Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Art of Running in the Dark

Daylight savings in autumn is a pretty exciting day for perpetually tired students like me, because it means a glorious, extra hour of sleep.  After that, though, all the excitement is gone and you are left with longer and longer periods of darkness.  For most of us this time of year (in the northern hemisphere) this means periods of running in the dark, whether it is pre-dawn or post-dusk.  My running is no exception to that, and I have been logging quite a few miles in the dark of late.  As I was (yet again) running in the dark this week, I came to the realization that there are quite a few tricks that I feel are important to making this a satisfying and successful experience.

Embrace it.  If you are going to spend a significant amount of your runs in the dark, you really ought to enjoy it, which I think one can do by actively focusing on the nice things about it.  I enjoy running in the dark because it feels so much quieter.  This in turn makes it easier for me to meditate and mull things over.  Furthermore, I find that traffic is often less in the early mornings or late at night.  If you time it right, one can also enjoy a sunrise or sunset during the run.  This time of year, one can also enjoy the holiday lights better in the darkness.  Sometimes I pick a running route that takes me through a particularly well decorated neighborhood and it makes me feel festive.

Gear up.  A few adjustments to your normal running attire can make a dark run much more enjoyable and safe.  First, swap a dark colored shirt for a bright/light colored shirt.  Any gear with built in reflective elements is a plus, but certainly throwing on a white shirt is extremely easy to do, so no excuses! You can also clip a cheap, flashing bike light on your clothing.  This makes you easy to spot for any cars.  If the area you are running in is not well lit or has particularly bad footing, consider using a head lamp or hand held flashlight.   Alternatively, you can pick a route that you know is well-lit and has smooth terrain.  That is what I usually do; I avoid off-road paths anytime I know I am running when it is dark out.

Know thy enemy.  My primary concern while running in the dark is cars.  This is particularly problematic in Austin, where many roads (1) lack sidewalks and (2) lack street lights.  This means I am often forced to run in unlit streets.  The good news is that Austin is pretty cycling friendly, so most of the roads have shoulders.  First, I always run against traffic.  This is strongly recommended for runners, because it supposedly allows cars to see you sooner.  I usually take a defensive approach with cars, though, and assume that I need to take safety into my own hands.  I like running against traffic, because it makes it easier for me to know when a car is approaching.  As they get closer, I can gauge whether they are moving away from me and giving me plenty of passing space and if not, I will jump onto the curb.  My secondary concern is vulnerability and isolation.  As a female runner, I never want to put myself in a situation where someone could hurt me and I would be unable to get help.  While I enjoy running in remote and natural places, I skip this at night because it is so much harder to avoid danger.  I stick to well lit/populated areas with a decent amount of traffic.  If traffic is a problem, one can also choose residential neighborhoods with lots of houses and people in those houses.

Perfect the Art.  A major problem I experience while running in the dark is temporary blindness from the oncoming traffic's bright lights.  This makes me somewhat uncomfortable, because many of the roads I run in have potholes or other contour aspects.  In this case, I do my best to look at a distance where I can make out the road surface.  Additionally, I tend to press my feet into the pavement with confidence.  I also use this technique when running on slick or icy surfaces.  Literally, I apply a little extra pressure when my foot hits the pavement.  This should increase the friction between my shoe and the road, and help keep me upright.  It might all be in my head, but I can assure you that I have never fallen using this approach, and I have taken my fair share of face plants while running.  Usually these falls occur during the calmest of weather on smooth, flat road in full daylight, much to my embarrassment. 

Right now in Austin, the sun sets around 5:30pm.  I set out for a run at 5pm and selected a route that looped south along the Shoal Creek trail and then back along roads and through UT's campus.  Because the second half of the run would be in the dark, I intentionally ran the trail section first and was well onto paved road before it was too dark to see.  It was a grey, cloudy and drizzly day, preceded by an entire weekend of rain.  The weather was cool, in the low 50s and wet.  It reminds me of New England, and I love it!  After the hottest summer on record in Austin, I am finally in my element.  And for that, I don't mind logging a few miles in the dark :)


  1. Good you're successful in getting in runs despite the darkness. With your good precautions you should be safe. I too always run facing oncoming traffic, and on secluded roads I've rarely had to jump over the curb to avoid a speeding car approaching from behind as he was passing another car and either didn't see me or didn't care (had I been wearing headphones I would have been toast.) FYI, if running in complete darkness I wear a headlamp or Knuckle Lights; both have advantages and disadvantages. Good running!

  2. When it comes to balance workouts and work and family, many times you have to run in darkness. I see, you're a specialist in this topic.