Hello darkness, my old friend – it's that time of year when it becomes hard to maintain your running mojo. Here are my 8 tips for pounding the streets on dreary winter mornings and evenings
We runners hate this time of year. Once the clocks go back, and the mornings and evenings are drearily dark and cold, it becomes increasingly hard to find the right moment to squeeze in a cheeky 5k. If, like me, you work full-time office hours, you can only run in the margins of the day from Monday to Friday. But if I want to head out tomorrow before work, it’ll have to be in the dark because the sun doesn’t rise until 7.12am. After work? Yep, also pitch black, because the sun sets at 4.23pm. And this is a major problem.
If you’re a man, you probably have no idea what I’m driving at here. If you’re a woman, I bet you do. Because once the clocks change, many of us feel like we’re under curfew before the sun rises or once it sets. Every gentle jog or interval training session is subject to a grim cost/benefit analysis: do the risks of me doing this (eg being assaulted) outweigh the rewards (eg healthy body, healthy mind)?
And who can blame us. I regularly sprint down a short, narrow, unlit alleyway between my local park and the main road, in the dark. It takes about 15 seconds. I have lost count of the number of times a male runner has chosen that exact moment to overtake me. God, the horror as you hear clearly male footsteps thundering behind, gaining on you, as you pray this won’t be the time something bad happens. Some of these guys even yell a breezy “Hi!” as they squeeze past. Do they not realise?
Sport England’s brilliant This Girl Can initiative has just launched its winter safety campaign, after its research showed almost half of women don’t like to exercise outside after dark, with six in 10 concerned harassment or intimidation if they do so. “So many women talk about a curfew that comes in at this time of year, where we suddenly don’t feel as able to be active because it’s darker,” says Sport England’s Kate Dale. “That’s got to change. Enough is enough. It’s ridiculous that women still have to think about these things in 2023.”
And then there are the other safety concerns - getting hit by a car, falling over in wet or icy conditions – plus the small matter of motivation. There’s a world of difference between a glorious June sunrise jog and a 6am November trudge. But there are ways to make your running in the dark experience a more enjoyable and safer one.
Here are my top tips:
1. Share your location and don’t wear headphones
Getting your partner or housemate to track you when you’re running in the dark is pragmatic. You can do this via Google Maps location sharing or with the beacon function on running app Strava. Molly Slater-Davison, founder of the Sweaty Betty-sponsored running community These Girls Run, uses the latter: “My boyfriend can see my live location and phone battery percentage. It helps me feel safer,” she says.
I’ve also resigned myself to not wearing headphones on dark runs. If I can’t see what’s going on around me properly, I figure I need to be able to hear. I used to get annoyed about this – why shouldn’t I catch up with Desert Island Discs when I want to? – but I now enjoy my peaceful runs without any aural distraction. And, interestingly, my pace tends to pick up.
2. Talk to the men in your life about this
In my experience, most men have no idea how frightened women feel when out alone at night. It has simply never occurred to them, as they strut down the street with (relative) impunity. So spell it out to your partner, brother, dad, son, friends – yes, you are a nice guy but we don’t know that when it’s dark - and encourage them to support us. That means things like crossing the street when they wish to overtake and not engaging women runners in conversation. Baby steps, yes, but those incremental behavioural changes will eventually add up to a societal shift.
3. Change your running routes
There are a lot of scenic fields, trails and ridges where I live but I never run them in the dark; I switch to the pavements of my town centre. Sometimes this means endlessly going up and down the high street – it’s boring but needs must. I save remote, adventurous or new routes for a leisurely weekend daytime run. Sidenote: if you use Strava, be assured that the app now hides the start and finish locations of your runs, making it harder for wrong ‘uns to track you.
4. Be prepared
Darkness is the enemy of motivation. It is so hard to crawl out of bed for a morning run when it’s pitch black and three degrees Celsius. Do everything you can to prep the night before so there are fewer barriers to getting out the door. I don’t just lay out my running kit, I lay it out on the radiator, in the order in which I’ll put it on – ie underwear at the top of the pile, jacket and gloves at the bottom. I wear layers – I prefer to strip them off through the run and tie them around my waist than spend the first 10 minutes desperately, miserably cold. And I have a quick cup of tea first to warm my cockles. The same goes for running in the evening – preparation is key to avoid the siren call of the sofa.
5. Join a running club
There’s safety (and fun) in numbers after dark. “A running club is a great antidote to many of the winter struggles,” says Kieran Alger, leader of central London running club Hyde Park Runners. “Running in a group creates a safer environment. And the camaraderie is a big motivational boost. There’s accountability too – sticking a weekly or bi-weekly appointment in your calendar, where you’ve carved out that time for you and your running, makes it feel more locked-in.” Get googling and find your local club.
6. Run at lunch time
This is obviously schedule dependent but if you can squeeze in a run before you grab a sandwich (don’t go after eating, you’ll feel sick), give it a try. At this time of year, our lunch break is the only point at which most of us catch any daylight and this has important health benefits (this is why I tried the 23 minute wellbeing challenge loved by celebrities last winter). Molly Slater-Davison goes one step further: “I take my midday meeting calls on my run with me! If it’s a meeting where I just need to listen rather than talk, I pop my headphones in and join the call while running. It means I get outside, I’m time efficient and it gives me great head space to think rather than being sat at my desk.”
7. Go full nerd and wear a head torch
I know, I know. It is not a good look. But it’s dark, nobody can see me. My Petzl Bindi head torch, £37.99, has been a game-changer for winter runs. Once I escape the guffaws of my family (“are you a miner now?”) and step outside, I move with more confidence because I’m less likely to trip up a kerb or step in dog mess. It’s lightweight, has three brightness settings and charges via USB.
8. Dress like a Belisha beacon
There aren’t many streetlights where I live so wearing bright and reflective clothing and accessories is key to avoid collisions with cars or pedestrians. Here’s my current kit list.
This neon yellow and white jacket is plastered in high-grade reflective strips – Brooks says car drivers will spot you from 180m away. I love the neat fit, the fact that it’s both wind and waterproof and its eco creds – it’s made from eight recycled plastic water bottles. Pricey but an excellent winter investment.
Sweaty Betty leggings are the best in business – buy once, keep ‘em for a decade, so they’re worth the hefty price tag. These have all the usual bum sculpting, sweat-wicking magic, with added go-faster reflective stripes that curl flatteringly around your legs.
O-Kinee Reflector Strips, £8.98
These are clever – a pack of 16 reflective slap bands that you can use around your wrists, ankles or running belt. They’re useful for keeping track of dogs and small children in the dark too.
M&S doesn’t tend to be the first port of call for running gear but I find its sportswear punches above its weight. Case in point: this gilet with reflective panels, a perfect layer for winter runs when you start off freezing and finish up boiling.
Bargain alert! These gloves won’t win any fashion awards but they’ll keep you visible and your extremities warm.