Monday, 29 October 2012

Woods or fields? Dark or light? Morning or evening?

Running through woods feels faster than open fields. Honestly.

WHY does it feel faster to run through woods than across an open field? And why can running after dark feel quicker than in the day time? 

These are questions forming in many a UK runner’s exhausted brain now the clocks have gone back and it’s time to train after dark, and race in cross-country settings.

Here in Essex there’s a triathlete called David Parry who reckons he has the answers to these questions. It’s all to do with something known as ‘optic flow’, apparently. Parry has been heading research on this at University of Essex’s Human Performance Unit and his findings have been widely published this autumn.

“Running in an environment where most visual reference points you can see are close by, you experience a greater sensation of speed than in an environment where your reference points are far away,” he says. “Running, therefore, on an open trail with expansive views across the landscape, and relatively few objects close by, is likely to lead to lower sensations of speed than running in a forest with many trees nearby.”

Okay. So for me and colleagues in the 53-12 N.Essex Cross-Country League I think this means our annual Halstead race - much of it through woods - is going to feel a whole lot quicker than the one next weekend across open fields at Harwich – even if we trudge through the mud at exactly the same pace at both.   

Another finding to emerge from Essex Uni was that running or cycling at night feels very different to performing the same levels of speed and effort during daylight:

“In the dark, objects further away aren’t visible and you only have close-by objects to use as reference, so you get a greater sense of speed compared to running during the day,” says David Parry.

Personally, I’m not sure if all this is good news or bad. In the past I’ve felt quite pleased with myself for skimming through woodlands at what felt like high speed. Careering through the trees, springy pine needles underfoot, and all that jazz . . . but now I fear it was only the ‘optic flow’ making me think I was going faster all along.

And as for the running at night theory? Well I always thought I was going faster after dark because I’m naturally an ‘owl’ rather than a ‘lark’. Which is to say I run better in the evenings than early mornings as the adrenaline is flowing, I’m fully awake, and my circadian rhythms are in a better place. But maybe it was just that optic flow business playing its tricks again?

Certainly my ability, or otherwise, to run early in the day was given a stern test last weekend.  After a late Friday night in London, I decided it was high time I sampled one of the many Parkrun 5ks staged at breakfast time the following morning.  Since becoming a Clapped-Out Runner, early morning racing was one of several habits I’d managed to quit. But, what the hell . . .

Strangely, it went well. And if you are all sitty comfty-bold two-square on your botty (as Stanley Unwin used to say), I’ll tell you about it:

Here at the Birthplace of Radio, it was the crack of dawn when my weary carcass dragged itself clear of the bedroom zone. Luckily a modicum of pre-race adrenaline had surprisingly mustered itself, because I awoke before my wristwatch alarm sounded (alarm clocks have been banned by Mrs H, who claims they tick too loudly through the night).  So it was a miracle I was even up and awake, let alone ready to do a Parkrun.

Parkrun is a worldwide project that has somehow pulled off the clever trick of persuading millions across the globe to go running early every Saturday instead of grumpily pulling the duvet over their heads. Events now take place weekly at 149 different UK locations, with a total of 12,500 stagings so far.

People like me who live in the Birthplace of Radio have only recently enjoyed the privilege of having a Parkrun reasonably nearby, with Ipswich and Southend-on-Sea now added to the list. Yes, the roistering resort of ‘Sarfend’, the one that gave the world the Kursaal Ballroom, TOTS nightclub, the world’s longest pleasure pier and Dame Helen Mirren. Among other things.    

The temperature was just above freezing as I made for the race venue at the eastern end of the sprawling Southend conurbation, tucked between Thorpe Bay and Shoeburyness. Here in Gunners Park you can look over the sea wall and see where the Luftwaffe once deposited one of their nasty magnetic bombs. Shoeburyness is also mentioned in H.G.Wells' scary War of the Worlds, but these things should not put you off.  This is a fine setting to stretch the legs on a Saturday.

There was one hell of a ‘wind chill factor’ to take into account, but the bright sun compensated and the simplicity of the event was welcome. There are no entry fees, no numbers, you just assemble for the start at 9 where a friendly chap thanks you for being a “first-timer” and warns you of puddles and other hazards before setting the shivering pack on its way.  Three-and-a-tiny-bit laps later you dip over the finish line, present your personal barcode to a man with a zapper, then head to the nearby Harvester where bacon sarnies and coffee await. Within an hour or two your result, position, age-graded ranking and much more can be scrutinized via whatever personal communications device you currently carry.

Issues of optic flow, circadian rhythms and bone-chilling wind notwithstanding, I’ll be back for more soon. Not every single Saturday morning, you understand, but very soon.

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s 16 titles published by Desert Island Books at

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