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Injury Prevention: Three Cool Down Steps for Runners

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Woman running at night

If you're an avid runner or athlete, then there's no doubt that you've been taught the importance of warming up for a workout. Warm ups are important in allowing your body to prepare for the workout and preventing injury. However, did you know that cooling down after a race is just as important? While you may be tempted to head straight home to catch your breath and relax, it's still important to make sure you give your body time to slow down and prepare for the workout to end rather than stopping abruptly.

Not sure where to start with your cool down process? Don't worry, we broke it down into three easy to follow steps for you.

Why Cool Downs Are Important

After a long run, taking time for a proper cool down is every bit as important as warming up. After you work out, a cool down prepares your body for recovery. Not properly cooling down can hinder your recovery and future performance, possibly leading to injury over time.

Think of running as driving on a freeway: The warm up is the acceleration phase, like entering the on ramp. It primes your body for physical activity, as detailed in my last post. The cool down is the deceleration phase, like exiting the off ramp, when the body normalizes for low-pace, everyday activity.

Cooling down also balances the cardiovascular system: While running, your heart rate and cardiac output increase to shuttle oxygen-rich blood to the working muscles (and also usher out their waste products). Blood vessels supply the muscles in your extremities and then dilate, allowing more efficient blood flow – which improves your recovery.

Three Steps for a Healthy Cool Down

There are three primary phases in the cool down period:

1: Immediate Phase

The immediate phase occurs right after the run, when the heart rate is still elevated and muscles are fatigued. After your run, it is important to never just suddenly stop and stand. Ideally, you should ease out of a run by decreasing your pace to a very slow jog for 1-2 minutes, followed by light-to-brisk walking for 3-5 minutes.

An immediate consequence of abruptly stopping after running a long distance is a phenomenon known as Exercise Associated Collapse (EAC): When a runner suddenly stops, the muscles of the extremities stop pumping blood to the heart, and blood can pool in the extremities. When this occurs, there may not be enough blood going to the brain, which could lead to passing out.

2: Intermediate Phase

The intermediate phase of the cool down occurs after the heart rate has decreased from its near maximum and muscles no longer feel fatigued. One of the great aspects about the intermediate phase is that it takes advantage of the elevated core body temperature and relatively limber muscles.

During this period, performing dynamic agility drills further helps to balance the musculoskeletal system, as well as improve overall flexibility. Great dynamic cool down exercises include quick jumps (jumping in place bringing the knees to the chest), high knee skips (exaggerating the hips and arms in a normal running motion), simple lunges and side-to-side shuffles. These exercises can be done in sets of 2-3 for 15-30 seconds at a time.

These dynamic exercises are vital to training, and they will improve your overall performance in runs and races. The intermediate phase of the cool down can be capped off with a cold shower or ice bath to help you decrease your core body temperature and reduce muscle and joint swelling.

3: Late Phase

man and woman running together outsideThe late phase of the cool down occurs once the heart rate has nearly returned to its resting pace. The timing of this phase will vary based on the intensity and distance of the run. Higher intensity or longer distance runs require an extended period of recovery—sometimes up to 2-4 hours. Following moderate intensity and distance runs, the late phase can typically begin within 15-30 minutes.

The late phase of the cool down involves total body static stretching for 5-15 minutes. Static stretching is most beneficial in the late cool down phase, as it prevents stiff joints and tight muscles, and improves overall flexibility. The late phase is also a great time to do basic yoga poses, use a foam roller and get a massage.

Throughout the cool down phases, it is also important to maintain proper hydration. I will share more on proper nutrition for recovery in a future post. Safe training!

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