If you live in the UK, at the winter solstice you only have 7hrs and 49 minutes of daylight! I remember many running commutes when I worked full time in London, wrapping up as warm as possible and fixing my headtorch on, braving the dark, the cold and sometimes the horizontal rain. Despite the monotony of an over-familiar route, I still noticed the adrenalin rush of running along the Thames, the low-level street lighting whipping past me, it felt like I was going at a blistering pace. If you haven’t experienced it then you must give it-a-go, in these situations you often feel like you run faster at night.
Running at night will also help you see another side to where you live, making the boring much more exciting. One January night, I’d gone to bed and just couldn’t sleep. I poked my head out of the window and snow was laying over the ground, I quickly put my running gear and headed out for a 10 miler and didn’t see another soul. It was one of the best runs of my life. So, running at night can certainly inject a bit of adventure into your trail runs.
Not only that, but what an opportunity to see some wildlife. Dusk and dawn are great times to see and hear a lot of wildlife. Next time you are out on the trails, in the middle of your run, just stop for a few minutes and listen to the environment around you, even in an urban environment you are likely to make out the blood curdling scream of a fox calling or the screech of a barn owl. It’s amazing what you can discover at night, and see your environment in a whole different light.
Well that all sounds well and good, but there are many good reasons why many of us don’t want to go out at night! Let’s look at the Top 7 reasons why:
- Difficult to see – pretty obvious one, but worth pointing out, night time is dark time and it’s not when us humans fair too well. This can lead to many problems from how trails appear at night, to missing that footpath sign and getting severely lost.
- Altered reality – At night our mind can play tricks on us. From how we perceive the passage of time, to how we perceive objects such as trees and shrubs, which in the dark appear bigger than they actually are.
- Trip hazards – a direct result of not being able to see well, those tiny twigs or uneven pavements suddenly become obstacles for our feet.
- Head height obstacles – “Wow that was close!” Yes, trails are 3D! If you have managed to stay on your feet then maybe a branch will get you! “Whack!”
- Cold – simple laws of thermodynamics, no sun = colder, this can be good in the summer but can compound the issue if it’s a winter run you are embarking on.
- Lonely – is it just me? We are social beings us humans, too many people are too busy, too few is more worrying and no one, maybe I shouldn’t be here?
- Anxiety/fear – Seriously, running at night can feel pretty threatening from urban to rural environments, the last thing you want to do is put yourself in danger.
So, let’s put this all together and look at some different techniques we can put in the tool box to counter some of the challenges, to get the best of this exciting aspect of trail running.
- The Athletic Stance – Most of my trail running clients will be familiar with my talk about the athletic stance. I normally start with asking what would be the best stance to develop to anticipate a rugby tackle. It’s this stance that can be adopted to provide a more stable running style either in running at night or running downhill. It will help lower your centre of gravity and create more flexibility in your joints as well as readiness in your muscles so that you can deal better with that uneven ground or trip hazard.
- Slow start - It’s a natural reaction to slow down when we run at night but it’s also worth deliberately taking the foot off the accelerator, especially on an unfamiliar trail. That way you will have more time to develop your approach to the trail. Once you have honed your technique and knowledge you can pick up the gears and go quicker, developing your agility, reaction times and proprioception.
- Shorter Steps – another way of creating more stability in your running is to shorten your stride and increase your cadence. This will not only make you less reliant on the stability of each step but it will also give you a lighter style.
- Lift your feet – running at night will naturally lead you to misjudge what’s going on around your feet, including those trip hazards, and it’s often the small ones which are barely noticeable which will catch you out, so pick up your feet and don’t let them shuffle along the ground! It will make you a stronger runner and also one with fewer bruises!
- Lighting – invest in a good head torch, if you need any help, check out the buying guide here. Make sure that the battery power will last the length of the run, very few will last much more than a couple of hours on maximum output, so consider a spare battery, or a backup.
- 3-Dimensional viewing – the trail is not a 2-dimensional experience, you need to be aware of what’s going on all around you, from feet to the top of your head. Sweeping with your head torch will also help prevent the tunnel vision that can develop from long night time runs and develop your proprioception for what’s ahead.
- Remain alert – don’t run with earphones, use your natural ability which focuses your senses on the ones which are more acute at night, such as your hearing. This is especially important if you run urban areas at night. Also, don’t forget to give other trail users some heads up well before you are right behind them!
- Go peripheral – If you’re having trouble seeing in the dark, then the best technique is not to look directly at the object but to look just off from it, using your peripheral vision. This works as the receptors (rods) in our eyes that sense light and dark lie at the edge of the retina, unlike the cells that sense colour (cones) which are focused at the centre of the eye. Rods are 1,000 times more sensitive to light than cones.
- Additional lighting – one way of increasing depth perception and removing tunnel vision is by using a hand-held torch in conjunction with your head torch. This way two sources of lights generate different shadows and lighting, helping perspective. Also consider moving your head torch to around your waist or sternum. You can buy waist belts and extension cables for your head torch from some manufacturers, such as Suprabeam. Give it a go and see what works best for you.
- Hot up on your navigation – You should know where you are on the trail at all times. Depending on your activity take a map, compass or GPS and ensure that you have planned the route and know some shortcuts in case you need to get back sooner. If you need to learn more about navigation then check out our series in The Run the Wild Times, or book a session with one of the Run the Wild team.
- Recce the trail in the daylight - “on-sighting” a trail at night is not wise, make sure you know where you will be going and what difficulties you might face. It will help with your navigation and also mean that you will avoid holes or branches or other hazards.
- Learn about local wildlife – what a privilege it is to discover wildlife on the trails, try to learn something about them, maybe where they live, their usual tracks or trails, and their calls. So maybe that screaming you heard the other time on the trail you will identify is just a fox call and not your worst nightmare.
- Learn about trees – trees are not apparitions but they may seem scary if you are not used to them, they are the same as at night as they are in the day, just without the sun illuminating them, you don’t want to become a nyctohylophobe! (scared of woods at night)
- Layer up – it gets colder at night, but often your body clock will naturally slow down at night, so put on some extra layers and pack something extra in your running pack in case you are out for longer than expected.
- Dress to impress – consider wearing some bright clothing, this will make it safer for you and also any of those other crazy nighttime runners.
- Safety – this is key! Don’t be scared, think smart. Run with a friend, run with a group, run with Run the Wild! Whatever you do, let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back. Pack a fully charged phone and keep safe out there.
Trail running at night doesn’t have to be something to be feared. It can be, by its very nature, an adventure and not only that but make you a much better trail runner. Off you go then, I’ll be there, I’m just going check what’s on Netflix first though…
Safe trails folks!
Simon James is the founder of Run the Wild - the UK’s first premier, dedicated trail running holiday adventure company. Operating in the UK and the Alps, they deliver holidays that combine the sense of 'team' from mountaineering, with the thrill of trail running in wild places. Simon is a keen trail runner and marathon runner with a PB of 2hrs 37mins. He is a qualified Leader in Running Fitness as well as International Mountain Leader and offers treks in the Alps.