Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Cooling Down after Running

I always cool down – after races; after workouts; I even do a cool-down walk around the block after regular mileage runs.

In an email on Monday, my friend Carrie said: “Reading your race report I decided this is the difference between between people who really run and those of us who are hacks. Real runners run a couple miles after the race to cool down. The rest of us say "F#$# that was hard," pass out on the grass, and stuff ourselves on more calories worth of pizza than we possibly could have burned (but tell ourselves otherwise) and then limp home.”
Cooling down/cheering for CAR teammates after a 1-Mile race

Carrie is by no means a “hack” – she’s done an Ironman!!! And I may or may not hit up the pizza and M&Ms after my cool-down…but I do see her point.

In my opinion, good cool-down jog is almost like reward-running: I go as slow as I want for as long as I want – sometimes 5 minutes, sometimes 5 miles – and after a race it just feels soooo happy and easy! In my experience cooling down does decrease muscle soreness, plus it keeps me from getting light-headed after a hard run.

I realize the science on this is not conclusive (anti-cool-down arguments here), but I am 100% pro.

What is a cool-down?

Cooling down is usually a slow jog or walk that allows your body to gradually transition from exercising to resting.

How long does it take?

I am in the former-college-runner habit of warming up and cooling down at least 20 minutes, but really anywhere from 5-15 is totally reasonable. The easiest cool-down would be to jog for 5 minutes, then walk for another 5. Then it's pizza-time.

Why should you cool down?

Most people understand the concept of warming up. Warming up dilates your blood vessels, supplying your muscles with oxygen, and also raises your muscles’ temperature, which increases your flexibility.

Cooling down is equally important because it slowly lowers your heart rate and keeps blood flowing to your muscles, which will result less soreness/stiffness the next day. (You’ve probably heard of “lactic acid build-up” causing soreness, but apparently that’s a myth.)

What kinds of workouts require a cool-down?

As I said, I at least walk a bit after every run. In the summer it’s more about body temperature (you know when you get in the shower right after running, then get out of the shower and are still sweating? Not ideal). This is a personal preference though, born of the habit of taking my dog for a walk after running.

Cooling down is a lot more important after races and hard workouts. For shorter/faster races (5k/10k), jog for 10 minutes and walk for 5. For longer/slower races (half-marathons and up) just walking for 10 minutes is probably fine.

Who should cool down?

Even the cool-down haters agree that athletes can benefit from cooling down.
  • Exercise researchers say there is only one agreed-on fact about the possible risk of suddenly stopping intense exercise. When you exercise hard, the blood vessels in your legs are expanded to send more blood to your legs and feet. And your heart is pumping fast. If you suddenly stop, your heart slows down, your blood is pooled in your legs and feet, and you can feel dizzy, even pass out….“If you are well trained, your heart rate is slow already, and it slows down even faster with exercise,” he said. “Also, there are bigger veins with a large capacity to pool blood in your legs.”
If you’re not “well trained” (whatever that means), maybe you won’t benefit from a cool-down. But if you run hard (whatever pace “hard” is for you), I say do it! And if the idea of additional running horrifies you, just go for a little walk.

Again, these are my opinions, and some people disagree. But no one is saying that cooling down will hurt you in any way, so why not add a couple more miles to your week, right? Do what you feel.