A Practical (Running) Life Overseas

by Rachel Pieh Jones on October 22, 2013

I used to hate running and at the end of the first run I completed in Djibouti I put my hands on my knees, nearly tumbled to the ground, and said (through heaving breaths), “People do this, like, for fun?”

Apparently they do. And then I started to do it, like, for fun too.

A (Running) Life Overseas will include three posts. First: practicalities. Second: building community. Third: digging deeper (issues like running in expensive shoes in developing countries, etc).


Some of the first practical issues when running overseas are:

  1. Getting started
  2. Clothing and Gear
  3. Nutrition and hydration
  4. Safety

Getting Started

 The best thing to do is to ask a local, a longer-term expatriate, or to observe. How, where, when do people run? What do men wear? Women? Even if you are an avid runner already, it might be good to start with leisurely walks to learn the neighborhoods. Invite a friend, spouse, or neighbor. When you drive around town, keep on the lookout for where people are running. Find the local sports stadium and introduce yourself, ask if there are any races or clubs.

Try to be sensitive to cultural norms but don’t be locked into them. People might think you are bizarre but guess what, expat? You are bizarre. Own it. Sensitively. This is something that takes years to settle into, so I say that lightly. In the beginning it is a good idea to learn and follow most cultural norms. But as you become more knowledgeable, you will discover which boundaries you are comfortable bending or crossing and which you aren’t.


I run in clothes that are more modest than French runners and less modest than Djiboutian runners. I wear t-shirts and capris that cover my knees. Djibouti is so incredibly hot that loose clothes gather sweat, flap around, and chafe so I tend toward more fitted clothing. My number one favorite piece of running clothes is a pair of spandex pants with a skort attached. I also look for shirts or pants with pockets for keys, coins, Gu. Trail shoes are great for less developed locations. Because quality running shoes might not be available in many parts of the world, find a pair you like and stick with it so you can order online and have visitors bring them in a suitcase.

running clothes

Listening to an iPod can be motivational and inspirational and can provide a good distraction from onlookers’ comments but they can also be a magnet for getting robbed or a distraction from looking out for wild drivers so use them with caution. I find music grating after a while and prefer sermons and audiobooks, or I plug in the headphones without anything playing. Then people are less likely to try and talk to me. I cherish that quiet, alone time.

Nutrition and Hydration

In steamy countries, this is so important. In August in Djibouti we are breathing fire and I can feel the air sucking life moisture from my body. It is too dry to sweat, making hydration that much more important. In the spring and fall, it is so humid we can slice the air with a knife. At those times, salt intake is of extreme importance, not just water. These are important things to know about your location and the seasons and your body. In the dry season, I freeze water bottles to carry. In the humid season I bring Gu packets, bananas, or salted snacks. It can be hard to rehydrate adequately if you run every day so either take days off when your pee isn’t clear or chug-a-lug the water during the day. A side note about eating on the run – in many developing nations, litter is everywhere. This doesn’t make it okay for you to drop the Gu packet or water bottle. Try to care for God’s creation, even when exhausted.


Don’t be stupid. Don’t go on a long run in the hot season without water and without telling someone where you are going. Bring a phone if possible. Run in a group if that is safest. If mugging is common, take appropriate precautions or don’t go to certain areas. If you feel doubtful about a specific street or something just doesn’t feel right, trust your gut, cut the run short or make it long by going around. In some places, running simply might not be possible. Invest in good exercise DVDs like P90X or Insanity for running-quality workouts and learn to be okay with that.


So many things about living overseas are never finished. Language learning, cultural adaptation, development projects, fund-raising. But I can start and finish a run, it is one of the only things I can actually cross off my to-do list. Running helps me appreciate unique aspects of Djibouti, builds community, and makes me stronger. It is an hour or more a day not spent parenting or team-mating or studying, running has become a sort of refuge. A space for me, my breathing, my feet, and God.

Your turn. What are some beginning or practical tips you have?

*The first and last photos are of the Girls Run 2 team in Djibouti, the only all-girl running team that I helped to start a few years ago. On November 2 a Runner’s World/Saucony film featuring these girls will premiere in New York City. Thanks for letting me indulge in a little film-promotion. I am so proud of these girls!

 -Rachel Pieh Jones, introverted development worker, Djibouti

                         Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • Laura

    Hi. Can you give more info about the movie showing in NYC. I live in NYC and am interested in seeing it…I’ve tried to google it but can’t find anything…What’s the title? Where will it be shown? Thanks!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I would love for you to see it and I’ll be there for the showing too. The only trouble is I don’t know many details yet or whether or not this first showing is open to the public. But I should find out soon (its in just 10 days or so!) and I will come back and leave a comment for you with whatever I can learn. I’m not even sure what it will be called in the final cut. Maybe A High Place or The Transformative Power of Running, something like that. It features this team, a team in Japan, Finland, and the US, all really unique and inspiring stories.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I have more info on the premiere now but unfortunately it is an invite-only event at the NY Institute of Technology. The film is called Finding Strong and I guess after the premiere they will advertise more about it. This the home page of the filmmaker: http://brianvernor.com/home.html and shows our girls. Thanks for your interest Laura!

