Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 24 Dec 2005 09:34:50 -0500

First Light


I write this page on the shortest day the year. For early-morning or late-evening runners, which is most of us, this also is the darkest day for running.

My recent column titled "Traveling Light" (November 6th, 2005) told of a small victory over the darkness. I started wearing a headlight while running.

A bigger victory came soon afterward when I tweaked my schedule to take greater advantage of the light source that shines brightest, even in winter and through clouds. That's the sun.

Going out a little later on winter mornings let me run into daylight, if not always to start in it. Rereading an old RC column, rerun here from December 1998, helped me see -- and seek -- the light.

Wet and cold I can take. But the dark runs of winter are my least favorite -- and not just because my feet go down on faith that they'll find safe ground, not because I feel unseen by drivers, not because time is invisible unless I stop and squint at the pale light of the watch.

I'm a morning runner by choice and habit. But in winter six A.M. isn't the morning; it's still nighttime.

Here in the gray Northwest we wait until almost eight o'clock to see full daylight. This keeps earlier runners in the dark for most of their runs, which can become depressing.

Serious cases of winter depression have their own names. Clinically this is known as "seasonal affective disorder," or SAD. Popularly we all it "cabin fever."

I'm not a serious sufferer. Getting outside under in dim light seems to chase away most of the demons.

Recent research tells me I could do a little better at this. Runners whose jobs keep them entirely in the dark at one end of the day or the other could do a lot better.

These researchers concluded that the best way to beat the winter blues is to absorb as much light as possible, the earlier in the day the better. Test subjects sat in front of bright artificial lights at different times of day. The mood of 55 percent improved with morning treatments, compared with only 28 percent from evening light, said study director Charmane Eastman of Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago.

I know that my wintertime outlook improves as exposure to light increases. Natural light has a greater effect than artificial, and this sunlight can penetrate clouds and clothes -- but not walls or windows.

My advice to any runner whose mood plunges at this time of year, and the mileage along with it, isn't to quit your job and move to Hawaii. Instead just get out into the light. First light of day is preferable but often impractical, so any daylight is better than none.

Switch the run to noon if that fits into your schedule, or take a walk then instead of a long lunch. Run longer in the morning light on weekends.

I'm a lucky runner who doesn't need to spend all day in an office. Only my compulsive nature compels me to run before winter days dawn.

It's time to linger longer before going out to run on winter mornings. First light is worth waiting for.


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