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How to Run at Night and in the Cold

Rue Beyer ready to run on a chilly night.

There’s something about the lack of daylight that drives us inside. This goes back to a primal instinct to take shelter when it’s nighttime because of unseen threats. In today’s modern world, some threats take on a different form than what our ancestors faced while others are more familiar. Familiar threats being other people whose intentions are masked by darkness and how much less likely there’s a safety net to get to quickly. Animals are another threat; particularly nocturnal predators if you live in a rural area where they are likely to be out roaming about. Then there’s the modern issue of vehicles and higher traffic areas, which is also a form of people danger except that in this case, there’s usually no nefarious intention. It’s a conundrum, for sure, when you want to go for a run but you need to be in an area where there’s the safety net of others around, but also you don’t want to be hit by a driver who isn’t paying attention. Then there’s other factors to consider: is it the early morning dark hours, the early evening, or the late evening? What’s the weather like? If it’s clear, that’s one thing, but what about in the wintertime with snow and ice? Now that it’s dark you can’t readily see things you could see better in the daytime. All these unknowns make a lot of people hesitant when it comes to running at night, and while these are entirely valid concerns, it’s not impossible to develop risk mitigation plans so you can stay on your training plan. 

A couple of anecdotes and stories here. I’ve been a runner for over 20 years and I’ve run through a variety of conditions and experienced a variety of things. I’ve run in sunshine, clouds, thunderstorms, under tornado watches/warning, during hurricanes, snow, in the city, in the country, in the woods, in the mountains, in ridiculous hours of the morning,  and in late evenings. I’ve run with groups, in pairs, with a dog, and alone. I have been stalked by vehicles, had someone attempt to kidnap me, had close calls with vehicles, and most recently was actually hit by a vehicle (there’s a BINGO card in there somewhere). I’ve been smart on runs and also have been really stupid, but over the past two decades I’ve learned a lot of lessons in how to be smarter about running. 

For this entry, I’m going to focus on running at night and/or in the dark of winter. Oftentimes, our schedules are so busy that nighttime is the only time we have to be able to workout. There is, of course, the option of running on a treadmill or an elliptical if you have access to one. This can be a good alternative particularly in situations where the weather is so bad that it’s not safe to run outside (day or night). Most runners, at least that I know, hate the old treadmill. It’s boring and it’s hard to not stare down at the clock ticking down the minutes. I hated it, but there were definitely times where it was necessary. But what if you don’t have access to one? Well, fear not! Running outside at night is entirely a manageable thing if you follow good risk mitigation. 

Factors to Consider:

  1. Time of Night. 

When we’re talking about night runs, we have to consider the seasons and actual time of night. In the summer, it gets dark fairly late versus the winter where it’s dark by 4:30 in the afternoon, and then lets not forget the morning hours as well. This one is tricky because it all depends on where you live, what your community is like, where can you run, and if you’re running with others or alone. In my experience, it’s best to choose a time where the community is “awake” meaning that you’re less likely to run into a drunk driver, a mugger, or any situation where you might encounter someone with ill intentions toward you. In the morning hours, this could be after 5 AM when you’re likely to see other runners or walkers out and about before work. In the evening, it could be around the time where people are going to dinner. You likely don’t want to go outside for a run without a partner or group during hours where it’s harder to get to help. 

For example, a 3 AM run is probably not a good idea if you’re by yourself. I made this mistake once and was stalked by a vehicle to the point where I had to make a run for it to the nearest gas station that was open for safety. A better option would be to wait a couple more hours or ensure you have someone else to run with (safety in numbers).

  1. Route Planning

Do you live in a city, a suburb, a rural area, the woods, the mountains? It’s important to know the environment you’re in. Couple this with time of night and it makes a huge difference. If you live in the woods, you might consider what kind of animals you might encounter in the dark. Are you running on a trail or a county dirt road? If you’re in a city, are you running in a high traffic area or an area with less traffic? 

Consider your environment and use that information to plan a route that reduces your risk of injury, death, or negative encounters. 

I said earlier I was recently hit by a vehicle. Thankfully, I wasn’t hurt beyond a bruised arm, but the situation could have easily been so much worse. I had on good visibility gear and had right of way to cross this intersection, but the one factor I didn’t account for was a driver not paying attention. To make matters worse, this individual fled the scene before I could get a license plate number so the police couldn’t really do much. I could’ve just blamed the driver for being careless and continued on doing the same route, but in reality, this was a wakeup call that maybe I shouldn’t be running on a road with high vehicle traffic during a time of night where people are getting off of work. What I did instead was plan a different route that reduced the amount of intersections I had to cross and where I was less likely to encounter heavy vehicle traffic. Google Earth is a great resource for mapping out routes and ensuring you’re getting the distances that you want to hit. 

