Hit the Lights – Training in the Dark to Improve Reaction Time


Ever tried to jump up from a dead sleep in the middle of the night and run as fast as you can to the bathroom in someone else’s house? Well, when you did it, how’d that wall to the face feel? Probably not too good. The reason for this temporary blindness is something that we can control to some degree, in such a way that it benefits our athletic performance by improving our reaction time – but only if you know how.

As a strength coach, my methodology hasn’t come from reading books and listening to seminars. It’s come from my experience as a professional athlete. Natural talent and skill are always part of the equation, but this wasn’t the catalyst that helped me excel. It was my realization that my talent must also be accompanied by an ability to pick up on the things that others do not. ( Like most things in life, details do matter. )

This mindset has also aided me when trying to find new and uncommon ways to help the pro athletes I train gain an advantage. A good example of this is reactionary timing. Many of the athletes I work with are involved in sports that require strong reactionary timing; Boxing, hitting a baseball, adjusting to a moving puck… all things that require split second decisions. Of course this reaction has to do with several varying muscle groups coming into play at just the right moment in order to facilitate the desired result. But, the big x factor I realized was the one dealing with eyesight itself.

In the mid 90’s, there was an experimental training program done seasonally with Norwegian athletes. The program was done outdoors and consisted of two groups. The first group met at 5:30 AM while the other group met at 5:00 PM. Both groups participated in the same drills, most of which consisted of timing and agility. At the end of the eight-week training cycle, it seemed as though the early morning athletes gained a far better benefit than the evening training group. I say benefit in terms of improved sport performance on a sport specific basis – things like a higher batting average, a higher save percentage as a goalkeeper… etc. What I learned from this training program wasn’t so much the dedication these athletes had to getting up earlier, somehow working harder, and thus producing better results. I noticed a less obvious detail – that maybe there was some benefit coming from training in minimally lit conditions.

To understand this point, you first have to understand that the eye is a sense organ that reacts to light and pressure by providing a three dimensional moving image. When you try to do something in the dark, like reading, your pupils dilate in an attempt to take in more light through the lens in your retina. The photoreceptor cells in your retina, rods and cones, use what light is available to provide information to the brain about what it sees. The rods are responsible for motion detection (a huge thing in athletics) and work better in low light. They’re almost entirely responsible for our night vision. Just as we can train other organs in our body, such as our heart, to get stronger and more efficient, we can do the same with our eyesight. What better way to do this than to challenge your vision when it’s at its weakest point? In other words, do the training you’d normally do in a lit room, in the dark. That might mean something as simple as your lifting. The more drastic the changes you make, the greater the benefit you will get, which is the case in anything we do. In this instance, thinking outside the box isn’t just recommended for the best results, it’s mandatory. I’ve gone so far as to have some of my fighters hold their sparring sessions in complete darkness. If you don’t want to go to that extreme, try any type of reactionary drills. Speed bag work, ball tosses, even taking batting practice in the dark will return results that you just can’t achieve by doing the same training in a conventional way.

Because the rods concentrated around our retina are used most effectively when NOT looking directly at the target, doing anything that forces you to pick up a target without doing so will generate a measured improvement in reaction time. The eyes use more rods when averting your sight and tracking the target through space using your peripheral vision. When you train in the dark, this happens naturally because you can’t focus completely on the moving target by the simple fact that there’s not enough light. Because of this, your eyes become more efficient at picking it up sooner by the increased rod usage. Over time, this translates into a better reaction time in your actual arena of competition.

It’s not that dissimilar to running with a parachute on. You won’t run as fast with it as you can without it. But, when you’ve trained enough with that chute and the time comes to run without it, you’ll move like a ’67 GTO running a 1/4 mile. And who doesn’t want a ’67 GTO?




“It does occur to me that the drugs, or maybe even the concussions… or some combination of the two into some time released cocktail of shame and indifference, have clouded my already questionable judgement. But, with the poor judgement so often came the best stories. And what is life but fantastic stories to tell, so long as you made it through all of them. Not even without being scarred. Fuck, the scars are the best part of the story. Without the scars, the whole story may have been a lie. The scars are what prove you were there for the fight/fun/fucking/failure of whatever those dreams (nightmares) may have been. And they may have been fantastic victories over insurmountable odds. Things only you could see yourself doing. Everyone else had long lost their razor thin faith in you to do so. But once you did them and found victory firmly in your hands, you had to be careful not to squeeze it too hard that it would crush like an egg. You can’t show the shell and expect people to believe that you took it right from the hand of the mother herself without a fight. The scars on your face show the fight, but the prize at the end should be flawless. As is often the case, the fight goes without any real resolution. We wind up at the end, the very same that we were in the beginning. Wondering what the hell we’d done wrong, or right, and what needed to change in our approach that would one day change the outcome. Until then, we’re doomed to keep fighting the same way. Until one day we learn to win the fight or to convince ourselves that the fight was never worth fighting in the first place. Though I’ve always believed that a good fight is what makes the man. What can you ever know about yourself if you’ve never picked out the largest beast in the room and challenged it to a winner take all death match? There is only win or die. It’s amazing how hard people will fight if they know the only option other than victory is death. Death has always been a good motivator to those that don’t want to die. The ones that don’t care are dead already, and fuck them anyway. I’d rather dance with death only to die than to live while watching someone else have the courage to do it for me. Life is found somewhere in between the lines of that very dance floor beneath your feet. Standing still will certainly not cut it. Just fucking move baby…”


Letters from the Campaign Trail #1/14