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How to become cool

[This article originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Runner's World magazine.]

Q. What's the purpose of cooling down after a hard workout? What happens if I don't do it?
--T.K., Cumberland, MD

A. If you skip the cooldown, it's unlikely that any great tragedy will befall you. Nevertheless, there are many good reasons for cooling down, not all of them scientific. For one, a nice slow jog gives you an opportunity to savor the achievement of completing a workout, and a chance to swap laughs with your training partners once the tough stuff is done.

Physiologically, cooling down helps your body make the transition from intense running to a normal activity level. More particularly, a 5- to 10-minute postworkout jog or walk will prevent blood from pooling in the legs, which can happen after a hard workout (Halliwell, Exercise and Sport Science Reviews 29: 65-70, 2001). This can limit blood flow to the heart and brain, possibly leading to dizziness, nausea, and other problems (Holtzhausen & Noakes, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 27: 1595-1601, 1995). Slow running keeps blood circulating around the body.

As for fitness benefits, end-of-workout jogs can be used to turn medium-mileage runs into higher-mileage days. A couple of extra miles at the end of a regular workout will train your body to keep moving even when it's tired. This is especially useful if you're gearing up for a longer race such as a half-marathon or marathon.

The evidence that cooling down reduces subsequent soreness or prevents injuries is extremely limited (e.g., Burns et al., Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy 33: 177-84, 2003)). Still, the cooldown period is a good time to stretch, since warm muscles should stretch more easily than cold ones (Strickler et al., American Journal of Sports Medicine 18: 141-5, 1990; Noonan et al., American Journal of Sports Medicine 21: 517-22, 1993; for a caveat, see Magnusson et al., Journal of Applied Physiology 88: 1215-20, 2000). I generally follow my own cooldown with calf, hamstring, and back stretches for 10 minutes, which feel great.

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