Does Cooling Down From Running Really Matter?

Why and How to Cool Down After a Run

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 effectively?

Why Is a Cool Down Important?

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 hydrogen ions 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 The old theory of lactate build-up causing soreness is no longer valid.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 quickly go 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. For example, if you lift right after a run, a short cool down may be beneficial.

Finally, a cool down allows you to add more easy running volume to your training week. Adding one or two easy-paced miles after a hard workout extends training time, without adding extra intensity.

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 transition from stress to rest smoother. The relaxation of a cool down run may even simply make you feel better, even if muscle damage is the same.

Does a Cool down Prevent Injury?

No convincing evidence indicates that cool down miles reduce injury risk. The above-cited review in Sports Medicine found that active cooldowns did not improve muscle recovery or other physiological markers of recovery. That’s not to say that cool down jogs are useless – but do not expect from them what they cannot provide. Eating enough, sleeping enough, rest days, and a properly managed training load are the most important factors in an injury prevention strategy.

How to Do a Cool Down After a Run

A cool down jog can last anywhere from five to thirty minutes. Low-mileage or novice runners are best off sticking with shorter duratoion. Higher-mileage runners will likely complete a longer duration to accumulate the necessary mileage. At that level of experience, one may 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, which 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 ten 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, some easy running or walking can reduce those symptoms 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. A task that does not promote relaxation will only keep them elevated.

Mentally and Physically Relax

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 social media, 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 catabolic (such as muscle breakdown in a run) to rebuilding. Even a short bout of relaxation lowers the production of cortisol after a workout. Relaxing also allows your heart rate and blood pressure to fully return to baseline after a hard workout.

Walk Outdoors

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.

Cool down Stretches After Running

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. For example, a downward dog with foot pedals will help tights calves. You can do t-spine rotations for a tight upper back or hip mobility exercises for tight hips. (You can 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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17 Responses

  1. Great tips! After a run, I usually stop and walk the rest of the way home or to my car. There are times when I run right to the front door and get ready for work.

  2. Besides waiting a few extra minutes before showering, drink a glass of ice cold water as soon as you finish running. Cooling yourself from the inside out will expedite things.

  3. Thank you! I started running every day because of the break from school, and without stretching, I injured my calves pretty quickly. I had to take a few days off, but now that I’m back into it, my calves already feel better after this stretch!

  4. A cool down walk of 5-10 min seems to benefit me greatly. I then have a post run recovery ritual including rolling and stretching. It helps to find a process that works well and stick with it

  5. I never do a cool down job, but I’m fairly religious about my cool down walk. And it does feel good! I have water with me so I make sure to hydrate a bit on that, too.

    What I haven’t been as good at is doing a warmup walk — I used to; I do do a dynamic warmup; but then I just start running.

  6. Great info! I’ve learned that I like doing a longer warm-up and a shorter cool down (because I just feel so tired and I can tell my form is breaking down!) So if I have an hour to run, and a 30 minute workout, I would rather do a 20 minute warm up and 10 minute cool down than 15/15. Walking feels good after a hard workout!

  7. I think my favorite cool-down thing is slowly easing into a forward fold position…it feels so good to just “go upside-down” for a few minutes and feel the stretch in my legs. Then, it’s usually on to the Theragun for a fee minutes of muscle massage and rejuvination.

  8. Great tips! I like to stretch my legs a bit with a downward dog. Or a “pee in the woods” squat. It just feels good to get into a different position after running.

  9. These are great. I generally end my run with a nice walk. I’ll get home, have something to eat, and then shower and start my day. Sometimes, I roll, but not as often as I should.

  10. I don’t really have a cool down ritual. Unless feeding the dogs and watering the plants in the backyard counts. Great tips though.

  11. It’s refreshing (like a good cool down jog/walk) to read someone discuss this topic by including the fact that the old “flushing lactic acid and other waste products” advice was wrong, and by NOT including the ridiculous, almost comical, oft-repeated “a cool down will prevent blood pooling in the muscles”. The circulatory system doesn’t halt when a run ends, with blood just sitting wherever it was in some kind of “pool”.

    I really enjoyed your stressing the mild but important physiological effects of a cool down along with the also-important psychological ones.

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