  • Tanja

    Rachel, this was such a fun post! I find I have been wondering a lot about how you “do” running in the kind of country you are, and now I know more! I have asked myself a lot of times about the clothing, and about how people, maybe especially men, who see you run, react to your attire and the fact that you are running. Do you feel like it is “accepted” that you are wearing “less” clothing than otherwise, because you are obviously practicing a sport?

    I’ll be looking forward to the other two installments!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I think people accept it because I’m running, yes. But it is pretty open here for foreigners. I could even get away with shorts and a tank top, in fact just this morning I saw a woman running like that, but I would personally feel so uncomfortable. Also, I’m here for a long time and I know a lot of the people I run by – shopkeepers, neighbors, guards, friends driving around, and I that would feel inappropriate. I’m still a spectacle no matter what, so I get some reactions (here’s something I wrote about that: http://www.djiboutijones.com/2013/09/the-story-women-need-to-tell) but the majority of the time it is good.

  • Richelle Wright

    i’ve been trying to run some since we’ve been back… i’m still at the “…I put my hands on my knees, nearly [tumble] to the ground, and [say] (through heaving breaths), ‘People do this, like, for fun?’” And that is during a more beautiful than average north woods fall… oh well… even back in the day when i used to run at least 6 miles every day, i never enjoyed it.

    i’m so impressed – especially with the work with your girls run 2 program. in just the past few years, we’ve started seeing women run on the streets in niamey – before it was only at the national stadium. there’s even a whole group of women with the gendarme who ran past our house every morning. 🙂

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I run by some gendarmes (all men) who were also running and sometimes they cheer and clap, once they even started singing and chanting in time with their feet and cheering for me. It was pretty funny. There aren’t a lot of people here who run though, but more and more. I have seen a big difference. Still not too many local women. Maybe 5-10 western women.

  • Amy Farley

    Great blog! I also am a runner living in Senegal, West Africa. This is great information. I miss running in the US….the dew point and humidity here are KILLING me! I’m pushing forward to run my 3rd marathon in December on a trip back home. AND, I love that you started a girls running team! Something I’ve thought of doing here!

  • Love this! I jog a few times a week at the park around the corner from my house. Always a welcome time. The tips you give here are great and highly applicable to the foreigner. Thanks!

  • CdninQ8

    Running in Kuwait includes all of the above (except it’s dry not steamy) with the addition of my husband following me slowly on his bicycle. It simply is not safe for me to run anywhere – even modestly dressed – by myself. Other than that, I love running here. And actually, that’s not a downside. It means my husband and I have a standing date four days a week. 🙂

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I love that he does this with you. I’m sure it adds the extra challenge of coordinating schedules, but if you both enjoy it, what a great way to spend time together.

  • Duane & Carin Guthrie

    I love this practical series! I run where I am planted (in the same park as Angie:0) We deal with high altitude here, which you can get accustomed to and then forget about….until you spend time at sea level and then come back again and re-adjust all over again. I agree with your points made here.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      High altitude…we are at zero, literally. With nary a hill in sight! When I run in Nairobi or Addis Ababa I’m huffing after about ten steps. Fun that you guys are in the same park.

  • Emily

    I’ve been reading A Life Overseas for a while and am always very encouraged! We’ve been in Mexico now for almost 2 years…I used to really love running, but honestly, had a really bad experience while running here about a year ago. I’ve been doing home workout videos since, but your post inspires me to try running again. We moved to a new city, and I feel I could figure out a way to make it work here! I miss it! Looking forward to the rest of your series. Oh, and here is a “funny” blog post I did back when I was still actually running in our old city in Mexico! 🙂 Glad to know there are others out there making their runs work in new contexts!


    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks for the link Emily. Sorry to hear you had a bad experience while running, I have definitely had a few myself though overall it has been positive. I put a link in a comment below to a post about some of the harassment I’ve experienced. Maybe you can identify. But, hey, new city, why not try again? You never know. Thanks for the link too, going to read it now.

  • For many Westerners, I think a big one to keep in mind is clothing. So many ladies back home run in tiny shorts and either a skimpy tank top or sports bra and that just wouldn’t fly in many countries. Even here in Korea, it’s best for ladies to keep their shoulders covered and avoid low cut shirts and men should never run bare chested. That’s the quick route to a stern lecture by an ajumma/ahjussi (older woman/man), something I’ve witnessed and certainly want to avoid. haha Great tips, Rachel.

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