My first trail run ever was in the dark. Of course, I hadn’t planned it that way. When I showed up to the run that evening, it never occurred to me that I might be running after the sun set. So, I had no lighting with me at all. Fortunately, the group leader loaned me a handheld light, and helped me slowly navigate the trail on my first dirt run. The rest, as they say, is history.
Our schedules don’t always allow for trail running when it is light outside. And living in Arizona, it is far too hot during the summer to avoid doing at least a portion of your long run in the dark. But, trail running in the dark can be very intimidating for beginner and veteran runners alike.
As a night owl, I gravitate toward training in the evenings whenever possible. And my favorite races of the year take place during the summer months when it is just too hot out to race during the light hours. Because so many people ask me great questions about getting started in night trail running, I wanted to share some tips and tricks to help navigate the trails after the sun goes down. Hopefully, whether you are new to trail running, or have been doing this for years, you will find some good information here.
The most important item that you will need before your first night run, is a good light. And as far as lights go, there are two main options- headlamps and handheld lights. (Side note: I know that there are waist-packs or lights that can be clipped onto the torso in some way. But, I have yet to find a person that has tried these and continued to use it. The constant up and down motion of a running body tends to make these lights impractical as this type of light usually makes people pretty dizzy or disoriented. And while your head or hand can easily be pivoted to look at things of interest or concern, your entire body, not so easily).
But I really digress…two types of lights: handhelds and headlamps. In my experience, the most popular of these is the headlamp. A headlamp is a light that is attached to an elastic band that is worn like a headband. And, there are a ton of options here- different light strengths, battery configurations, and most recently, even different light colors. The key here is to do a bit of research and figure out what works for you. For me personally, I like a simple headlamp that isn’t too bright. Why not too bright you say? Well, our Arizona dirt is very light, and I find that seeing contours and differences between rocks and dirt areas is tougher for me with a very bright light. But, this is really a personal preference thing and everyone is different.
The benefit of a headlamp is that it leaves your hands free, so that you can either carry one or two handheld bottles, or leave them empty entirely. Again, this is a preference thing.
There are a few drawbacks to a headlamp though. For starters, a headlamp casts a higher shadow on the ground, making it harder to see rocks and contours in the trail. And secondly, there tends to be a comfort issue for many people, particularly over very long training runs, races, or all-night events. To keep the headlamp from sliding down, it needs to be snug enough to not move. And, this snugness can cause headaches after a while.
There are a number of fixes here that definitely help with the problem. The most common one I have seen is to wear a headband or a head wrap under the headlamp to help secure the light, and eliminate those dreaded forehead marks. A backward cap also works well here since there is a natural “slot” for the light to fit in. Some like to put the headlight on first, with the cap over the top allowing the light to stick through the slot. My preference is to put the headlamp on over my cap. The bill of the cap allows me to wear my headlamp looser, thus avoiding some of the head pressure. But again, this is all about trial and error and finding out what works best for you.
Now on to the second option you have in lighting, the handheld. Many prefer a handheld, particularly in more rocky and technical conditions. Because a handheld light is held so much lower and closer to the ground, it casts a longer shadow on the ground, thus allowing for clearer viewing of the trail contours.
When using a handheld, you have the benefit of nothing on your head, no pressure around your noggin to worry about. But, you also have something in your hand now- which limits your hydration options. You can either carry a bottle in the other hand or use a hydration pack for your water.
One of the biggest drawbacks to a handheld light is that the light tends to bounce around the trail due to the natural swing of your arms. The only way to minimize this is to decrease your arm movement and alter your natural running gait. But, I have certainly seen many people love and use this style of lighting, and they seem to adapt their gait to accommodate it.
And for those wanting the benefits of both styles of lighting, you can always use both. The biggest key to lighting, whether it be a handheld or headlamp, is making sure that it works. Having extra batteries on hand is key, as is having a backup light on hand. Being out on a dark trail or in the middle of a race when your lighting fails is not a good place to be.
Whatever you choose, being confident with your lighting and giving yourself time to train with it prior to an event or race is very important. There is definitely a learning curve when it comes to letting your eyes adjust to how the trail looks differently in the dark. Even after only spending a few months running exclusively during the daylight hours, it can take a few night runs to get back into the groove of things with night running.
Because I just spent an entire blog post talking exclusively about lighting, I obviously think it is the most important part of night trail running, and one that deserves plenty of time and attention. While running pace naturally slows a bit when running in the dark due to the decreased trail visibility, you can really minimize this effect by spending lots of time training in the dark on the trails, and training for the conditions of any races you might have down the road, er, trail.
Until next time, happy trail running, And night training at that.
*This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The words and other content provided in this blog, and in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice. If the reader or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately-licensed physician or other health care worker.