By Ryan Dubey
“Running in the dark… in the woods? Are you nuts?” Yes, I am a little crazy but, that’s no reason to not listen to me.
The reality is, I don’t ever have enough time to train. As a result, I need to find new ways to get workouts in. I get up around 4:30 most weekdays and get either a run, some base training or some lifting in. I do own a treadmill and I spend plenty of time at incline walking and walking and walking. This, as you can imagine get really boring, really fast. When it’s not 10° out, I really try to do my cardio outside. I love trail running, so much that I don’t hit the street very much at all anymore. The days I do strap on the road shoes, I head to the high school track (which has lights), for speed work.
I do have a history of being in the woods at night. Going back to my mountain biking days, we had a standing Wednesday night ride. We started at 6pm, every week. When the fall hit, it was dark at 6:00 so, we all had helmet and bike mounted lights. To make things more interesting, we always rode the trail backwards in the fall. This made us think about riding and not about what we expected around the next turn. In the dark, going the opposite direction really messes with your perception. This made us much better riders as we learned to deal with wat was in front of us instead of already knowing the best path.
A couple of years ago, I would meet my friend Jim for trail runs early weekend mornings. We would start off in relative darkness and as we ran the sky would brighten up. This got me used to running in the dark and was really kind of freaky the first few times. I was definitely much slower and cautious. I had a very cheap headlamp and visibility was limited. I’m glad I had this experience, however, as my first Killington Beast took 9 hours and I finished with glow sticks and headlamp on.
I dealt with the cheapo headlamp for a couple more years. After that, I decided I wanted to up my headlamp game. I needed something waterproof and brighter. I found a really nice headlamp that was IPX-7 waterproof rated and was rechargeable. I’ll leave it up to you to find a headlamp. There are so many good options.
Now, trying to get into the woods before 5:30 works fairly well during the summer. In the fall and winter, that’s another thing. In mid-late September and before the time change early November, it’s still dark when I’m DONE with my run.
For the purpose of this topic, I will assume you are a fairly experienced trail runner. You are comfortable running on uneven, rocky and muddy terrain. You know how to pick a good line and you can do this in your head fairly quickly.
How I approach night running:
- Always head to a familiar trail system. Now is not the time to go exploring. I don’t run the trail backwards (like in mountain biking) because, I’m generally by myself. It is very easy to get turned around and off-trail.
- Expect to run slower. I run about 1-2 mins/mile average slower in the dark. I just can’t open up on the downhills like I can in full light. The flats, for me, are not too much slower but, that comes in time. Don’t expect any part of your run to be as fast until you gain experience.
- Don’t be afraid to walk. Sometimes, safety outweighs speed.
- Just like with running downhill, don’t over think your line. Run. Just avoid the big rocks, logs and holes. Something I learned from mountain biking is, look where you want to go, not what you’re trying to avoid. You will inevitably put your foot on that big rock if you focus on it.
- Have fast feet. This is great advice any time but, you can really hone your skills in the dark. Keep them moving.
- Let someone know where you’ll be and when you should return. This is always a good practice but, very important if you head out at night where there will be many hours of darkness before dawn. Did you ever taco a wheel at 7 pm and have to hoof it 3 miles out of the woods in freezing temperatures? I have and I’m glad I wasn’t by myself. Twisting an ankle is no better.
As you get more experience in the dark, it gets easier and more natural. Any bad habit is amplified. If you are in the habit of not picking up your feet or being sloppy with foot placement, you will be cured of this quickly. As you learn to do these things better, your daylight runs will get faster. You start to make quicker decisions as to foot placement. With the better visibility, you can look ahead and pick your line sooner. This lets you run faster as you already know where your feet are going to land.
Start out by going just before dawn. This will allow you a little time to run as it slowly gets lighter. If you really struggle with it, the sun is on its way and you can try again another day.
Another advantage to going out just before dawn is the spectacular sunrises you can see. It usually works out that I can reach the summit just as the sun is cresting the mountain. I never get tired of that view.
Ryan Dubey is an Elite Masters racer in his 5th year of racing. He lives in CT with his wife and 3 boys. He is an ambassador for Medal Addict, Honey Stinger, Swiftwick socks and RSP Nutrition.