Improve Reaction Time by Training in the Dark

This unorthodox training technique could improve your athletic performance.

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.

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 90s, 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 a.m., while the other group met at 5 p.m. 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 read, 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.

Dark Workout

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?