Friday, July 23, 2010

Ultra Running – Running trails in the Dark

Tonight's Sunset from Mt Tinbeerwah
My last two training runs have involved a significant period of running in the dark, the first before sunrise and the second after sunset.  Whilst I don’t run at this time of day all that often it is something I have done quite a bit of and tonight I realised there’s a bit more to it than your everyday run.

If you haven’t done it before it can be exhilarating and can be a welcome break from a normal routine. It can actually feel like you are running on an entirely new route when out in the dark. There are different smells and noises to take in and different wildlife to contend with – I have found myself in a Mexican standoff with a large male Kangaroo on a night run!

So what are the main consideration when running at night and more specifically when running on trails? You safety is of course paramount.  Always tell someone where you are going, and always take a phone with you. If you do get injured you could be out there for a long time as there is a much lower chance of meeting someone who could help. 

Don’t run on unfamiliar routes in the dark as it is very easy to get disorientated and lost. This can work out to be good mental training where you end up running for 5 hours instead of 2, but isn’t to be advised!

I always take my backpack which has in it warm clothing, and a space blanket as it can get significantly colder at night.  A reflective vest is also a good idea, as it can provide additional warmth as well as the obvious safety benefits on the roads (and on the trails it can help you be found more easily if you do get into trouble).

The essential piece of kit you need is a torch (with spare batteries), and there are a number of options.  Personally I prefer a head torch as they are lightweight, light up what you’re looking at, and with LEDs are amazingly effective. On their own they do have their limitations as the light source is very close to your eyes, so you tend not to get much in the way of shadows on the trail in front of you. This makes it very difficult to differentiate between a smooth running surface and a rock or tree root in your path.  To counter this I have a small hand light which I hold lower down to show the shadows and give extra definition to the trail.  I have seen other runners use a head torch attached around their waist for the purpose also.

The beauty of a hand torch is that you can also shine it on anything else you need to see, perhaps further in the distance, or to identify what made that unusual noise, while the head torch provides good ambient light to run by.

As a personal preference I like to leave it as late as possible before I use a torch, so that I can allow my night vision to develop, but there comes a point when a torch is the only sensible option. This point in a recent race was about 10 seconds after I ran into a tree!

One final piece of equipment I will mention is an mp3 player. Leave it at home and enjoy the sounds of the trails at night, it is so different from those that you will experience in the day. Also, not being plugged in actually improves your balance – I find it difficult to walk in a straight line with headphones on.

Having all the right equipment will help, but you do have to run differently in the dark.  Given the lack of visual cues from the running surface you will have to rely more on proprioreception to avoid injuring yourself. You need to be more alert to the changes in terrain, and be used to running on trails to have developed this ability. I would not advise anyone to do their first night trail run until they have proved themselves as competent trail runners. You don’t want a twisted ankle in the middle of the bush on a cold evening by yourself.

Common sense dictates that you should run a little slower to give you more time to see/feel where you are going and also to reduce the potential traumatic effect of any uncontrolled movements in the knees and ankles. As with any trail running you need to have strong joints and connective tissues, and develop an almost subconscious awareness of what is beneath the soles of your feet.

If you are going to be in a race which will involve running in the dark it is important to get some specific training in. If you aren’t planning to race in the dark, just give it a go for the pure experience of it. Take a friend if that will make you more comfortable

One of my favourite running experiences was running through the night and then watching the sun come up turning the sky bright red because of dust cloud which had blown in from the desert that week. It was like a reward for having run all night.

Happy running
Andy

“A person will not believe something until they discover it for themselves”

Today’s Training: