[Train the Kenyan Way Blog Series]

Cool Downs

In a recent 2 part blog series Callum and I investigated the oft misunderstood theory and practical implications of ‘recovery running’ for distance runners. We investigated what they are, why they are used, what the experts say, and challenged our own view points on the subject.

For those of who haven’t seen those blogs you can find them here:

Recovery Running; What’s the Point?

Recovery Running: A Follow Up Opinion Piece 

The basic gist of our collective thoughts and research into recovery running were that it doesn’t really do what it is commonly believed to do, IE enhance recovery. However, that came with the rather large caveat that what we call ‘recovery runs’ are still useful if done correctly. (Check the previous blogs for explanation)

An obvious follow up question to the recovery run issue is ‘So what about cool downs?’

It’s a very a good question. I want to investigate and delve into this issue today. If you are unsure of the merits of the cool down, have mixed feelings about it or just want to spend the next few minutes geeking out on distance running stuff then read on…

So what is a cool down?

The cool down generally refers to the low level activity performed at the end of a race or high intensity training session.

Athletes’ approaches to so called ‘Cool Downs’ exist on a huge spectrum from absolutely nothing at one end through runs of significant volume and pace at the other extreme.

Unfortunately it is not as simple as looking at who does either and then picking the most successful or fastest amongst them and thinking ‘OK let’s copy what they do’.

There are elite level runners in both camps, so we must delve deeper if we are going to find the answer that works best for us.

So why cool down at all?

It is probably unlikely that you have made it this far into you running journey without being exposed to the ideas of the ‘Cool Down’ (or the bizarrely named ‘Warm Down’). You will have heard the usual justifications for using it: Ease you out of hard training, lower your heart rate, removal of lactic acid, ease the tiredness out of your legs. Maybe even ‘get some more mileage in’ amongst some running groups.

Where have heard these arguments used before? They are the same arguments given in favour of the recovery run, and we all saw how those arguments fell apart under scrutiny.

I spent year upon year as a staunch believer in the cool down both for myself and for the runners I advised and helped. That’s what I’d been taught in GCSE PE in school and the message seemed to have repeated itself as I moved to a degree in Sports Science at one of worlds foremost universities and then into the world of coaching.

An alternate view:

It wasn’t until I got my big break in the athletics world and was taken on by Renato Canova as his Assistant Coach with Global Sports Communication’s team of world class marathon runners in Kenya that I first had reason to question this deeply ingrained practice.

The author with Abel Kirui

Early in my time with Renato I picked up on the distinct lack of cool downs from his super-elites, (including double world champions Florence Kiplagat and Abel Kirui) post hard workout. I had grown up in a culture where the cool down was an established and essential part of training. Any one trying to dodge the cool down was in for a rollicking from the coach. Now here I was with one of the worlds most elite coaching groups and this element of training was simply skipped altogether.

I clearly remember the first time I noticed this – we were at Chepkoilel University Track just outside Eldoret and Abel Kirui (2xWorld Champion and Olympic Silver medalist) and his long time training partner 2:05 marathon man Jonathan Maiyo had just finished a gruelling session totalling 15km of intervals around the dirt track.

The session finished and Abel, Jonathan and the others took some time to change, drink water, and share a few jokes before just strolling across the campus fields back to our team van ready to go back to the training camp in Iten. As the rookie apprentice, I didn’t yet have the nerve to question the wisdom of one of the established greats of the coaching world. I simply observed what I was fortunate enough to be witnessing.  After a few weeks and now realising that this was an established practice and not a one off I asked Coach Canova “Why don’t they cool down after hard sessions?’ he simply replied ‘“for what?”

I was baffled and realised I didn’t have a good answer. Beyond rattling off the same vague explanations my school teachers had given me 15 years earlier I couldn’t explain the reasoning behind something I had done multiple times a week for years on end. When he realised I had nothing more to add he smiled and put an end to my embarrassment by further explaining:

the running is finished, why add more fatigue by continuing to run, now we want to recover, so we go home and rest. If an athlete wants to jog a few laps for mental relaxation that is OK, but not more.”