  1. Awareness

We should always be aware of our surroundings, but on a run, it can be easy to get distracted in our thoughts and want to daydream. When it comes to awareness, one thing always comes up time and again. To wear earbuds or not? Lots of articles will discourage use of earbuds because you can lose your ability to focus on what you’re doing and/or hear what’s going on around you. I know people who won’t run with them, and I know plenty who can’t go without. I’m one of those people who do wear them, however, this means that I have to use my other senses to really pay attention. I’m always looking around to see what vehicles are coming, if there’s other runners, bikers, or dogs out, and if anyone is acting suspiciously around me. 

I would say make the best judgement call you can about whether or not to have earbuds in, but know that regardless, you should always be paying attention to your surroundings. This is critical regardless of the time of day you’re running. 

  1. Running Solo vs A Group

This is another personal judgement call. There is definitely safety in numbers, but finding a group to run with or even just a partner can be difficult. People want to run with someone who’s pace is similar to theirs and they want it to workout with their schedule. Anytime other people are involved, there’s compromise on timing so oftentimes, solo running is the option you’re left with. For years, I ran alone and I would be constantly nervous about encountering anyone else. 

When I was running in college at Alabama, our cross country coach would take us out to this place he called “The Forest” every week for a long run. It was in the thick of the woods following a series of dirt trails. We had a rendezvous spot and we’d take off for a period of time (usually 1.5 hours). You could go anywhere you wanted. Some of the girls ran together, and others would splinter off. I was one of those who would splinter off on their own. I liked to explore and I’d always find different trails to make the runs less boring. This was also a hunting area and there were plenty of Alabama rednecks out and about. I learned to never assume positive intention with anyone you encounter when you’re alone and there were times when I’d see a vehicle coming from the distance and I’d jump off the road and hide till they were gone. But for every solo run I had like that, I also had plenty where nothing happened and the runs were great. 

I also used to run in a running club in my hometown in Georgia. We met every Wednesday at 6 and did a 6 mile run. Everyone knew the route and sometimes you’d end up running side by side with someone or maybe having the illusion of running alone with the safety net of knowing other runners were out there with you. 

Currently, I run with my dog, which makes me feel safe since she’s a German Shepherd and a lot of people are afraid of approaching me when she’s around. 

  1. Visibility and What to Carry With You

Visibility at night is crucial when it comes to safety. This isn’t a guarantee that every driver or person will see you, but it gives you a good line of defense. High visibility reflective gear is a popular and widely available choice for runners. There’s all kinds of gear out there for strobe lights, headlamps, and reflective vests. 

Personally, I really love my vest from Noxgear.

 It lights up and has various settings for flashing colors. I’ve been told by people that they couldn’t not see me. If you run with a dog like I do, they even make a harness version for dogs. 

A good headlamp will also help you to be able to see where you’re going; especially in areas where there are no street lights. Some headlamps out there can be bulky and are better suited for hiking, climbing, camping, but there are plenty out there that are lighter weight on the head and won’t bounce around while you run. Look up “running headlamp” on Amazon and there’s ton of options out there. 

There’s a lot of other bells and whistles for visibility from reflective gloves, shirts, pants, etc. Don’t go overboard with it, but do ensure that you can be seen. 

As far as what to carry with you, here are a few options:

  1. Cellphone (if you need to call for help, it’s great to have this handy and they make armbands for carrying a phone. Some running pants will even have a pocket for it). 
  2. Handheld mace (these come with a hand-strap for easy carry and can be useful if you do have a negative encounter with a person or animal)
  3. Water (this depends on the distance you’re running and your tolerance for going without water on a run. For ultra and trail runners, they make nice vests for easy hands-free storage of water bottles)
  4. Yaktrax or microspikes (this is great for winter running; especially where there’s snow on the ground and potential to encounter ice. This will greatly reduce your likelihood of taking a bad fall)
  1. What to Wear in Winter Running

This is the final bulletpoint and one that might help if you’re not sure what to wear when running in the wintertime cold. A good general rule of thumb is that you want to start cool or a bit on the cold side. If you’re warm or comfortable before you start running, you have too many layers on and you will sweat through it. Heavy sweating in the wintertime is bad for body temperature regulation. You might think you won’t warm up, but trust me, you will. You want to keep your extremities and sensitive areas covered, but again, don’t go overboard on what you put on. 

My personal preference for really cold runs is to wear long tights, a tank top or short sleeve, a thin long sleeve layer over top, and a puffy vest. The vest is great because it will keep your core warm, but as you warm up on runs, you won’t be overly hot. I like to wear a fleece-lined headband to cover my ears and forehead, but overall I won’t lose a lot of heat from my head like I would with a heavy beanie. I also will sometimes wear convertible gloves. The ones I have are cut on the fingers with a mitten fold over. That way if I need the dexterity of my hands, I can easily do that quickly and cover them up. 

In summary, I hope these tips will help you feel more empowered to get out there and run when you’re only options are to run at night. 

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