Rolling in the Deep (Tissue) for a More Effective Cool-Down

The runner's toolkit
The perfect cool-down rolling toolkit.

Last month we featured a piece on the warm-down: what it was, when to do it, and how to complete one. Naturally we had to follow that up with the final phase in any athlete’s workout: the cool-down. While you will likely do easy running, drills, strides or other active movement in your warm-down, for the cool down you will be focusing on muscle manipulation. Historically, that meant a lot of static stretching. But for those of you out there who want to really dig deep, the most effective cool-down activity might be a post-workout muscle manipulation and lactic acid abolishing through rolling.

So, why do we even need to cool-down?

If I had a nickel for every time one of the girls on my track team asked me this, I would have, well, several nickels. The short answer that I usually give to my impatient teens is that we cool-down because we need to flush out the lactic acid from our muscles, and because we need to keep the muscles as elastic as possible. The slightly longer version is this: when we run (or lift weights, or swim, etc.), we are contracting or tightening our muscles over and over again. The cool-down serves as the method we use to stretch out those tightened muscles to get them into their pre-workout state while simultaneously ridding ourselves of the lactic acid build-up that causes muscle soreness. My girls never want to hear that part.

Um, what the heck is lactic acid?

Back in May of 2014, Chamomile posted a piece on Lactate Threshold training. In that piece, she discusses how runners can essentially use their own lactic acid production to help them discover their endurance and pace. But what exactly is lactic acid? I asked Kylene Bogden, MS, RD, CSSD, LD and board certified sports nutritionist for The Cleveland Clinic for her take on this bodily by-product. “Lactic acid is produced in muscle cells as well as red blood cells when your body breaks down carbohydrates for energy during times when oxygen availability is low,” she notes. “[E]ssentially, when the amount of lactate increases, the pH level of your blood decreases. The acid must be buffered immediately within the cell or else the buildup will result in a reduction of muscle force, therefore decreasing performance” says Bogden. Bascially, when a runner starts to feel that burning feeling in her legs, “it can be attributed to the irritation of free nerve endings outside the muscle cells as a result of a lowered pH level.”

But what do I do?

As both a coach and an athlete, I am all about the post-workout static stretching. I mean, who doesn’t love a good couch stretch? But perhaps the best method of stretching out a muscle is through rolling. Many of you are already familiar with the foam roller, or as it is aptly called in my home, “the frenemy.” According to Michael Bogden, PT, DPT, SCS, board certified sports specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, and team PT for Cleveland State University, “There are a variety of receptors throughout our joints, muscles, and other tissues that provide feedback on movement and pain. The foam roller may be useful in stimulating these receptors leading to inhibition of pain or a reduction of tightness secondary to quieting a slightly contracted muscle.” Static stretching, while useful, will not cut it alone. If you really want to get those muscles back to feeling loose, rolling is the key.

R.E. Lewis, Yoga Tune Up® Teacher, CrossFit Level 2 Trainer, and Head Coach of CTOWN CrossFit West breaks it down for us: it’s all about the fascia. “Fascia is the gelatinous knitting that holds the body together, glues muscles to tendons…,[and] ligaments to bones. It promotes slide and glide with in our body, [and] if not properly hydrated, the slide and glide will diminish, the muscle fibers will adhere together, and the trigger points will present themselves within the body.” These “trigger points” are those knots in our muscles that rear their ugly heads after long, hard, and abundant training.

Fascia for days! (Antoine Vaillant/Flikr Commons
Fascia for days! (Antoine Vaillant/Flikr Commons)

“Our muscles need to be scrubbed to reduce inflammation and promote health within the muscle fibers,” says Lewis. “As I scrub the tissues, the tool breaks up the kinks in the system (a.k.a. trigger points) that may be reducing hydration up stream or down stream of the affected area.” That “tool” can come in many different forms, whether it’s the foam roller in its menagerie of versions, a massage stick, tune-up balls, lacrosse balls, or body floss.

Just like the warm-down, the cool-down has its proper place in the runner’s workout. In the warm-down, we want to promote testosterone production, and in the cool-down, we want to restore our muscles back to their resting state. How we go about that is up to each individual athlete and her taste in torture device, err…I mean, muscle manipulation tool. For the short-short version of why we cool down: you’ll feel better tomorrow. So pick your poison, and get to rollin’.



I’m a runner, CrossFitter, and coach. I write about 5ks, strength training and nutrition. My current goals are to PR in my 5k and continue to grow in my strength conditioning.

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1 comment

  1. Love the visual. You can tell where I live and work based on the foam rollers and “emergency” rubber balls for pressure point release that I have stashed around.