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Training in the dark of winter can make you a tougher, more resilient athlete. Here’s how.
Running or riding in the dark (and cold, and wet) can sometimes feel like an exercise in sadism. But there may be huge incentives for you to buck up and face the void, says Pat Davidson, Ph.D., a New York City-based exercise physiologist. He points to research conducted at the University of North Texas that found three different markers of endurance tend to be higher at night—which can come as early as 3:43 p.m. for athletes in Maine—so you may be able to go faster and farther with less effort, improving your overall fitness.
“You’re also not dealing with the sun,” he says, “which means you’re not spending more energy cooling yourself, and losing as much water.” That could allow you to go harder for longer, which ultimately drives the fitness you build, Davidson says.
But when you go out, you’ll face three specific psychological walls that’ll block you from putting rubber to road. Here’s how you can get over them so that, come spring, you’ll be a fitter, faster athlete while your competition is playing catch-up.
You’ll lack motivation
Let’s face the obvious. “Training outside at night in winter can be very demotivating for people,” says Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D., who is an associate professor at West Virginia University and a master coach with the Peaks Coaching Group. Blame your programming—humans are disposed to hibernate inside in winter and avoid harsh elements, Dieffenbach says.
Fix it. Find one or two people to train with, which will boost your motivation and likelihood to train. “Set a rule that you cannot cancel on the other person within an hour or two of going out,” Dieffenbach says. If you prefer being a lone wolf, get involved in an online triathlon training thread on a site such as Reddit. People who interact with training peers online are more likely to stick to their program, according to scientists at the University of Pennsylvania.
You’ll be afraid
We evolved to be anxious about that which we cannot see, says Mitch Abrams, Psy.D., a New Jersey-based sports psychologist. “The reality is there is more danger training at night,” he says. The SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research found that night cycling is more dangerous, for example, but couldn’t pinpoint exactly why as researchers didn’t have access to information on bike lights—just on overall crash frequency.
Face it. With that elevated danger comes opportunity. “Training in more averse situations might increase your confidence and competence,” says Abrams. That makes you a mentally tougher athlete, he says, potentially helping you perform at your peak when the race-day situation isn’t optimal, whether it’s due to weather or a bad night’s sleep. So face your fear head on, but don’t be careless. Go out with a partner, ditch your headphones, invest in a good set of reflectors and visibility lights (the more the better). Or take your run or ride off the road altogether. Hit a local, well-groomed rail trail while wearing a good headlamp.
You can’t zone out
Without the sun illuminating your path, you have to be hyper-focused, mindful and totally present, says Dieffenbach. This takes your mind away from thoughts like “what should I have for dinner?” or “what’s on TV tonight?” to the task at hand: running or riding.
Embrace it. According to a recent study in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, athletes who practice mindfulness are better able to read their body signals and adapt to stress, which may increase performance, “You’re not distracted, so you’ll be making sure you’re on pace or hitting your intervals,” says Dieffenbach.