With the winter months slowly ticking by, dedicated and newbie runners alike are having difficulty transitioning to running in the dark.
Running through the quiet nighttime landscape can be a beautiful and peaceful experience. When I can get myself out the door after hours, it’s one of my favorite times to get my workout in. That said, strange sounds and situations can also be intimidating and anxiety-inducing.
Night running is a different beast, but with the right preparation and focus you can make any evening workout rival its sunlit counterpart.
At first, running, especially trail running at night might not seem like the most logical choice. But, there are several reasons why you might actually choose to head out before sunrise or out after sunset.
If you live in a place where scorching heat can be unbearable or even dangerous to run in, the early mornings and starlit evenings may be the only part of the day where temperatures are cool enough for your planned workout.
There’s not much daylight during the winter months. But if you can’t run until after work you’re going to have to learn to love those dark runs.
You signed up for it
If you’re signed up for an ultradistance race, running at night may be a prerequisite of the event. The more you get out at night in training, the more comfortable you’ll be on race day.
Running at night doesn’t have to feel like a chore. In fact, being out after dark can energize your day and make your everyday-run feel like an adventure. That same old route you know by heart can feel entirely new at night. While you’re out there, take the time to stop and admire your shadow that’s cast by a full moon or gaze up at the stars. The quiet time on the trails allows you to appreciate the sport in a whole new way. Plus, getting out in the dark when everyone else is still tucked away is pretty badass.
However, make sure to get the right gear.
While the sun was setting during my first 100-mile race, I realized I’d never trained for night running on trails. Consequently, I’d never put the $15 headlamp I bought at Target to the test.
As the desert sky grew darker, I fumbled with my headlamp and wished to the ultra-gods that I’d invested in a light source proven to withstand long, dark nights like the one I was about to face.
Moral of the story, don’t be cheap with gear when it comes to night running. A good light source will mean the difference between an enjoyable adventure and a miserable, dark, slog.
There are a lot of lighting options out there. I personally use a headlamp bright enough to illuminate the trail in front of me, even if it means a shorter battery life. I chose headlamp over the waist and handheld options because it allows me to keep my hands free and, unlike the other two options, a headlamp moves with my eyes as a product of being situated on top of my head.
Be sure to compare lumens when buying a light source. If you’ve ever talked to an ultra-running gear nerd, you’ve probably run across the term “lumens.” Lumens are the measurement of visible light that is emitted by your light source. You can get a decent light with a high amount of lumens that will both be lightweight and have good battery life.
There are also models that have adaptive lighting that will brighten if you’re looking far away or dim when you’re looking close or at something reflective like snow. This feature helps conserve battery life and also enables you to use the appropriate amount of light for the situation. During long trail races such as UTMB, I use a Petzl NAO with reactive lighting technologies, so I get the most out of my battery life. Other brands such as Black Diamond and Nathan also make headlamps with similar technologies.
Recruit training buddies
If you’re new to running in the dark, meeting up with a friend is a great way to build courage, scare off the animals and gain extra light. If you’re heading out the door before the sun comes up, a friend who is counting on you to show up will help you get out of bed. An essential and often overlooked benefit of night-running with a partner is that it replicates running with others during a race. You’ll be able to get a feel for how shadows are cast from neighboring light sources when someone runs behind or to the side of you.
And be safe out there. Where you choose to run in the dark is as vital as your light source. Do not run at night someplace known for late night assaults. If this describes your neighborhood trail system, make it a point to travel somewhere safer. As for wildlife, most animals want nothing to do with you and being brightly-lit and noisy gives them plenty of time to avoid you. That said, consider carrying bear spray, just in case.
The beauty of running at night is that perceptions change. Speed is warped because you can’t see objects in the distance passing by. As you get more comfortable and less trepidatious running in the dark, remember to keep your speed controlled. When race day comes, I hope you will look forward to and take comfort in the darkness. It’s when all the distractions of daylight are cast away and the world shrinks down to what you can see directly in front of you.
Soak it in, look up at the stars, enjoy the cooler temperatures and feel proud of yourself for getting out there when everyone else is cozied up in bed.