Rethinking the Cool Down

By Steve Magness | The Science of Running

I’ve contemplated for a while writing about the role and function of cooling down after a workout or race, but never I have never fully been able to put all the pieces together to do so.  The cool down seems like such a normal/given thing.  It’s a rite of passage to be able to be done for the day.  It’s so ingrained that no one asks the question why anymore.

Let’s first look at the traditional viewpoint of the cool down.  If we were to ask what a cool down is used for most answers would relate to bringing your body back to normal.  You’d get answers like to get rid of lactic acid or waste products, to slowly bring muscle temperature down, to  gradually reduce Heart Rate (HR), and all sorts of other related answers.
But do these things matter?  Lactate is cleared within 30-60min anyways, so maybe a cool down speeds it up to 15-20min, but that’s not a big deal because lactate is not evil.  Muscle temperature and core body temperature would drop quicker by just standing around, as would heart rate.  On the contrary a cool down would keep blood flow elevated for longer, so perhaps transport of “stuff” would be enhanced.  But the truth is.  We have no idea why the cool down actually physiologically does anything.
Is this another case of being overrated like stretching?
Everyone in the world uses a cool down post workout whether it is HS, college, or Pro’s so there has to be a reason or benefit.  Unlike stretching (which people who were keenly aware just kind of stopped doing) there’s never been a movement to stop cooling down.  That to me, and the fact that empirical evidence from coaches all over supports the use of one, lends credence to the idea that cooling down is in fact a good thing.  My contention though, is we’ve been asking the wrong question when trying to figure out what a cool down does in the running world.
Adaptation, not always recovery:
While the emphasis on what a cool down does has been on returning to normal and recovery, which it probably aids to a degree, I can’t help but think that we’re missing part of the picture.  The cool down job or activity post workout is actually part of the workout.  It’s a crucial component that actually furthers adaptation.
What state is the body in at the completion of the workout?  We are probably left with muscles running low on glycogen, high on lactate, have a low pH, a large number of muscle fibers having cycled in to do work and exhausted, all sorts of neurotransmitters in the brain at high levels, and the brain’s central governor screaming at us to stop.  That’s quite a lovely state to be in right?
Once we stop, things calm down a little bit and start the return back to homeostasis.  But then we start jogging again and what happens?
We’re now doing more running, albeit at a slow pace, in this depleted state.  It’s not increasing our depleted state too much in most cases but we’re still recruiting muscle fibers to work when they’re in this state.  Is it possible that with a ton of them already fatigued, we’ve altered the recruitment slightly so that fibers that normally don’t work at such an easy aerobic intensity are now working? If so, then we’re training fibers that normally don’t work at such low intensities to be a little better aerobically.  Secondly, if we look at lactate.  If we have a decent amount of it built up and we start running, are we perhaps training our muscles to take up and reuse lactate better while running then if we were just lying around?
If we look at the brain’s role, could continued exercise, even at a low intensity post hard workout actually signal the brain that we’re okay and we can push these boundaries a little bit more and survive?
I don’t know the answers exactly, but…
What I’m getting at should be obvious but it is this: The cool down might be a training effect more than a recovery enhancer.  Both probably play a role, but it’s typically thought of as the later only.

Where’s the evidence?  I have little because there is little to no research on cooling down.

What I do have though is intriguing.

We know that a cool down of aerobic exercise (i.e. a jog) following a strength workout will impact the adaptations that occur from the total workout.  Depending on the combination and what kind of athlete you are dealing with, a cool down can either enhance strength gains or be used to limit hypertrophy.  Essentially throwing aerobic exercise in after a strength session can impact the adaptations you get.  You can see this on a signal pathway level in comparing what pathways get activated versus which don’t.  Just by including light aerobic work after (which many would consider a cool down) can alter the effects of the previous strength workout.  Similarly, there have been some intriguing studies on stretching after strength work that shows it can change the amount of hypertrophy.  The point is this, a cool down activity can modulate what the main workout produces in terms of adaptation.

The cool down therefore should be looked at as an enhancer to the main workout.
How to modulate?
I have no clue. I’m guessing.  Completely.  Educated, but still guessing.

So let’s look at our options beyond a typical short jaunt.  Remember that we are in our kind of fatigued state at the start of the cool down…

Read the different forms of a cool down and their specific benefits.


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