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For a Better Cooldown, Start With Tempo-Paced Reps

It might be the last thing you want to do after a workout, but here's why a tiny bit of speed might hasten your recovery.

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For most runners, the cooldown is simply a slow jog, intended to ease the body’s transition from the intensity of a race or workout back into normal life. But there might be a better way to do it, and amazingly, it involves starting your cooldown with a few short, brisk repeats at around 10K or tempo effort.

Accidental Discovery

I stumbled on this by accident, playing around with a workout I call rat-a-tat 400s in which you run 400s at 10K pace on 15-second shuffle-around recoveries. 

I was interested in these as a form of lactate-shuttle training , and tacked a few of them on at the end of one of my runner’s workouts, simply to get a little extra volume without overtaxing her. 

Her response caught me off guard. Not only did she find them a fun way to end her workout, but she loved the way they made her feel afterward. “When I do a few of these at the end of a workout, I feel less fatigued than if I immediately shift to recovery-jog mode,” she said.

Why It’s a Better Way to Cooldown

Other coaches have made similar discoveries. 

“We’ll often add a short, smooth fartlek after the main session, usually 8 x 30 seconds fast, 45 seconds easy,” says Ben Rosario, head coach of HOKA’s Northern Arizona Elite program in Flagstaff, Arizona. He doesn’t specify the pace, but, he says, “it’s not meant to be super-hard…just nice and smooth.”

Paul Greer, coach of the San Diego Track Club, has also used uptempo repeats in a cooldown, though his method is slightly different. After hard workouts, he has runners do 8 x 100m strides at 10K to 15K effort, intermixed with sets of 20-25 calisthenics: jumping jacks, crunches, or push-ups. “The calisthenics focus on flexibility (jumping jacks), core (crunches), and upper body strength (pushups),” he says. “Runners can choose to either execute just one type or do all three.” 

The coach who appears to have been doing this the longest and most scientifically, however, is international coach Peter Thompson, now residing in Eugene, Oregon. Thompson began experimenting with it back in the 1970s and has developed a protocol that involves 5 x 200m at 10K effort, on 60-second walking recoveries (roughly long enough to walk 100m). 

None of these protocols, of course, are what most of us would normally think of as cooldowns. In a 2006 article in Athletics Weekly, Thompson admitted that most runner’s first reaction to the idea tends to be shock: “You want me to do what?” 

The workout is supposedly over. What’s this about more speed? But once athletes try it, Thompson told PodiumRunner, they tend to like it.

The first 200, he says, may feel hard. But so long as you don’t go too fast, the next ones get progressively easier. By the end, you may be feeling so good you have to fight off the temptation to speed up.

What’s happening physiologically, Thompson believes, is that these short, controlled, speed-ups are just right to help flush fatigue-causing acidosis out of your muscles, without further fatiguing them in the process. He calls it priming for recovery. “It’s value added to training, because the sooner you start recovering, the sooner you’re going to start adapting, and the sooner you’re going to become fitter,” he says.

When to Do It

Not that 10k reps are something you need to do after every workout. It’s not terribly useful after a tempo run, for example, because it would just be more of what you’ve already been doing. Rather, the faster the workout you’ve been doing, the more useful this may be.

There aren’t, however, any studies showing the perfect protocol for doing this. Thompson likes 200s. My runner likes a smaller number of 400s. Greer likes 100s. Rosario likes jog recoveries. Thompson likes walking recoveries. But everyone seems to be hitting on a total volume of about 1000m, at about 10K pace. 

And the key is that runners who try it, often stick with it. “I don’t have to say, ‘have you done your 5 x 200s?’” Thompson says. “They know how good they feel afterwards, and they initiate it themselves.”