How to Cool Down After a Run
Purpose of a Cool Down
As an ex-biologist, I love looking at training from a biological context, particularly through an evolutionary biology lens. What does our body “think” during a speed session? A lot more complex than I’m about to put it, our bodies get really stressed when we run because they don’t recognize that we are doing this activity for fun or to improve our fitness. More than likely, our bodies actually think we are escaping danger. Are we being chased by a bear? Are we chasing down our next meal? We aren’t, but our bodies don’t realize that. For all our body systems recognize, every time we get back from a run, we just narrowly escaped being attacked by a bear!
That stress is a good thing in a training context, but only if we allow ourselves to come back down from that state of stress to recover. A cool-down routine actually has no effect on muscle damage that was just done during the workout, but it does allow us to bring back down our heart rate and our nervous system, which then can kickstart the recovery process. This is the key point here; as soon as we allow ourselves time to “chill out,” our bodies recognize that it’s time to relax and the “bear” isn’t chasing us anymore. Without the cool-down routine, our bodies might stay in this state of stress throughout the day, especially if we roll right into the workday.
How to Cool Down After a Speed Session
You have probably typically seen that most speed sessions will “sandwich” the workout between an easy warm-up run and an easy cool-down run. Interval or tempo/threshold sessions require that little bonus cool-down run which you don’t usually see in an easy run since it requires work in those higher-intensity zones. Technically, from a muscle breakdown standpoint, you could end the run right after intervals. But, if you’ve ever completed a high-intensity workout, you likely know how uncomfortable it can feel to end your run right after anything intense. A very easy run right after your intervals can help ease the transition of your body from a really intense session back to a state of homeostasis. Otherwise, we would go from extremely intense to rest very quickly, which usually doesn’t feel very good.
A cool-down run is an easy run that can range anywhere from 5-30 minutes. Lower-mileage athletes don’t need as long of a cool down, while higher-mileage athletes might go a little longer to get more volume in.
After this cool down jog, you can then roll into the cooldown routines described in the next section.
How to Cool Down After Every Run
After any run, even an easy run, there are a few ways to cool down. Cool downs do not need to be long, even just 5 minutes at the end of a run is plenty. I often tell athletes that if they are short on time, I would prefer them to cut the run 10 minutes short so they can do a 5-minute warm-up routine and a 5-minute cool-down routine. Cool-down routines can vary, but what you don’t want to do is end your run and immediately go into your workday without a break. After a run, allowing cortisol levels to lower can only be done via an activity that promotes relaxation. Some possible cooldown activities include:
Walking is an easy way to cool down after any run. After my runs, I like to plan to end my run a little bit away from my endpoint so I have to walk the rest of the way home or to the trailhead. This walking time is an effective way to lower your heart rate, lower cortisol production, and encourage recovery. The walk doesn’t need to be long, I usually end my run a couple of houses down and walk the last couple of minutes to home.
Lay down and chill out
After returning from a run, take a few minutes to chill out in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and do nothing. Don’t think about work or your agenda for the day quite yet - give yourself permission to relax. After a few minutes, or once you feel relaxed, return to your normal fueling routine and move on with your day.
All of my athletes know I am a big proponent of foam rolling. If you find it relaxing, foam rolling (or a massage gun, if you prefer that) and stretching can be a great cool-down. Foam rolling does help send signals to your brain to relax muscles, which then can help decrease soreness levels. Static stretching doesn’t actually reduce the chances of injury, but working on dynamic stretches or a mobility routine can be good if you ever feel stiff and want to relax your muscles. It’s important to note that you don’t need to do these things immediately post-run, especially if you are crunched for time, they are all still just as effective later in the day.