Runners are notorious for not stretching after a run. I’ve been guilty of the same thing as I’d rather have an extra 5-10 minutes to my run then spend an extra five minutes stretching after a run. As tempting as it may be to skip the cool down, there are a lot of benefits I’ve recently discovered that one could be missing out on.
As a general rule, a proper cool down after an intense workout helps prevent injury, improves overall performance, and aids in post-workout recovery. A cool down does not need to be long, but long enough to allow the body functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature to gradually return to normal levels.
There has not been a lot of studies on the benefits of cool downs in general, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any benefits. Many experts, doctors, and coaches support incorporating a cool down after exercise.
Keep reading to see if you the information makes sense to you. You may even find out why you occasionally experience dizziness or light-headedness after your run and why a cool down can help prevent this.
What are the benefits of a cool down after a run?
There are many benefits to a proper cool down after a cardio workout like running. Just as it is important to gradually raise your heart rate before exercise, gradually bringing the heart rate back down is also important. This gradual decrease of intensity to a normal heart rate promotes recovery and minimizes other potential risks to injury.
The following shows some of the body functions affected during an intense exercise such as running and why a good cool down is thought to be so important.
Encourages good blood flow back to the heart and brain
Gradually giving your body time to return to normal helps keeps enough blood circulating to the heart and brain. Not getting enough blood and oxygen to your brain leads to feeling dizzy and light-headed after a workout.
In addition, blood can start to pool in the legs which can also cause dizziness and possibly fainting. When you stop exercising abruptly, the muscles will suddenly stop contracting vigorously which can cause blood to pool in the legs and leads to lower blood pressure being pumped back to heart and brain.
Allows body temperature to return to normal levels safely
During exercise, the body is working hard to convert carbohydrates to energy for the muscles to use. The muscles use this energy to contract, but a lot of the energy produced results in heat being produced thus raising your core temperature. The higher the intensity of the workout, the more heat is produced.
The body naturally has ways of dissipating this heat to keep our core temperature in check. Sweating is one method, but there are a variety of mechanisms it uses. Despite these natural methods, the body temperature can still rise slightly during prolonged exercise.
The body’s temperature normally returns to normal levels within 20 minutes after the exercise is completed. Getting the body’s core temperature back down to normal levels is best done gradually. Drastic reductions in body temperature by skipping a cooldown can result in chills and even hypothermia. This could be particularly apparent when exercising in cooler temperatures and even more pronounced with coupled with windy conditions.
Improves removing lactic acid build-up in the body
A good cool-down aids in removing lactic acid faster from the body. Lactic acid builds up in the muscles especially after intense, sustained workout like running. It is a byproduct of the process where the body breaks down carbohydrates for energy.
When lactic acid builds up in the muscles, the muscles become tired and may not be able to contract as effectively. Remained higher levels of lactic acid in the muscles post-workout leads to muscles feeling sore and tired.
Studies have found that active recovery after strenuous exercise clears accumulated blood lactate faster than passive recovery (not moving). So continuing to move, or cool down, after your workout can speed up recovery. Blood lactate clearance during active recovery after an intense running bout depends on the intensity of the active recovery – PubMed (nih.gov)
How long should a cool down?
Experts generally recommend a cool down of at least 5 minutes to 15 minutes depending on your body. The purpose of the cool down is to gradually reduce your heart rate back to normal levels so it will depend on the duration and intensity of your workout, as well as your overall fitness level.
For long runs during my marathon training, I found that longer cool downs were most beneficial along with properly hydrating. Each person will be different, so experiment to find how long works best for you.
What is the best way to cool down?
Cool downs are lower intensity exercises that should be gradually declining in intensity. If you just finished a hard run, spend a few minutes in a light jog and then several more minutes walking. Many coaches recommend also spending a few minutes stretching as part of a complete cool down.
There isn’t much research supporting the benefits of stretching ,but many coaches and experts still recommend stretching as part of a cool down. It is thought that stretching helps lengthen and strengthen muscles and reduces stiffness and soreness. For more information on stretching see the article here.
Walking seems to be one of the best methods for cooling down. Not only is it convenient, but it gradually reduces blood flow to the same muscles in the lower body you were just working. See here for more benefits of walking.
Other low intensity activities that can be done after a run include swimming, cycling, or even some lightweight resistance exercise. The important thing is to gradually reduce the intensity of the exercise over several minutes until the body has returned to a more normal heart rate.
There is not a lot of research that supports all the claims of the benefits of a proper cool down. Keep in mind that there have not been many studies on endurance-type training such as running in this area. Also, people respond differently to recovery so not everyone will have the same experience.
While scientific research may be lacking, there are plenty of athletes including many recreational runners such as myself who have noticed the negative effects of skipping a proper cool down after a run. Stiffness, soreness, and general recovery seem to take longer and be more painful.
So, while the studies may be lacking in support all the purported benefits, there is no evidence that a cool down is harmful. Until more information is available, it seems best to include a good cool down at the end of a running session, after all, it only takes a few minutes.