatic response: When a strike touches us, we immediately go to retaliate. This is caused by pride. Systema training for taking punches deals directly with this pride."

— Vladimir Vasiliev

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