Lighten Up

Some thoughts on dealing with winter darkness

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Confession time here: I’ve been a bit depressed lately. Not wanting to write, or shoot, or run, or do anything besides eat junk food and stare at the TV. I’ve been fighting the sloth, but its a see-saw battle. And there’s a reason for my current struggle, namely winter.

Ironically, I love the snowy season. Its cold, crisp air. Its guaranteed wilderness solitude. The skiing! But then there’s also the darkness, biting wind, snow, and lack of willing adventure partners. I find myself staring out my office window, intimidated by cold-looking scenery, seemingly unable to break the inertia between me and the door.

The underlying problem here is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a common emotional condition brought on by winter’s long darkness and made worse by indoor confinement. According to Wikipedia, SAD is a “mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter…They may sleep too much (check), have little energy (check), and crave sweets and starchy foods (multiple checkmarks in bold-faced type). They may also feel depressed (check).”

Common medical treatments include bright light therapy, anti-depressants (no thanks), and melatonin. But the best treatment is to exercise during the bright periods of the day, preferably outdoors where you can receive the training benefits and its mood-elevating endorphins while also being pounded by sunlight and breathing lots of well-ionized air.

Given the usual 9 to 5 constraints of paycheck work, and mid-winter darkness that arrives by 5:30pm at most temperate latitudes, getting outdoors in winter is a problem, even for freelance writers like me who supposedly set their own schedule. And here in my tiny rural town, without the luxuries of climbing gyms, fitness clubs, or even street lights to run under at night, if I don’t get out the door by 3 p.m.on a regular basis, I’m guaranteed to be fat, bummed, and alcoholic by April.

I have a simple list of antidotes for this phenomenon -although it’s always a day-to-day struggle to apply the lessons I preach – so give these a try:

–Set an alarm to nag you out the door around mid-day, whether it’s a brisk jog at lunch hour, or a hard-pounding two-hour bike ride. When the alarm goes off, exit the building. No excuses. If you’re too lazy to run, just start walking. If all you can get in are some sit ups in the meeting room, so be it. But move. You can always work more after dark.

–If mid-days just don’t work, DO NOT go straight home after work. In most cities, you’ll just spend time fighting the 5:30 traffic anyways. Instead, find a park, track or fitness club near work, and go there instead. Home and family will still be there at 7:30.

If darkness falls, there are no handy facilities, and you still haven’t gotten your fitness dose, there is still a solution: High-powered, rechargeable headlamps. They’re not cheap, unless you consider them for what they truly are: A season pass to winter. And the fortuitous timing of winter solstice and Christmas makes them great gifts. Here are three models we’ve used and liked.

[] Mila PLS 100 Headlamp: This Swedish headlamp is the best light we’ve ever tested for running or skiing, thanks to its huge but lightweight 3.5-inch wide reflector, that produces a wide-angle beam that’s bright and broad enough to illuminate most of a football field. It’s a simple lamp. You get high and low beams (2 hours @ 10 watts vs 5 hours @ 20 watts), and a power pack that recharges overnight. They also stock spare parts, extra batteries and bulbs. $329;

[] Princeton Tec Switchback 3: This bike-specific light is super bright and tough, with a rechargeable battery pack you can drop into a pack or Velcro to a bicycle frame tube. It’s heavy for hiking, but not that bad for night training. The lamp housing can be mounted to handlebars or helmets, meaning you can use it for climbing too if desired. The beam pattern is somehwat tunnel-visioned, but still broad enough for hiking or jogging, and the battery life is gratifyingly long (5 hours on bright), even in cold weather. $390;

[] Petzl Ultra: This is an awesome light as much for its durability, convenient switch settings, and numerous accessories as overt brightness (which is still a giant 350 lumens. The other two lamps are unrated.) One staffer used this on the 24 Hours of Moab mountain bike race in November and reports that his after-dark loop was only 10 minutes slower than his mid-day shift (1:45 vs 1:35). “I was putting out as much light as racers with $600 custom mountain bike lights,” he told us. Available in self-contained and belt/battery models. Battery life is two hours on bright, 17 hours on low. $450;

–Steve Howe

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