Shorter days mean many of us have no choice but to exercise before dawn or after dusk. But is it safe to run or cycle in the dark? What extra kit do you need? And, most importantly, how do you pull yourself out of your warm bed or off your comfortable sofa? We asked nocturnal athletes and experts for their tips.
How do I keep warm?
Layers are vital: leggings or tights, base layers, a running or cycling jacket and waterproofs. But, says Sam Jones, who works for Cycling UK and is a keen night-time mountain biker: “People often forget to layer their hands and feet. You can wear inner gloves and merino socks under thicker gloves and waterproof socks – try Sealskinz or Endura.”
How will I see – and be seen?
At night, you need reflective clothing rather than fluorescent/hi-vis. Fluorescent clothing works by converting UV sunlight into light we can see, so it isn’t effective at night, whereas reflective clothes use artificial light, such as car headlights and streetlights. But Ceri Rees, who founded the Wild Night Run series of night-time trail races in the south-west of England, says you don’t have to invest in a whole new outfit. “You could focus on accessories: reflective wristbands, bumbag and hat.”
Indeed, a study by the Queensland University of Technology, published in the journal Transportation Research in January, found that reflective strips worn on movable joints (wrists, ankles, knees and elbows) can significantly reduce the risk of a collision with a vehicle at night. The study, based on 50 cyclists and runners in Leeds and Brisbane, found that drivers were better able to identify those with moving reflective strips as people, rather than any other bright object, and discern how far away they were.
When cycling on roads between sunrise and sunset, it is a legal requirement in the UK to have a white front light, red rear light and reflectors at the back of your bike and on your pedals. Jones recommends reading road.cc’s buyers’ guide to the best bike lights.
Off-road, runners will need a head torch, and mountain bikers will need handlebar and helmet lights. Jasmin Paris, a fell runner who won the 268-mile Spine Race along the Pennine Way in 83hrs 12mins 23 secs in 2019, expressing milk for her baby along the way, says a head torch is the most important piece of kit. “I use a rechargeable one and charge it up after every run.” Rees recommends a reactive torch, which automatically adjusts the brightness based on how dark it is, conserving energy.
Is it all worth it?
Try to think of exercising in the dark as a unique experience, rather than a necessary evil. You are entering “a totally different world”, says Jones, one populated by owls, badgers, hedgehogs and foxes. Paris says: “Your whole world gets narrowed down to a pool of light in front of you. It is a form of meditation, and has lots of the same benefits.”
Ultimately, as Rees says: “You can choose to hibernate, or you can choose to defy the winter. There’s something very emboldening about running all year round – you don’t dread the seasons any more.”
How do I stay safe?
A common worry about exercising after dark is personal safety. One option is a runner’s alarm that straps around your wrist and is activated by pulling a chain or clicking a button. Paris says she carried one on runs when she lived in Minnesota for a year, although she never had to use it. She now lives in a village outside Edinburgh and feels much safer running in the hills. “I don’t worry about a serial killer coming to stab me in the middle of nowhere!” Other safety tips include sticking to well-lit, well-populated areas; varying your route; running without headphones; and using a safety app such as bSafe.
Some say a few nerves are all part of the experience. “Running through a forest at night is very invigorating,” says Rees. “The hair on the back of your neck stands up, and you deal with your personal ghosts and demons.” Jones adds: “Mountain biking alone at night can feel a bit eerie – you can spook yourself and hear weird noises – but it can also be therapeutic.”
If you don’t feel comfortable exercising – or exorcising – alone, however, Paris suggests going with a dog (“although mine would be useless if someone tried to attack me”) – or a friend. In non-Covid times, you can also find a local running or cycling group to train with, and enter a night race or ride. The MapMyRun app has a live tracking feature so you can share your location with a friend for added peace of mind.
Will I get injured?
You may think the risk of injury would be higher in the dark, but Rees says there are far fewer injuries on his night run series than the daytime races. “Running at night engages all the senses, and the musculoskeletal feedback is more intuitive,” he says. “You feel the ground more, and your body reacts instinctively.”
There is little evidence that road cycling is more dangerous at night. According to a 2018 Department for Transport factsheet, most serious accidents take place from 7am-10am and 4pm-7pm on weekdays, and 10am-midday on weekends, ie when more cyclists are on the roads. Mountain biking after dark has the potential to be more dangerous – it is harder to see roots that could trip you up or branches that could hit you in the face – but the risks can be reduced by riding familiar trails, using a good set of lights, wearing protective biking glasses and (of course) slowing down.
It can be difficult to judge pace in the dark, though. Rees says: “Your cadence changes; you take shorter steps, and it feels like you’re running faster.” This sense of speed was confirmed by a 2012 study of cyclists published in the Journal of Sports Exercise Psychology – it’s all down to “optic flow influence”. In the dark, you can only see objects when they’re close to you, so it feels as if your surroundings are passing quickly, which in turn makes you feel that you’re running faster.
It is always sensible to tell someone where you’re going and take a phone with you, just in case you do twist an ankle or cycle into a tree.
How do I plan my route?
Paris spends six months of the year running in the dark, and runs the same routes in summer sunshine or winter darkness. “The only thing I wouldn’t do at night is a technically challenging run, such as along a ridge in the mountains,” she says. Novice night runners may feel more confident on easier routes they’ve recently checked out in daylight. Rees suggests doing different kinds of sessions in the dark. “Mix your runs up a bit, make it playful,” he says. You could use lamp-posts to do intervals, or “take your shoes and socks off and go round a football field barefoot” (as long as there are responsible dog owners in your area).
He also recommends brushing up on your map-reading skills. “It adds to the satisfaction to plan a route, study it beforehand and look at where you went afterwards,” he says. “Having basic navigation skills boosts your confidence and makes you more likely to go out.” Apps, including ViewRanger or MapMyRun, will help you plan a route and follow it.
Jones says it is easy for cyclists to get lost. “Things look totally different after dark, so consider buying a GPS bike computer, and make sure your phone is charged. Start small, with short rides to build your confidence.” And always carry a puncture repair kit – you don’t want to be stuck miles from home at night.
How do I motivate myself?
If possible, exercise at the same time every week, so it becomes a habit, rather than relying on willpower. Paris works full-time as a vet and has two young children, so she runs before dawn. “Once you get into a routine of getting up at 5am, your body gets used to it,” she promises. She also recommends laying out your clothes the night before, and making a date. “After I had my first baby, I ran with a friend. If we’d arranged to meet at 7am in the hills, I couldn’t cancel – I’d be letting them down.”
Rees says it depends on where your motivation comes from. “If you’re intrinsically motivated, you’ll find a reason to run, whether that’s losing weight, getting fitter or just feeling better,” he says. “If you’re extrinsically motivated, you may need to track your progress on Strava, set mileage goals or train for a race.” He also has a tip for evening runs when restrictions allow: “I often plan a run that finishes at a pub. I like to imagine having a pint and chat by an inglenook fireplace while I’m running.”
But don’t be too hard on yourself. “We don’t need to be martyrs,” says Jones. “If it’s pouring with rain and blowing a gale, don’t feel obliged to go out – there will be a better night.”
Will exercising before bed stop me sleeping?
Don’t worry about being too wired to sleep. A 2019 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that even high-intensity interval running sessions in the evening “do not disrupt and may even improve subsequent nocturnal sleep in endurance-trained runners”, while low-intensity exercise “induced positive changes in sleep behaviour”. Paris ran around Liverpool “in the dead of night” to cure her insomnia as a student, while Jones says he is always relaxed and ready for bed after a night ride. OK, a predawn session is going to interfere with your sleep – but you can always compensate with an early night.