In Part 1 of my blog series on Running in the Dark, we covered lighting. Without lighting, you can’t really run in the dark, so while it wasn’t the most exciting topic, it was a necessary first discussion point. But, now we get to tackle a much more interesting topic- tips and tricks for running on the trails at night.
Though I haven’t done a study on it, I’d reckon that more people fall on the trails at night than they do during the day. Why? Because it is just harder to see where you are going, even with a good light. Which leads me to the first half of my night-time running tips…
- Focus on picking up your feet more. Due to decreased lighting, it can be harder to see contours on the trail. I’ve found that picking my feet up a bit higher off the ground helps me to avoid hitting taller rocks that I wasn’t able to see well. A slight misjudgment in the height of a rock or root, and you’re on the ground quickly. By picking up your feet just a bit, you give yourself an added margin of error when you encounter rocks, roots, or other objects that might otherwise trip you up.
- Angle your headlamp or handheld up a bit to allow for down-the-trail scanning. When I first started night trail running, I would angle my headlamp sharply down to illuminate the small area in front of my feet. While this made the trail immediately in front of me brighter, it didn’t allow me to easily see further down the trail to watch out for objects, or animals, that I needed to avoid. I was constantly picking my head up to glance down the trail, which can really get tiring on your neck after a while. This sharp downward slant to my light also gave me the light halo where I felt like I was running in a tunnel. After a few hours of this during a long run or race, this can get really tiring and disconcerting.
- Don’t fully commit to your foot placement- quick steps. When you fully commit to placing your foot down in an area where you can’t completely see the trail or trail contours, you risk committing to an unsteady spot- which can lead to a fall. By increasing your cadence and running more up on your feet (I run more on the balls of my feet when running at night), you give yourself more time to react should you hit something that is unsteady.
Now that we have talked about some form change tips, let’s talk about a few lighting etiquette tips. Believe me, your fellow runners will thank you if you follow these few easy rules.
- When running on a trail with oncoming traffic, don’t look directly at who is coming. Anyone that is local who has raced or paced at Javelina Jundred, knows this one all too well. It seems that many people like to look to see who is approaching them. But in doing this, you are shining your headlamp directly into their eyes, making it very difficult for them to see where they are going. It’s like driving directly into oncoming traffic. So please, do your fellow runners a favor, look slightly to the right of them down the trail. You will still be able to see who is approaching, without blinding them in the process.
- If you are running with a group or pacing a friend at night, don’t follow too closely. Bright headlamps right behind a runner can really mess with their trail running vision by casting funky shadows on the trail. Especially if someone is not used to running like this, it can be extremely disconcerting to focus with their own lighting, while dealing with your lighting. The easiest fix is to just back off a bit. Frankly, running too close to someone else can get you into trouble anyway. If they need to stop quickly (because there is a snake in the trail), or take a fall, you are really in trouble.
- Don’t turn your headlamp on too early. This one took me quite a while to figure out. But, as the sun is setting, I will often wait until it is almost completely dark, and I can no longer see without lighting, to turn mine on. A light plus the ambient light as the sun is setting can cause far too-bright of conditions that actually make it more difficult to see the trail. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen go down during this exact time- all because they had too much light. The only time I will turn mine on earlier is if I’m concerned about snakes. Having my headlamp light arrive to alert the snake before he came into my view has saved me on more than one occasion.
- Know your route. A trail that you have run many times during the daylight can look totally different at night. During last year’s course preview of the Sinister Night Runs course, we ran on a Saturday morning. The race director said to me: “you know this trail, right?”. Well, I have run the loop many, many times, but always at night in that direction. Running it during the day was an entirely different experience and I found myself very confused at many points. Even if you have run a trail before, be sure to spend some extra time at intersections making sure that you are going the right way. Nobody wants to be lost in the desert at night.
- Bring a friend. Running in the dark on the trails at night can be disconcerting. There are lots of new sounds at night, particularly as animals are out and about more. For peace of mind, and from a safety standpoint, I always like to run with a friend, or a group of friends. When I see a set of glowing eyes looking back at my headlamp, it’s nice to know I’m not alone out there should that bunny get any funny ideas.
And now that we have gotten some of my favorite tips and tricks out of the way, I would love to hear from you. What have you found that works well for you during night running sessions?
*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.