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Afraid of the dark? Top ultra marathon training tips for running at night

Katherine Brook
Trail running writer
Published on
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Ultra running is becoming increasingly popular, as thousands of curious runners take to the start line of 50 km to 100 mile races and even 24-hour events. And as the distance creeps up, so does the time it takes to complete it, which means more often than not, runners will continue racing into the night.

For some people, running in the dark can be quite meditative. As the light fades, stimuli decreases and the night becomes still. You can tune into your breathing and your stride, your focus only on the lit path in front of you. But for others, it can be a slightly unnerving experience, left to navigate the road ahead alone.

Whether you enjoy running in the dark or not, there’s quite a lot to consider when tackling an ultra that will involve running after sunset. From navigating unfamiliar trails on tired legs and fighting off the desire to sleep. To knowing what – and how much fuel – you should be taking on. Check out our 10 top tips to help you navigate running through the night.

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1. Buy a good head torch (and have a back up)

For ultras that go into the night, you’re going to want a good quality head torch to light the way. Most races actually require runners to carry at least 2 head torches, in case one breaks.

Endure24 night running
A head torch is a necessity. But these runners at Endure24 took things step further with the fairy lights!

The best head torches for trail runners will be bright, long-lasting and feature rechargeable batteries. Ideally look for a head torch with an interchangeable battery pack so if you run out of juice, you can replace the batteries right away rather than relying on having to re-charge via a power source. Some runners also double up and take a lightweight, handheld torch too.

2. Pack layers of kit to deal with falling temperatures

Temperatures can drop rapidly at night. Of course, the location you’re running will be a hugely contributing factor, but it’s always best to pack layers. Before your ultra, be sure to check what the weather will be doing. If in doubt – if you can – leave gloves, a hat, long-sleeved t-shirt, windproof, and leggings with your support crew/kit drop.

3. Have a sleep strategy

Depending on the length of your race and how tired you are, you may or may not plan to take naps in your ultra. During the race, it’s safest to take naps at the aid stations rather than on the side of trails or roads, unless you think you’ll do yourself more harm by continuing. Often just a 10-20 minute power nap can put a spring back in your step.

Some ultra runners will also give up caffeine a week or two before the race, so it has more effect on race day. There isn’t a whole load of science to support this being effective, but do what works for you. Most importantly, in the week leading up to the ultra, try to sleep as much as possible.

4. Buddy up

Sticking with another similar paced runner during the night section of a race can really help boost morale – for both runners. Moreover, you can navigate the route together and keep each other going through the highs and lows. There’s a strong sense of camaraderie in the trail running world, so even if you’re running solo at an event – it won’t be difficult to find someone who’s happy to keep you company.

5. Nail your motivational playlist

Running with music is very much down to preference. For safety reasons, some races may recommend that you don’t run with headphones. However, at 24-hour races, which follow a set, short loop, it’s usually deemed ok, and for many runners a necessary distraction and motivational boost.

It’s always best to have a playlist ready to go in any case. Even if headphones aren’t allowed, you can use music in your training to help you visualise the race and have a good motivational tune in your head for when the going gets tough.

6. Get a good support crew

Should your race allow a support crew, having at least one familiar face at checkpoints can really bring a welcoming boost during the long night sections. Your crew will also be able to ensure you are consuming the right nutrition and help you make decisions if you’re going through a rough patch. Be sure to discuss what you’ll need and when with your support crew ahead of the race so they know exactly how they can help you.

7. Practice your nutrition and keep fuelling through the night

Your night nutrition doesn’t need to differ too much from your day’s nutrition. The main thing is that you’ve practised eating during a run, prior to the race so you know what fuel you can tolerate.

Endure24 24hr ultra runner at sunset

If the temperature drops, salty warm broths – with or without noodles – are often favoured by runners, as they’re a good way to top up your salts, get a few extra carbs in, and warm you up. The most important thing is to try to keep taking on fuel and make sure you plan your fuelling strategy before the race, whether that’s gels, sandwiches, energy bars and drinks, potatoes or soups.

8. Recce the route during daylight

If you can, recce the route or the toughest sections in the day. If you’re doing a 24-hour looped race, then by nightfall you should be quite familiar with the route. However, if it’s one big loop or an A to B race, becoming familiar with the twists, turns and terrain might help you feel more comfortable when the sun goes down on race day.

9. Practice night running

Practising running at night before race day can be advantageous for a number of reasons, whether it’s just a few hours here and there or a full night of running. It gives you a chance to test out all of your gear, as well as practicing your nutrition strategy and eating at unfamiliar times. Navigating in the dark and dealing with sleep deprivation also add their own challenges, so it’s best to have some experience to take away some of the unknowns before your race.

10. Always consider your safety

Ultra running events are usually pretty safe, with trackers on each runner, regular check points, and a well-marked course. But as ever, there are a few additional things you can do to help keep yourself safe. Wear something reflective, ensure you have the emergency race numbers saved in your phone prior to the race, and create yourself a good first aid kit. This should include a foil blanket, plasters, bandages etc. This will be mandatory in most races. If you’re planning to do some night running in training, then in addition to the above it’s also worth making sure a trusted person knows where you’re going to be running and during which times, so if you need assistance they can easily get to you.

Katherine Brook
Written by
Katherine Brook
A copywriter and journalist by profession Katherine is a passionate trail runner and often to be found challenging herself across the UK & Europe. 2024 will see her take on a triathlon challenge.

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