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11 top tips for training in the dark: make the most of your winter off-season

Don’t let the darkness hold your training back... boss winter workouts with these ideas for riding at night or early doors

Riding and training once the sun has set does take getting used to, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. Winter is arriving and with this, windows to nip out for a quick spin in daylight after work are becoming next to impossible. It is tough but there are ways to maximise these months so you are well on your way to spring and summer success—and, you know what, it can even be fun along the way. With some expert advice from coaches, we detail how...

Being comfortable training outside in the dark opens up so many more hours for workouts, and there are even positives. You can see cars coming from further away on twisty lanes because they have their headlights on, and it’s easier to regulate your temperature as you are no longer dipping between sunshine and shade.

Virtual platforms such as Zwift and The Sufferfest can help alleviate the boredom of grinding it inside on a patch of your own sweat. But nothing can compare to the escapism of the blissful silence when bombing it down lanes with just the comfort of your own moving bubble of light. Exhilarating, peaceful and addictive. With huge numbers of us now working from home, it's more necessary than ever to get out of the confines of your workspace.

No doubt it’s different to cruising in daylight, so you need to consider how to approach post-work rides in the winter. Here are some tips for getting the most out of training when it’s pitch black, which will set you off on the right road to your spring and summer targets. Some advise how to best execute outside rides, while others are workarounds to aid fitness and performance gains during the darker months.

1. Make plans with a training buddy*

Committing to rides with a training partner can give you that little extra incentive or motivation to ensure you ride off into the dark—essentially, you are less likely to miss a session.

To make the most of these workouts—for both riders that is—Tim Ramsden of BlackCat Cycle Coaching advises: “Try and make sure you are evenly matched, or one just a little stronger than the other. Work Z3 into Z4 (sweetspot) for blocks of 6-12mins where you take turns on the front—the stronger rider should do longer turns rather than increasing the pace.”

*With the current government regulations in England (effective from 5 November to 2 December 2020) which stipulate riding outside with one person from another household is allowed, this tip can still be applied. Please refer to British Cycling’s guidelines (based on government restrictions) for the latest updates regarding this.

2. Run some decent front and rear lights

Night riding 2

To fully commit to efforts, you don’t want to be holding yourself back because you can’t see far enough ahead. It’s essential to be able to see hidden dangers including potholes, any twists and turns coming up, as well as making yourself clearly visible to other traffic sharing the road.

Riding along unlit country lanes you are going to need a light which has a pretty strong beam to illuminate the way. Our front light comparison engine here enables you to compare the beams of different lights, to help find one you feel comfortable relying on when riding into the unknown.

Rear lights are also needed to alert cars approaching from behind, and get yourself some backup lights. Even better, turn the spare rear one on—it’s difficult to constantly check the back light is working. Another front light is also advisable as relying on a single one can leave you stranded if it gives up, for whatever reason.

> Buyer's guide: Best rear bike lights

Obviously, ensure your lights are charged up before riding and that the runtime of the lights is longer than your planned route. It’s important to also have some buffer time for unexpected mechanical delays—usually punctures.

3. Use set and familiar routes

Night riding 4

Bike lights can help bring awareness of your surroundings on a night ride, but so can riding the route in the sunlight beforehand. Although bike lights are always a necessity, having a good idea of where the potholes and turns are—because you are on your regular roads—can be a massive advantage in avoiding them. This is especially useful when you are going at speed in a training session.

Being on a set route will also make it easier completing intervals as you’ll know where the best stretch of road is to fit them in. Junctions, tight turns and undulating terrain can make it tricky to maintain the required effort and fit in appropriate recovery.

Even if you are undertaking a largely familiar route, it’s worthwhile having a cycling GPS computer or phone mounted on your handlebars as a backup navigation system.

> How to plan and follow a bike route on a GPS computer and app

Even if the whole route is on your local, go-to roads, everything can look like a whole new world at night. Missing a turn you didn’t recognise and then getting lost is a more complicated affair at night, so bring a handlebar helper.

4. Complete a loop that doesn’t go too far away from home

To increase the chances of not getting lost on unfamiliar roads, choose a loop that never strays too far from home. Paint a zig zaggy hedgehog, not a skinny stick, with your Strava route art. Plus, what looks cooler? Hedgehog > Stick.

Mechanical issues are harder to sort out in the dark so if you are stuck and require a rescue, being closer to home is likely to prove useful.

5. Avoid the tiny, narrow lanes

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Avoid small roads with gravelly patches like this

Even with a high-lumen light, the narrowest of lanes are best avoided. It can still be difficult to see all the dustings of gravel and thin branches that stick out into the road—and tricky to avoid with such short notice.

Although traffic is quieter, if a car was to overtake and you have to squeeze right to the edge of the lane, it’s harder to see potential hazards.

