Why You Should Cool Down After a Run or Race

Have you ever wondered if your cool down and recovery routine stacks up to what the elite athletes do to optimise their performance? I have, which is why I asked my friend Holley DeShaw to share her expertise with us. She’s a licensed massage and sports therapist who works with elite athletes on a regular basis and has been on the 2012 Olympic medical teams.

The goal of a performing cool down and recovery routine is to return the body to its resting state, flush out the waste products, and maintain healthy muscle function. Here are four steps for optimising your cool down and recovery:

Step 1

Jog easy or walk. It’s important to start the cool down process with a very easy-effort movement. For faster runners, try jogging. On the slower end of the spectrum? Try run-walking or just walking. If you stop abruptly after a hard workout or race, your body will rebel, and the cramping potential increases dramatically. The goal of the cool down is to lower your heart rate to its resting state and get the metabolic waste–also known as lactic acid–out of your body by facilitating the movement in your lymphatic system and blood flow.

50K Record Holder Josh Cox recommends cooling down for:
10 minutes after long runs
15-20 minutes after tempo or race-pace runs
20 minutes after harder effort interval workouts and races

Here are some examples of cool down’s for various workouts and races:
After a long run: Walk for ten minutes.
After a 20-minute tempo: Easy jog or run and walk for 15-20 minutes.
After a hard interval effort run, 5K or 10K race: Easy jog or run and walk for 20 minutes.
After a hard half or full marathon: Walk for 20 minutes.

Step 2

Hydrate and refuel. Recovery is comprehensive and should include hydration and fuel to replenish fluid and muscle glycogen and repair muscle damage. Aim for a 3-4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio within 20-30 minutes post-workout or race.

Step 3

Flush it out. Take an ice bath (cold water, then add a few cubes) for 3-5 minutes after your workout to continue to facilitate the removal of metabolic waste. This is known as “flushing” since it causes vasoconstriction, improves blood flow, and can speed the rate of recovery. The goal is to get clean lymphatic flow back to the legs to speed the rate of recovery so you can continue to train, optimise your performance, and decrease your injury potential.

For hard workouts (longer runs, speed workouts) and races, try a contrast bath. To do it, set up a hot and cold bucket or tub of water, and then switch back and forth for one minute per tub. Repeat 5-6 times. The method induces vasoconstriction and vasodilation to speed the flushing process.

A different strategy is to schedule a flushing massage, which uses light pressure and focuses on moving the lymphatic system (the body’s natural drainage system) to flush metabolic waste. The massage motion should only be “up and out” to facilitate draining the waste products from your body. For the best results, look for a massage therapist that has sports massage experience. Better yet, find one that is a runner. In other words, stay away from deep tissue massage up to 48 hours post-workout or race. The goal is to assist the body in what it’s already doing to recover.

Step 4

Release and lengthen. After easy to moderate effort workouts, finish your recovery with myofascial release using a yoga ball, The Stick, or a foam roller to release muscle tightness. Then add some gentle stretching. It’s important to note that if you overstretch a tight muscle you can create micro-tears. The aim for day-to-day maintenance is to facilitate the range of motion, health, and pliability of the muscle groups.

After very hard workouts and races, it’s best to wait 24 hours to integrate myofascial release and lengthening exercises, unless there is an area of tightness that needs to be addressed.

This may seem a little overwhelming, but if you take a step back, you’ll see the cool down and recovery is all about moving easy, refueling, flushing, and releasing. The goal is to develop a personal cool down and recovery strategy that helps your body perform its natural healing process more efficiency.

Subscribe to Runner's World

Related Articles