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.
Cool-down Benefit: The Mental Aspect
Mental recovery is an often overlooked part of the workout. Sure, we all lead busy lives and it can be difficult to allocate the time that we need to adequately relax and let our mind calm down after a hard workout but relaxation techniques are extremely useful tools that help you with recovery and even preparation for your next workout.
Even if you just take a few minutes to do some deep breathing, some meditation, or a few yoga poses, this can help you reflect on your performance during this session and to mentally prepare for your next session. Taking the time to process what you just accomplished, where you succeeded and where you failed, what felt good and what needs more work, is an important part of making progress as an athlete, and the cool-down is the perfect time to incorporate this important part of the mental game. I strongly encourage the athletes that I coach to write a few post-activity comments immediately after each workout. We can then review those notes at the end of each week before I plan out their next week.
In his book, Mass Made Simple, author and bodybuilder Dan John says: “I have had cool-downs that consisted of me sitting on a bench for a long time trying to figure out how to drive home. I have also had long, lovely cool-downs of sauna, steam, and whirlpool.”
He goes on to point out a simple but overlooked point; the cool-down is a transition from the gym back to real life. “It is a good time... to do more mobility work and maybe even work some kinks out. I have worked on technical things during a cool-down and found it effective for me to unwind from the load. Do something for a few minutes to make sure your heart has slowed down and your brain can make two connected thoughts.”
What a Cool-Down Doesn’t Do
For a long time, we coaches would tell our athletes and clients that they needed to do a cool-down so they wouldn’t get sore the next day. It turns out that although I still swear that it helps me, that notion isn’t supported by the science.
In a study that looked at the effect of warm-up and cool-down exercise on delayed onset muscle soreness in the quadriceps muscle, a group of 36 active adults were put through a difficult lunge workout while holding barbells. One group of the volunteers warmed-up beforehand (riding a stationary bicycle for 20 minutes) another group didn’t warm-up but did a cool-down after the exercise (again, casually riding the bike for 20 minutes). The remainder of the volunteers lunged and immediately hit the showers.
The next day, all of the volunteers did a pain threshold test, in which their muscles were prodded until they reported discomfort. The volunteers who did the warm-up were relatively pain-free. The folks who did the cool-down had a much lower pain threshold (meaning that it took less to cause them pain). In fact, they were in the same amount of pain as the control group who skipped the warm-up and cool-down.
Another study that looked at the effect of immediate post-training active and passive recovery interventions on anaerobic performance and lower limb flexibility put 31 professional soccer players through benchmark tests on vertical leap, sprinting speed, agility, and leg muscle flexibility before taking part in a normal soccer practice. After practice, they had some of the players simply sit on a bench for 20 minutes, while others did a cool-down which included 12 minutes of jogging and eight minutes of stretching.
The players repeated the physical tests the next day and also answered questions about how sore they were. And although the measures of muscle soreness across the groups were the same, the cool-down group could leap higher the next day than the players who sat around for 20 minutes—which I count as a big win for team cool-down.
The available cool-down data “quite strongly suggests a cool-down does not reduce post-exercise soreness.” But it’s also important to note that “none of the scientific research shows any negative effects due to performing a cool-down.”