Running in the Dark

8 tips for running in the darkness

Running late at night or early in the morning may sound like craziness reserved for sadistic ultrarunners who thrive on long miles and little sleep. That is until the days get shorter and you remember that whether you run before or after work, part of your daily miles are probably going to happen in low-light conditions or complete darkness. Instead of fretting about the dark, embrace it!

Golden Harper, founder of Altra Running says, “I almost exclusively run at sunset. Not only are temperatures cooler, especially in the summer, you get to see the sunset which is awesome.” Ideally you’ll have a headlamp or hand-held light of some sort with you. Also, be prepared to go slower than your normal daytime pace. How much slower will be intuitive—our bodies are masters of self-preservation and your brain will want to run within your field of vision.

The first thing to consider is where you are going to run and whether that might entail running on roads or trails. Running on the roads in the dark can be easier—because visibility is often better and footing is more consistent on paved roads and concrete sidewalks—but also more dangerous because of traffic. Running on the trails requires a very effective headlamp or flashlight because of unpredictable terrain that might included rolling trails and hard-to-see rocks, roots and other obstacles.

If you’re running on the roads, always run against traffic and wear lightly colored clothing or apparel with reflective features. (Also consider Safety Skin, a new reflective skin spread that rolls on like sunblock or deodorant.) Train yourself to be hyper aware of oncoming vehicles, traffic signals, puddles and curbs, fences, shrubs and other hard-to-see obstacles. But consider running on a sidewalk or bike path, if available, instead of the side of a road.

If you’re running on trails, make sure you can see both immediately in front of you and down the path about 10 to 15 feet. The more technical the terrain, the slower and more defensively you’ll have to run. Also, be aware you might startle or encounter wildlife (rabbits, fox, deer, raccoons, etc) that might be out looking for their next meal.

For more tips, we polled a few runners who run in the dark regularly for training, racing and enjoyment.

Use a Headlamp

Hillary Allen, an ultrarunner from Boulder, Colorado, prefers using reactive headlamps (like the Petzl Reactik+ or the LED Lenser SEO 7R) that can adjust to ambient light sources and the light of other headlamps to provide the right amount of light and also conserve battery life. Max King, an ultrarunner from Bend, Oregon, says one headlamp is good, but suggests two can be even better—especially when running on trails at night. In addition to a light on his head, he also often wears an “uber bright” light on his waist because he says it helps with depth perception for seeing rocks and obstacles on the trail.

Take a Buddy

Allen recommends running with a friend. The wisdom of safety in numbers is even more important at night, and company makes the run more fun. Plus, when a rustling in the bushes frightens you, your buddy can help you laugh (or scare) off swaying branches and curious critters.

Look Ahead

Harper, who lives in Utah, says he shines his headlamp about 10 feet ahead of his footsteps—especially when he’s on trails. Not only does this let you intuitively plan your steps, it gives you more time to react to potential obstacles, terrain changes and poorly lit street curbs.

Run with the Moon

King likes running under a full moon, when he can get by with little or no additional light once you let your eyes adjust.

Practice Makes Perfect

Allen says running in the dark takes practice. It can be disorienting at first, especially when we’re used to taking in so many visual cues in full light. At night, it’s just you and your light beam. It also helps to reduce stress if you run on familiar routes. You already know where to go.

Embrace the Darkness

Ultrarunner Brian Tinder, who lives in Arizona, likes to embrace the dark and have fun with the adventure of it. Without as much outside stimuli, he says he’s better able to listen to his body and monitor the feedback.

Dress for Success

It’s a fact that temperatures are cooler once the sun sets. Tinder says it’s critical to anticipate the cold. Be sure to run with extra layers and put them on before you get cold. It takes less energy to stay warm than it does to get warm once you’ve gotten chilly. Harper also recommends wearing fingerless gloves, like biking gloves. He says if you do stumble, you’ll be better able to catch yourself without destroying your hands.

March your Run

When you’re caught without a light or are in variable light conditions (think going from sunlight to a tunnel or in deeply shaded woods), both King and Harper recommend picking up your feet and having them land underneath you. Harper calls his modified nighttime stride a “march run.” He keeps both his feet and his knees high, with feet parallel to the ground, in a hybrid of marching and running. Sure, you could walk. But Harper says this method saves time, especially if you’re starting to get cold or are miles from home.

Allison Pattillo
Motiv Running senior editor Allison Pattillo writes about running, health, nutrition, gear and travel from her home in Colorado. When it comes to gear, she’s a fan of tall running socks, short running skirts and wearing her hat backwards. Even with a BQ and a few podium finishes (all triathlons should be run, bike, canoe!), Allison finds more inspiration from running in beautiful places and exploring on the run instead of the numbers on a stopwatch. She looks forward to the day when she finds her ultimate running dog, which, at this point, may be more bulldog than border collie.