By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
As a coach, I’ve been trained and educated on how to improve athletes. I have spent innumerable hours delving into research, building networks of experts to lean on, attending conferences, and being challenged by my colleagues – all with the end goal of guiding athletes to be better on the trails. Invariably, the craft of coaching involves intricate knowledge of training design and theory, use of psychology tools, nutritional interventions, sociological engineering and a host of other elements. Ask me about training theory, how to improve aerobic power, optimizing running economy, increasing velocity at lactate threshold and the myriad of other performance and physiological variables coaches are trained to improve and you will get an earful.
There are times, however, where all of the sophisticated training mumbo jumbo needs to take a back seat. Sometimes, you just need to put on the big girl or boy pants and go do something in training that on the surface is actually kind of dumb. Sure, there should be some logic in it, even though you will be sacrificing many things in the pursuit of improving one. So, even though there are better ways to improve the aforementioned physiological variables, I will present my rationale for why doing something kind of dumb can be a very valuable part of your preparation.
Go Do an Overnight Run
If you are training for an ultramarathon that requires you to run through a whole night, you would be well served to do it in training first. I am not talking about ‘testing your headlamp’ for a few hours, nor running after dinner for a couple of hours while the kids are asleep. I am talking about running while the sun is setting and not stopping until it rises again.
Yes, this will be ‘bad’ for the rest of the week. You will feel like garbage when you go into work the next day. You will certainly accumulate less training volume over the course of several days than you would otherwise. And you will miss out some sleep, which as I’ve previously written, is critically important to performance. Your intensity for the coming days will suffer. And your training consistency will certainly be compromised. You’ll likely even burn a few brownie points with your partner in the process of one single run.
All of the classic variables I am keen on optimizing will take a nose dive because of this one workout. It is something that – when I present to our coaching group during mentorship sessions – is ripe for criticism. Sounds like a winner of a workout, huh?
Why then go and do this seemingly asinine training exercise?
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The Rationale for Overnight Runs
I make a habit of going to a lot of races. One of my favorites, by far, is the Leadville Trail 100. Leadville was not only my first 100 miler, but it’s easy for me to get to, I usually have a number of athletes in the race, and the town is just special. I particularly enjoy staying up all night at the Outward Bound and Mayqueen aid stations at Mile 76.9 and 86.8 of the course. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, runners start dropping like flies (Leadville has a notoriously low finishing rate of ~50% for any given year). Many of these runners have plenty of time until the cutoffs. Some complain about the altitude or their feet or their stomachs, which at that point in the race ails winners and the DNFs alike.
While I could dissect the constellation of reasons for each DNF, I would bet my bottom dollar that fitness, VO2 max, running economy and the physiological variables I mentioned earlier have little to do with the choice not to continue. What distresses most is the fear of the unknown. The prospect of running from sunset to the next sunrise after you have already been up all day, are physically deteriorated and psychologically weakened, haunts each of the runners who will eventually get their wristbands cut and unceremoniously climb into a car for the ride back into town. Many of them have simply never been to that place. Their training runs were in the light of day, and certainly not after 20 hours on the trail. They lack the confidence that, ultimately, when they see the next sunrise they will still be able to continue on and amble down the trail, albeit in far worse shape than when the sun went down.
Overnight runs are good for building confidence and forging toughness. On race day, when you have been moving for more than 20 hours, are a bit delirious and in far worse shape than when you started, having the experience of at least one overnight run will reduce your levels of stress and anxiety. Overnight runs also serve as a good time to check your gear in adverse conditions. How many of you know how long your lights are actually going to last on full power? (Hint: the instruction manual you have is wrong.) Or, if starting down the beam of a headlamp for 8 hours makes you nauseous. Don’t chance those first encounters for race day.
Setting Up Your Overnight Run
If you decide to do an overnight run, take some time and set it up correctly. When I prescribe these for athletes, I follow the workflow below:
- Pick a day during the week. Preferably, early in a training block and when you don’t have much cumulative fatigue. Tell your spouse/significant other what day you are going to do this and where you plan to go.
- Get some extra sleep in the preceding days.
- When your overnight run day comes, treat it like any normal day. Get up at the same time, have the same meals, etc.
- As sunset approaches, get your gear ready and head out the door. Take extra time to make sure you will have adequate lighting that will last through the night. This means 2 headlamps and backup batteries for each.
- Run until the sun comes up again. Remember the goal is just to go through the night. There is no need to run hard, fast or do anything specific. Just run and hike at an EnduranceRun or RecoveryRun intensity.
- After your overnight run, continue on to a normal day. Take the kids to school, go to work, whatever your normal routine is. Realize you will be tired, cranky and not the best partner or work mate. It’s OK, you will live.
- Prioritize getting to bed early the next night, and the night after and the night after that until your sleep is back to normal.
- Reduce training for at least 2 days after you complete your night run. I actually count an overnight run as two days of running for my athletes. Because, well, technically it is.
- Bonus points if you orchestrate your overnight run in adverse conditions. I recently did this during an overnight snowstorm to test out a rain shell, rain pants and headlamp performance. Cold and wet conditions might be something you encounter in your ultramarathon. It is better to know how all of your gear fits together to battle the elements in advance.
- If you are worried about animal encounters or other aspects of trail safety, find a more experienced runner to pair up with. There is strength in numbers. Also, leave the headphones at home.
- I recommend no more than one of these per month. Remember, fitness is the most important thing to build in training. Exercises like this are icing on the cake.
What You Leave on the Table
Overnight runs are not for everyone. In particular, ultrarunners should be selective about when and whether to do an overnight run. If you are not doing an ultra that extends through an entire night, you can skip the exercise (unless you really want an excuse to play around on the trails all night). Similarly, if you are behind in your training, focus on your fitness first, as that will make a bigger impact on your success. If you regularly get fewer than 8 hours of sleep a night, I would also skip the exercise unless you can change that habit.
However, if your training is on track, and you anticipate having to go through an entire night in your race, do it in training in advance. You’ll thank yourself come race day when you are stumbling around half asleep into an aid station in the early hours of the morning. It’ll be just another run to you!