6. Try out the tracks

Riding on trails means you can escape the complications of traffic and these sessions can provide benefits that go beyond the obvious bike handling selling point. Tim Phillips of Catenary Cycle Coaching says he is a big advocate of riding off-road as cross training in the off season.

He said: “The mud makes it harder, so you use more power to go the same distance and in the same amount of time—it’s very efficient training.”

> Tips to make the most of the off-road night riding season

Decent quality lights are a must and knowing the off-beaten tracks reasonably well also stands to make it easier (as detailed in tips 2 and 3 above). The gnarly terrain is less of an issue than going down narrow country lanes as your speed will be lower and rough sections are, of course, more expected—you are riding on it constantly, rather than coming across stray patches as you would on the road.

7. Complete shorter sessions outside rather than racking up the miles

Night riding 3

Don’t stress about fitting in long training road rides in the dark during the week. Instead, training adaptations can be achieved through alternative sessions on the tarmac.

Tim Ramsden of BlackCat Cycle Coaching asserts: “Research points to HIIT (high-intensity interval training) type training being effective in increasing aerobic endurance. A short session on the road featuring sprints with 1:4 (work: recovery) periods would be a realistic substitute for a long ride in colder conditions. Just ensure you are warmed up sufficiently in order to tackle it.”

As an example, Ramsden suggests including into your programme 6 x 20secs efforts with 1:20mins recoveries.

8. Slip a ride in before work or at lunchtime

Okay, so this one isn’t strictly training in the dark as the headline suggested, but the benefits of having shorter sessions is that these are easier to fit in around the working day, and could be squeezed into the hours of sunlight.

Tim Ramsden of BlackCat Cycle Coaching said: “Before work is a great time to wake your legs up, get your metabolism working and pack in a session so that you don't need to worry about doing it later. Short indoor sessions that start steady for 10-15mins then go harder (short, repeated sprints with short recoveries e.g. 6secs on/ 24secs off x 10) are perfect.”

For a pre-lunch workout Ramsden recommends tempo. He said: “A warm-up plus 20mins at the mid - high end of Z3 works very well on the road or indoors.”

9. There’s always the turbo

For some of us the darkness is incredibly uninviting, and all of the layering up can be a faff after a long day at work. Let's just have a reality check and admit it can be hard to roll the wheel out the door.

liam-training-2

Repeatedly missing workouts isn't good and so it’s worthwhile accepting that you are often more likely to get a session done if you complete it indoors. Workouts on the turbo trainers or rollers can still promote plenty of benefits.

> Buyer's guide: Best indoor cycling apps for turbo training

Tim Ramsden confirms: “You can go a long way with 3-4 quality turbo sessions of 45-60mins a week—or fewer. Working just below threshold for progressively longer reps plus utilising short sprints as the road sessions gives you a good mix.”

But Ramsden adds that this should be confined to the days of the week when it’s harder to ride in the sunlight. He said: “Getting out on the road for an unstructured ride is important too though, at the weekend—as much for your head as for your legs.”

10. Devote time to core conditioning and flexibility

Not all training needs to be done on the bike to obtain fitness gains that will benefit your riding performance. Off the bike exercises can be incorporated into your regular routine and can even be a substitute for mid-week rides.

Tim Phillips of Catenary Cycle Coaching said: “Definitely working on strength and flexibility is something that is encouraged all of the time, but particularly when you’ve got a few hours in the dark when you are not so tempted to go out on the bike.”

> Workout guide: Yoga for cyclists

The Sufferfest indoor training app has strength training exercises for core conditioning and yoga practices for working on flexibility and balance. The Peloton digital app similarly has an extensive library of workouts to choose from, as well as live classes. With a gym instructor leading these gym-style workouts at a set time each day, it can provide the motivation you need to commit to getting the session done.

11. Mix workouts up with off-the-bike cross training

Night riding handlebars 1

The race and sportive season can seem miles away, particularly with the added uncertainty of what shape it will take when it does resume (thanks to, you know, Covid-19). It’s understandable if your motivation to train day in and day out on the bike is low. Mixing up your workouts so everything is new and exciting can make the off-season more interesting and bearable.

Swimming and gym strength work is out at the moment, but running is a compelling option that is time efficient, while also being weather and dark independent.

Tim Phillips of Catenary Cycle Coaching said: “I wouldn't recommend doing cross training during the season when you are competing in events. But both running and strength work in the gym are ideal to do in the off-season. You can go for a run in the dark quite easily either with streetlights or a head torch if it’s not a lit area.”

Do you regularly train at night? If you have any tips to add, let us know about them in the comments below?

Anna has been hooked on bikes ever since her youthful beginnings at Hillingdon Cycle Circuit. As an avid road and track racer, she reached the heady heights of a ProCyclingStats profile before leaving for university. Having now completed an MA in Multimedia Journalism, she’s hoping to add some (more successful) results. Although her greatest wish is for the broader acceptance of wearing funky cycling socks over the top of leg warmers.

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