Reader To Reader: The Cool-Down Debate

This week's question comes from a club runner whose coach thinks that cooling down defeats the object of speed work. Our correspondent isn't so sure. Let's just say that you knew where you stood on this one, and it wasn't with the coach...

"I wonder if RW readers could settle a hot debate in our club about speed work. Our head coach is suggesting a session for endurance athletes, as follows: Small warm up and stretch, then speed work (eg 2x5x100m), then straight into the car and drive home without a jog back to cool down. He feels that cooling-down causes your body to 'forget' what it has learnt in the speed work session. I don't understand the science behind it, and need your thoughts."Shachar's dad

Your best answers

  • What is your coach thinking?!
    The word "bollox" springs instantly to mind. What does the coach think your body is doing in the car while you're driving home? I'm quite happy to accept that cooling down might be irrelevant – goodness knows, I've sprinted in the front door at the end of a speedwork session, or come to a standstill at the end of a race, without a cool-down many times, and not been sore afterwards. However, I can't see that there is any positive physiological reason for actively avoiding a cool-down. I'll be interested to see whether Jane can make a digest of these responses that's fit for family viewing! – Velociraptor
  • Ditching the cool-down makes you faint and sore
    Think about it! Especially during 100m efforts, which I assume are at a fast pace, your muscles are making great demands for extra blood and your heart responds by beating faster to provide a quicker turnover of blood. If you come to a halt all of a sudden, your muscles can stop more or less instantly but your heart won't slow down anywhere near as quickly. It carried on pumping blood at a fast rate to muscles that no longer need it in such large quantities, so a backlog begins to build up, causing a reduction in the amount of blood returning to the heart. This leaves organs like the brain going short of blood, which results in giddiness and/or fainting. A cool-down helps to prevent this by keeping the muscles active whilst gradually reducing their workload. The pump action of the muscles aids venous return, so the dear old brain doesn't go short. In addition, by-products that have built up in the muscles during exercise are removed and lactic acid is re-absorbed, thus helping to reduce subsequent muscle soreness. – Ajax
  • Right science, completely wrong context
    He has the very slightest hint of truth... but he's extrapolated to complete bollox. If (and that's a big if – I'll come back to it later) you really wanted to retain activation patterns, then, yes, jogging afterwards isn't ideal. But the cool-down has an important physiological function. You could do the shortest cool-down that does the proper job (10-15min) rather than doing a long cool-down for the sake of a few more easy miles. However (remembering the earlier "if"), the only time I'd be concerned enough about retaining activation patterns to even consider ditching the cool-down would be if it was the last session before a fast-pace race, for example a couple of race-pace 200s a day or two before an 800m race. In the midst of winter training, it'd be completely pointless – such retention is a very short-term phenomenon. – Alex S
  • Your coach is dangerously wrong
    I'm currently on a gap year before heading off in Septemper to study Sports & Exercise Sciences, so I have some sort of knowledge on this. If you do just jump into your car without warming down, you have a serious chance of fainting, because the blood isn't allowed to flow back the other parts of the body slowly. If there is a mass flow to somewhere like the brain, the body can't handle it! Also, cooling down will aid in getting rid of waste products from the body, such as lactic acid. If you've ever tried driving home after a speed session without a cool-down, your legs will feel as though they are made of wood. Scientifically, avoiding a cool-down is possibly one of the worst things you could do. You are probably doing a lot more damage to you body than good. The only plus you could possibly gain is that you'll possibly put more effort into your sprints knowing you don't have a mile or two-mile cool-down afterwards. But, if anything, this would probably compound the negative effects of avoiding the cool-down. – Craig McLoughlin
  • Telly addict?
    Maybe he just thinks that the cool-down in the car is sufficient – or his favourite TV programme is about to start. – GymAddict
  • That's not all your coach has got wrong
    My first comment is that 100m efforts are a complete waste of time for endurance athletes. I suggest you sack your coach! You only want your muscles to "remember" the session if you're working on technique, as you do with swimming. With speedwork it's about developing and building muscle, so any talk of "remembering" is nonsense. My experience indicates that I feel better the next day if I've cooled down with some slow running after a hard speed session. – Mister W
  • Nice coach, rubbish advice
    Even if you jog a lap of the track it will help. Your coach may be a nice chap, but he is not going to do any of his athletes any good. – sanders
  • Maybe there's something in it?
    When I was an aerobics instructor, I worked with a chap who taught over 50s step aerobics (he was 50+ himself). He did cool down, but he never stretched post-workout because if he did his knees were so bad he'd need painkillers the next day. Maybe this hints at something your coach might have been thinking? – Craig Llewellyn
  • My body tells me to cool down
    I don't know much about coaching, but I do know that as I get older, a cool-down and stretch are the ways to avoid aches and pains the next day. My body tells me that! – Mick W

Any questions?
Got a new poser or problem that you want RW members to answer? Spotted a great question on the forum? Email us!

Click here to find out more about Reader to Reader.