You always hear that you should cool down after a run, especially a workout with faster running like intervals or a tempo. But why is that? What does a cool down actually achieve – and are you cooling down effecively?
How & Why to Cool Down After a Run
Purpose of a Cool Down
The most basic purposes of a cool down are to transition from work to rest and to start the recovery process.
Cool downs are most beneficial after a hard workout (tempo run, interval run, etc) or long run. The harder the effort, the more important it is to gradually bring your heart rate down and start the recovery process.
Yes, a cool down does clear out metabolic waste such as lactate more quickly – but that really doesn’t matter practically. The old theory of lactate build-up causing soreness is no longer valid. Soreness comes from muscle damage, which occurs whether or not you complete any cool down activities. Nor does a cool down improve your performance on the next workout. No cool down will prevent you from needing to schedule a recovery run or rest day following a hard workout or long run.
However, there is an exception for workouts within a four-hour time window. If you are quickly going from one activity to another, such as a brick workout in triathlon training or a strength session immediately after a run. According to a 2018 systematic review published in Sports Medicine, an active cool down can promote performance in a second workout session if the time between workouts is less than 20 minutes.
A cool down is less about clearing out by-products from energy production and more about transitioning your body from a state of work/stress to rest/recovery.
Do You Need a Cool Down Jog?
The short (and unsatisfying) answer: no, but also yes.
You could stop a run right after your last interval. That lactate will clear itself regardless. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Some research does indicate that an active cool down leads to faster recovery of the cardiovascular and respiratory system. However, the main reason isn’t based in science; it’s rooted in practice and how an athlete feels.
While you could stop immediately after an interval, it won’t feel good. The sudden dip in heart rate could make you feel lightheaded or dizzy. Your blood flow is primarily directed to working muscles and away from other areas, so you may feel nauseous or cramp up. You will miss out on the mental relaxation of lightly running and thus may have a harder time lowering your stress levels (remember, a hard workout is a stressor!)
A cool down jog allows you to gradually return to homeostasis. Your heart rate lowers slowly and your nervous system can have a smoother transition from stress to rest. The relaxation of a cool down run may even simply make you feel better, even if muscle damage is the same.
A cool down jog can last anywhere from five to thirty minutes. Low mileage or novice runners are best sticking with shorter cool downs. Higher mileage runners will likely complete a longer cool down run in order to accumulate necessary mileage. At that level of experience, one many also experience an extra aerobic boost from running on tired legs.
No matter your level of experience, the cool down miles should be done at a very light effort. Do not try to hit a pace. You simply want to run at a light effort with minimal strain – and that may be barely faster than a shuffle. Even a moderate intensity will add undesired fatigue and prolong your recovery (and likely hinder adaptation).
You do want to listen to your body’s signals. The purpose of a cool down is not to accumulate junk miles; in this context, junk miles would be miles with poor form. If your plan calls for a two-mile cool down but you are shuffling and struggling, call it a day after a couple of minutes and then simply walk. A cool down should not add physical or mental stress.
How to Effectively Cool Down After A Run
Your cool down does not need to last a long time in order to be effective. Even five to 10 minutes of easy running or walking will achieve the purpose of a cool down. This will lower your heart rate and signal to your body to begin repairing. If you often experience nausea after a workout, a cool down can minimize that by gradually restoring your circulation to normal.
What you do not want to do: finish a hard workout and go straight into your work day without a break. Cortisol levels need to lower after a hard workout, but a task that does not promote relaxation will only keep them elevated.
Come inside, have some fluids, pop your headphones on with some relaxing music, and prop your legs up against the wall. Just chill in a comfortable position, without checking your email or mentally mulling over a to-do list, for a few minutes. Once you feel relaxed, go through your normal post-run recovery routine of eating and rehydrating.
As Steve Magness explained in an article, you want to switch your stress response from one of breaking down (such as muscle breakdown in a run) to one of building up. Even a short bout of relaxation lowers the production of cortisol after a workout and signals to the brain that the stress is over.
After a long run or easy run, walking is an effective cool down. You can extend also your cool down after a hard workout by walking. Walking will gradually lower your heart rate and cortisol levels. Research shows that nature can encourage recovery; a light walk allows you to enjoy the outdoors and mentally unwind.
Do Soft Tissue Work
Foam rolling can serve as a functional cool down. Foam rolling doesn’t just feel good; it sends signals to the brain to relax the muscles and it actually decreases your perception of soreness. However, you do not need to foam roll immediately after your run; it is still effective even if you do it hours later.
Static stretching after a run does not actually reduce injury. However, if you feel tight, some mobility exercises may help. These can include a downward dog with foot pedals for tights calves or ankles, t-spine rotations for a tight upper back, or kneeling hip flexor for tight hips (find more mobility exercises here).
How Do You Cool Down after a Race?
The post-race recovery process is different from that of a hard workout. Workouts are gentle pushes; races are maximum efforts. Unless you are doing a race as part of a long run, chill out. (If the race is part of a longer run, go ahead and do those miles – a proper training plan will have them deliberately programmed to elicit the desired aerobic stimulus.) If you just raced your big goal race of the season, walk around for a few minutes to encourage blood flow to return to homeostasis, get some food and fluids, and relax.
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How do you cool down after a workout?