After grinding through those gut-wrenching 400-meter repeats or exhausting yourself in your most recent 10k race, there’s always that one thing left that we have to do before the workout is actually done: the cool down. Traditionally, we’ve looked at the cool down as a way to keep blood flow going after the workout and clear out all of those nasty fatiguing by-products. We’ve all shuffled around for a mile or two to satisfy our inner OCD self or our coach’s wishes. And while this clearing out fatigue theory sounds great, it struck me that there might be more to the cool down then we give it credit for.

            We tend to think that the harder more stressful workouts are where we improve and get better. It makes sense that these workouts are the ones that challenge our minds and bodies to adapt, so they should be where we get better. But that’s only half the equation. In order to progress your body to another level, we not only need the high stress of a workout, but then a sufficient period of recovery in order to adapt to this workout. This is all pretty much common sense in the coaching world and it’s why we include easy or recovery days after our harder workouts. But what’s interesting is that coaches and scientists are starting to think of this stress and recovery cycle in a slightly different way.

            Researchers looking at how animals and people cope with various physical and psychological stressors have started to see a pattern that those that cope best with the stressor are those that have a rapid activation of the stress response and then a quick and efficient termination of this response. In other words, the bodies know when to send all of those stress hormones and adrenaline to help us get through the stressor, but then as soon as the stressor is done, they switch into a recovery mode very quickly. It’s this switching off of the stress response that allows the body to start repairing and adapting in the direction we want to get better.

            The traditional cool down, can be seen not only as a clearing out of fatigue, but instead as a way to accelerate the termination of the stress response. That means getting our stress response from a hormonal perspective to flip from one of breaking down (catabolic) to one of building up (anabolic). And it turns out that social influences might play a bigger role than we imagined. So here are three unique ways to spice up the cool down for maximizing training.

The Social Cool Down

            Research has shown that social environment can have large effects on our hormone release, such as testosterone. In one study published in Physiology & Behavior, researchers found that testosterone changes post soccer match were related to how connected the players felt socially to their teammates. Similarly, testing done by elite Olympic sport athletes has shown that the level of testosterone post game changed based on whether the players were engaging socially with their teammates versus if they spent it isolated playing around on their cell phone. We can take advantage of this effect on the cool down by making sure we engage our athletes and that they interact with each other.

  • As soon as the workout is done, take the edge off of the workout by engaging with others around you. Even if you workout by yourself, find a buddy to go on a fun cool down job with or have someone you can give a call post workout to help gain some of these benefits.

The Relaxed Cool Down

            Along similar lines, we can work at getting our body back to a relaxed state with the influence of external stimuli. Research has shown that simple items like music can influence post exercise cortisol levels. Cortisol is one of the bodies primary stress hormones, which works to get our body prepared for the exertion we are undertaking. But once, we’re done, if we can make sure that the stress response is shut off, we’ll be in a better place to recover

  • Once you finish up your workout, pop in the headphones and cool down to some music that you like which is relaxed and soothing. If you listen to music while you workout, switch from the uptempo motivational work you might listen to during the workout to something more relaxed and mellow once you’re done.

The Long Cool Down

            Finally, as runners we get caught up in a pattern of always having a standard set one to three mile cool down. It’s the norm, becomes ingrained, and is seldom given second thought. What we’re missing out on is taking advantage of the physiological and psychological advantages of a longer cool down. An extended cool down allows for us to get in some easy aerobic work in a pre-fatigued state, creating a nice boost to our general aerobic abilities. From a recovery and psychological standpoint, it also helps accelerate the return to baseline. A very relaxed and extended run tends to change stress levels to a more desirable state, almost like a relaxed recovery run would.

  • Instead of the traditional 2 mile cool down, try to go on a 4 or more mile cool down at a relaxed pace. It will allow you to get some training benefits while at the same time unwinding from the workout.

Steve Magness is the author of the bookThe Passion Paradox

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