You see it after nearly every race. The top runners—the fastest folks in the field—finish the race, grab a drink and head off for another few miles, while the rest of us lie down trying to recover. What’s up with that? Do the best runners know something we don’t?
The short answer is yes they know the value of an actual cooldown run.
Nobody questions the value of a good warmup before a hard run or race. Nearly every runner does (or should do) a short warmup to get the muscles and aerobic system tuned up and ready to roll. An insufficient warmup means you run with cold, stiff muscles which can lead to an injury.
So can finishing a hard run or race without a proper cooldown. Yet, many runners—beginners and veterans–ignore this important phase of training and racing.
Running or racing hard causes lactic acid and other waste products to accumulate in your muscles. When you don’t do a thorough cooldown (or warmdown, the terms are synonymous), these same waste products result in muscle stiffness because they pool in the running muscles. That’s why runners who don’t cooldown after finishing a hard workout or race find themselves walking around hobbled the next day from stiff muscles and joints. Or, even worse, they feel dizzy.
That stiffness will continue until the lactic acid and waste products are flushed from the muscles. If this cycle is repeated enough times, this stiffness becomes a chronic condition and injuries can result.
A good cooldown doesn’t take a lot of time or technique, but it should be done to remove the waste products from the muscles, slow down the aerobic system and allow your body enough time to return to its normal metabolic rate.
The best way to warmdown after a hard race or workout is very simple: Slowly jog for 10-15 minutes. You can tack this on to the end of a hard or long run by slowing down for the final mile to the point that when you stop, you’re breathing normally again. After your cooldown jog, walk for another five minutes. Grab a water bottle and drink. Chilly? Chuck your wet shirt for a dry one.
The harder the workout or race, the greater the importance of giving yourself at least 10 minutes to cool off and make the transformation from runner to civilian again.
Following your cooling jog and walk, try some gentle stretches. But don’t get too aggressive. If you’re extremely tired, you don’t want to stretch too deeply because you can injure those beat up muscles.
Cooling off after a race should begin right after you cross the finish line and rehydrate. First, give yourself a chance to recover. Then, spend a minute or two chatting with your fellow competitors, maybe grab another drink or two and then, rather than sitting or lying down, go for a short, easy jog. The temptation after a race—especially a tough half marathon or marathon—is to collapse in a heap, but this is just about the worst thing you can do.
If you do cave into temptation and sit or lay down, the blood in your legs, hips and butt muscles will pool and you’ll tighten up so much you’ll have great difficulty just getting up again.
After a marathon or half, if you are just too exhausted to do even a five-minute jog, that’s understandable. Instead of a jog, at least go for a walk around the finish area. If you’re cold, put on some dry sweats and just keep moving for 10-15 minutes.
While walking, if you should suddenly feel dizzy or faint (not uncommon after a long race), go to the medical tent for some attention. Eat or drink something. You might just be dehydrated or badly in need of some carbohydrates.
The one thing you don’t want to do following a marathon or long run is hop into a Jacuzzi or hot tub. You want your muscles to gradually cool off which is just the opposite of what hot water will do. It might feel good initially, but the next day you’ll pay for it with aching, stiff muscles.
The best therapy you can do after a proper cooldown is to hop in an ice bath. Simply fill a bath tub with several bags of ice, add some water and hop in. At first, it won’t be pleasant but the ice-cold water will reduce the inflammation in your muscles.
One other post-long run (or hard race suggestion): After you have recovered and eaten, try going for another walk, easy bike ride or short swim to keep the leg muscles from stiffening.