The exercise cool-down is poorly understood. Today, I hope to make clear that cooling down after working out is just as important as the warm-up, and should be done on a regular basis.
After any workout (cardio or weights) your muscles are tired and very quickly begin breaking down in order to rebuild. That time, right after you finish exercising, is a critical time for muscle tissue repair, strength building, and overall recovery. That is where your cool-down comes into play.
The obvious and perhaps main goal of your cool-down is to gradually bring your heart rate down to a closer-to-normal resting rate. And yes, you can accomplish that by simply walking out of the gym and sitting in your car as you drive to the coffee shop for a celebratory frappé, but there is more to it than that.
Those clever folks who make time to indulge in a thorough and perhaps even luxurious cool-down report that the sheer ritual of their cool-down helps with mental clarity and also gives them a healthy and satisfying sense of accomplishment. I don’t think anyone gets that from sitting in a cold car in traffic.
Now not all of us have time for what I would call a luxurious cool-down, but there must be a middle ground. To find that, let’s look at the actual benefits of a good cool-down and how we can achieve them.
Cool-down Benefit: Blood Flow
At its most basic, a cool-down after a workout simply keeps the blood circulating at a comfortable rate throughout the body.
At its most basic, a cool-down after a workout simply keeps the blood circulating at a comfortable rate throughout the body. After a workout ends, you ideally would continue some activity but begin to perform it at a slower and slower pace, until you are moving at a normal non-workout pace. This can often take at least five minutes, but can definitely last a lot longer.
Strenuous exercise causes the blood vessels in your arms and legs to expand, bringing more blood into the legs, hands, and feet. Stopping suddenly, especially after a hard effort, can cause you to feel light-headed. Stopping suddenly can also cause your heart rate and blood pressure to drop rapidly. This is one of the most obvious and perhaps most serious reasons for a cool-down.
The risk of actually passing out or losing consciousness is greater in very fit athletes because their heart rates can slow down faster and their veins can also hold more blood than the rest of us. Casual exercisers may not be at a high risk of passing out but it is still important to do something even as simple as walking at a decent pace from the weight room to the locker room to prevent dizziness.
After any physical activity, your heart is very likely to be beating faster than it normally does, your body temperature is higher, and your blood vessels are more dilated than usual. When your blood vessels are dilated (the opposite of constricted) the flow of your blood is increased due to a decrease in what is called vascular resistance. So, dilation of your arterial blood vessels (mainly the arterioles) decreases your overall blood pressure, temporarily. This means if you stop too fast, you could potentially pass out or at least feel sick and woozy.
Cool-down Benefit: Stretching and Rolling
After you complete a workout is also the perfect time to get a good stretch on because your muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joints are still warm. Stretching and foam rolling when your muscles are warm can improve your overall flexibility, which has been thought to help prevent future injury and increase our range of motion. Also, let’s face it, stretching after a hard session feels darn good.
A great way to cool down is to stretch every major muscle group. I suggest holding each stretch for 20-30 seconds while doing some deep diaphragmatic breathing. Remember that stretching should never be painful, you should feel some tension in the muscle releasing as the muscle is being stretched but you should not feel pain. If you do, relax the stretch and breathe.
Cool-down Benefit: Muscle Length
One of the byproducts of exercise is a thing that some people refer to as muscle bunching. Muscle bunching is more like your body wanting to stay in the position it is currently in. Similar to when you stand up in the theatre after watching a long movie and your legs don’t seem to want to straighten.
To understand this, let’s picture someone on the Leg Curl machine. When that person finishes the workout, they are left with the feeling of having semi-bent legs and if they don’t do something to counteract that, it could become more than just a feeling. Cramps and muscle spasms can ensue.
This can affect performance adversely. A tight muscle is a less efficient muscle, producing less force and power.
This feeling can actually be beneficial during a hockey game or while you are on a long bike ride because you want the position that the activity puts you in to feel normal for the duration of the event. But between training sessions or games, this feeling can lead to hypertonic muscles which is the amount of contraction that remains even when a muscle is not actively working. It also can lead to an increased risk of muscle strain or with an even longer-term view, an actual loss of joint range of motion.
I probably don’t need to tell you that this can affect performance adversely. A tight muscle is a less efficient muscle, producing less force and power.