Night Speed Ahead: Why We Run Faster in the Dark

running in the darkHave you ever felt as though you run quicker at night? Like the streetlights are whizzing by abnormally fast, you’re suddenly running at an world class marathon pace and yet you don’t feel as though you’re exerting more energy than normal? No, you haven’t entered a galactic warp. What is actually at play, however, is rooted in psychology—beyond just delusions of grandeur.

Consider this: our perception of speed and self-movement are largely based on external visual cues. Say you’re running along a road, for example, and you see a street sign approaching. That sign will grow in size until it zips past your field of vision. Indicators such as these allow us to comprehend our movement and velocity. This data intake, which is known as optic flow information, contextualizes us within our environment and tells us, “Hey, you’re running forward quickly.” Or less than quickly too.

In this same vein, the objects that are closer to us fly past us, whereas objects far away (such as the horizon) appear to move at a slower pace. This disparity in perceived movement rates is known as motion parallax. Together, optic flow information and motion parallax contribute to our nighttime super speed illusions. As Ira Hyman in Psychology Today explains:

During the day when I run, I can see the ground under my feet zipping past. I can also see the nearby bushes and trees moving past more slowly. At the rate I run, the houses and buildings hardly appear to move at all. Motion parallax at work. My feeling of speed is based on some average impression of how quickly I am passing everything in my visual field.

When I run at night, however, the optic flow information is limited. I see what is near me and those things flow past rapidly. I can’t see the slowly moving things that are farther away. At night my perception of speed is the average of what I see – only the fast moving close things. Thus I feel like I am running fast after dark.

Essentially, what the darkness does is mask the far away objects that typically appear to move at a slower pace. So when your only visual references are nearby objects flying by, your brain interprets that as though you’re on a hot streak. So is it all mind tricks? Perhaps. But we don’t mind the added confidence boost.

Keep putting in those midnight miles.

Words by Nike