Running takes a toll on a body, and trail running’s often hilly, rocky, rooty, twisty-turny fun puts different demands on the body than road running. For those reasons, we talked to Charlie Merrill, a Boulder, Colorado–based physical therapist, longtime trail runner and firm believer in the mind-body connection, for his insight on how a good running cool down can be optimal recovery.
It’s not all about stretching, as runners—road or trail—don’t need to be super flexible. “Runners benefit from having tight muscles, at some level, to store and release the energy needed to run,” says Merrill. “That said,” he adds, “the act of stretching the muscle desensitizes the brain to an overly protective stretch reflex so that you’re not as likely to have things like muscle cramps, or to tear a muscle from sudden movement like a trip or slip.”
For post-run stretching, Merrill suggests utilizing Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF). This basically means using contract and relax cycles, such as holding a stretch for 5 to 10 seconds and releasing for 5 to 10 seconds, over two minutes or so. “Doing so convinces the brain that it’s OK to lengthen before the reflexive stopping point kicks in,” he says.
Add intention to your stretching by taking slow deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. Aside from stretching, rolling out and releasing tension in parts of the body put under high demand on a trail run can help with muscle recovery while allowing the nervous system to relax, making for an excellent running cool down.
“I like to think of these exercises as self-care,” he adds. “It’s doing something nice for your body to thank it for being so strong during your run.”
Four Good Cool Down Exercises for After a Trail Run
- Kneeling anterior hip stretch. Kneel on one knee with the other bent at 90 degrees in front of you, with the foot of the front leg flat on the floor (like a kneeling lunge). With abs and butt tight so the back doesn’t arch, keeping a straight line from knee to shoulder, lean forward to stretch the TFL, anterior hip joint, rectus femoris, and long quadriceps. “You can even reach the psoas, abs, and lats, if you can get some length in your torso while you’re doing this stretch,” says Merrill. To help calm the nervous system while stretching, focus on your breathing. Merrill recommends inhaling for 5 (or 4) seconds, and exhaling for 10 (or 8) seconds. “Breathing like that shifts people out of the fight or flight sympathetic nervous system into the parasympathetic nervous system, which is calming and helps ‘rest and digest’ during your running cool down. This is really important for endurance athletes in general.”
- Lie on a foam roller to stretch the upper body. Lying down on a foam roller from your butt to your head so that the length of your spine rests on a foam roller, move your arms slowly up overhead and back down to stretch your chest muscles. Aim to reach your arms overhead, which helps get mobility into the upper back and mid-back. “Running uphill, which we find ourselves doing a lot while trail running, adaptively rounds our shoulders,” says Merrill. “And even on flat trails, we’re always looking down at the trail. Using a foam roller to open up the chest is a nice way to improve respiratory capacity. Trail runners often find their breathing is easier if they do this stretch regularly.”
- Foam roll your back. Lie with the foam roller perpendicular to your spine at your upper back and with your feet flat on the ground, knees bent, and your butt hovering an inch or so off the ground. Support your head with your hands. Roll up and down along your upper and mid spine between your shoulder blades . This can both help further open up the chest and help you relax, as the pressure the foam roller puts on the thoracic spine can calm the nervous system. “The autonomic nervous system [which regulates performance and recovery] lives in that part of spinal cord,” says Merrill. “Plus, the spine and upper body are just as critical for running success as the lower body. It’s all connected.”
- Treat your feet. “In trail running, we demand a lot of our feet to navigate rough terrain,” says Merrill, who recommends rolling a golf ball under bare feet, post-run. “The goal is to roll out the muscles, and make our feet more robust and more adapted to rough terrain by giving them a lot of input. This also keeps foot tissue healthy.” From there, use your fingers to separate all of your toes gently to stretch out the fascia in between. “This can help your feet widen and become more stable and smart overall,” he says.
The big idea of a good running cool down is that you’re treating your body to calm your brain for better recovery, less pain, and improved performance.