August 18 2017
There's a trick to the madness.
*Courtesy of Competitor.com
For runners who competed in high school and college, racing in the afternoon or at night is a common experience. Particularly in college, almost all high-caliber track races take place at night to take advantage of the cool, calm weather.
However, for those who didn’t compete in college, racing at night is a foreign experience. Almost all road races take place in the morning, mostly to minimize traffic interruptions. This makes the occasional night race a unique challenge for runners accustomed to racing early in the morning. How do you structure your eating? What do you do all day? Is there anything you need to do differently at a night race?
Racing at night is a unique and exhilarating experience. In this article, we’ll answer some of the common questions and help you prepare for a race under the stars.
Pacing is difficult enough when all your senses are working properly. Unfortunately, running at night wreaks havoc on your visual perception, making you feel like you are running much faster than you actually are.
At night, it becomes difficult to see your surroundings in great detail until you are very close. In the daytime however, you’re able to see much further and perceive objects in much greater detail. This lack of visual perception at night gives you the illusion that your surroundings have suddenly sprung up on you, which makes you feel like you are running very fast.
In addition, your body is more naturally primed for running fast at night. Even if you perform all your workouts in the morning, scientific literature is pretty clear that your peak running performance—all else, including weather and temperature, being equal—is in the mid-afternoon and into the evening, perhaps even as late as 8 or 10 p.m.
There are two potential issues with this when you’re racing. First, it can cause you to start the race too fast, a problem most runners already struggle with, since your normal race pace will feel too easy. You may feel like you’re running a 7-minute mile, but you’re actually running at a 6:30 per mile clip. Unfortunately, the body’s physiological response to running too fast is the same at night as it is during the day, regardless of how it feels.
Late in a race, this lack of perception can have the opposite effect and make you feel like you’re increasing the effort when you’re really slowing down. One of the most difficult aspects of racing to overcome is that goal race pace during the first mile of a 10K is going to feel much easier than goal race pace on the fifth mile. This is why many runners slow down dramatically as the race goes on, despite working harder the second half. At night, with your perception altered, you will need to run at what feels like and even harder effort than normal.
Racing at night presents the unique challenge of changing your pre-race nutrition habits. You need to fuel your body throughout the day, so you can’t simply rely on an energy gel or a banana as your only pre-race meal.
Start by eating a hearty, well-balanced breakfast. You’ll want most of your energy for your day to come from this meal. I like to eat this breakfast as late as possible, preferably around 10 a.m. This will help you feel full longer while still providing plenty of time to digest. Keep your meal balanced—my go-to meal is a whole wheat pancake with yogurt and fruit as a topic with one or two eggs. You don’t have to use this recipe, but try to get in as many food groups as possible, since you’ll likely be eating small, runner-friendly meals the remainder of the day.
In the afternoon, you should eat a small meal. Choose foods that are simple and sit well in your stomach. I like to have a light sandwich. If the night race will be a goal race for you, I suggest you experiment with this light lunch a few times in your training. This will allow you to find what works optimally for you. This meal should be eaten 4-6 hours before your race, depending on how well you generally handle eating before a run.
Ninety minutes to two hours before the race is when I suggest you eat your last pre-race meal. Generally, this meal should be the same as your pre-race meal for morning races. You should already know it sits well in your stomach and provides the energy you need. Racing at night doesn’t change this.
In my experience, the most difficult aspect of racing at night is not getting too nervous and balancing getting rest with not sitting on my butt all day. Obviously, you don’t want to do anything too tiring, but you also don’t want to feel lethargic when the gun goes off because you spent the day on the couch.
My advice is to go see a movie or take the time to catch up with some friends. This gets you out of the house, keeps your mind occupied and is a good balance between walking around a bit and saving your legs for the race.
I don’t think there is an exact formula, but if you’re preparing for your first night race, don’t just sit on the couch and think about your race all day. Not only is it boring and ruins the day, but it’s detrimental to your performance.
Night races can be an exhilarating experience and a great change of pace from the routine and familiarity of morning races. Try finding one in your area to mix things up this summer and use these tips to ensure you have a great performance.