It was a simple explanation but looking back now it appears to fit with the current understanding of recovery running. The best way to remove lactate and recover is to sit back and allow your body the chance to do it’s thing.

Coach Canova with Florence and Abel after they both won the Chicago Marathon in 2016

Although this example comes from some of Kenya’s uber elites, the no cool down approach isn’t really the norm amongst Kenyan runners. The common approach in the famed running camps in Kenya is in fact to use the opportunity to jog very slowly around the track, or more commonly – the cool down is simply the most effective way to get back to their training camp from the track itself. 

I got my second dose of a high level coach questioning my commonly held beliefs few years later back in the UK. I was part of a British Athletics coaching program which I seem to remember being called something like the ‘National Endurance Accelerated Coach Education Program’ or similar. It was essentially a group of selected coaches from around the UK who were invited by the governing body to a series of education weekends and mentoring from the head honchos at the organisation.

We had a session with top high jump coach Fuzz Ahmed and to paraphrase him he said something like ‘Distance runners are the only people who don’t understand recovery. Everyone else knows that you recover by lying in bed or sitting on the sofa. But you guys think you recover by going for a 10mile run”

It was a lighthearted conversation and we all had a good laugh at ourselves but the point was clear and it equally applies to cool downs.

So what’s the answer:

My own position is still a little up in the air. I do still cool down myself despite the coach I most admire and who mentored me for 4 years telling me I’m wasting my time and effort. However, my cool downs are significantly slower and shorter than they used to be. 5-6 minutes barely above crawling pace is all I do.

I still wonder however, if there is something else going on which is not currently understood. I’ve always taken a somewhat skeptical view on what we are so quick to call ‘proven science’. Not to mean that it is wrong, but that we are all too keen to extrapolate the results of one study to a far wider array of situations than what was actually tested. I am also of the view that just because something has not been adequately studied does not mean that it is not true. Whilst ignoring established science would be foolish, there is also inherent danger in dismissing something as wrong just because no one has yet proved it to be correct.

So, whilst there may not be much (any?) data to say that recovery runs help runners to recover faster (presumably in terms of blood markers), what other aspects of what we as runners may call ‘recovery’ have been measured and studied?

Is there something else at play here? What about muscle stiffness rather than blood lactate? What about the mental and psychological aspect? Has this been considered? Maybe the cool down is an important part of ‘closing the chapter’ on the running aspect of your day and moving on to whatever comes next. IE has the bigger picture been considered rather than simply looking at this purely in isolation.

For many, the cool down is a real social occasion. A chance to catch up with friends (which you can’t really do during a session of 1k repeats or mid tempo run!) or to analyse the workout itself. Unlike elite athletes you may not have the chance to do this once you all go your separate ways at the end of the workout and back to busy lives or directly back to the office.

So despite all the arguments I have presented against the cool down why do I still insist on a short jog post workout? Maybe it is just so deeply ingrained in my psyche that I have reduced to it to a bare minimum but deep down I just can’t let go completely.

My gut feeling however, is that based on my ongoing experiment of one, I simply feel better after a short cool down or a recovery run than I do from sitting and doing nothing. Physiological, psychological, or something else entirely I just don’t know. But for the time being, I believe that my cool down works for me. My belief that I do is right for me is as important as any external validation from science or literature.

That is far from a definitive answer, the only thing we truly know is that runners have achieved extraordinary results from all manor of different approaches. 

The lack of definitive answers is surely one of the things which makes this sport so exciting. There is no ‘one best way’ to train. We constantly strive to improve our understanding of this seemingly straight forward task of running from A to B in a faster time.

What are your experiences with cool downs? Helpful or not?

Thanks for reading,


About the Author:

Gavin Smith is the Co-Founder of The Kenya Experience, a distance runner and formerly a coach to some of Kenya’s most decorated athletes. He graduated from Loughborough University in 2007 and lived in Iten Kenya from 2010 – 2014 where he was Assistant Coach to Renato Canova one of the worlds most celebrated distance running coaches.

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