4 Reasons to do a Cool Down
Article by John Miller
Why is a Cool Down Important?
While often neglected a cool down serves four main purposes:
- Immediate cardiovascular recovery.
- Normalising muscle length and tension.
- Mental recovery
- Preparation for your next exercise session.
Let's look at these four purposes in a little more detail.
Immediate cardiovascular recovery is potentially life saving. Your heart has been busily pumping blood at high pressure through your body. If you stop suddenly your blood can pool in the engorged muscles, normally your legs, and you may feel dizzy or actually collapse. A cool down acts as a steady "normaliser" that can also help to aid the dissipation of muscle contraction waste products such as lactic acid, and assist the normalising of "fight and flight" chemicals such as adrenaline in your blood. Simply slowing down the vigor of the exercise you have just done for a few minutes is all it takes to normalise your circulatory system. Runners can walk. Swimmers can swim slower. All this happens as your heart rate and blood pressure safely resumes your normal resting levels.
Resting Muscle Length
Normalising muscle length and tension. One the byproducts of exercise is muscle bunching. Think of a body builder post biceps curls. They are left with semi-bent elbows and if this remains long term they will actually have shorter and more bunched muscles in the long-term. During sports, this may be beneficial but between your training sessions it leads to hypertonic muscles, increased risk of muscle strain and in long-term cases a loss of joint range of motion. This can affect performance. A runner for example with a tight hamstring will have a reduced stride length and have a higher risk of injury. A tight muscle is usually a less efficient muscle, meaning less force generation and power.
Which Stretches are Recommended Post-Exercise?
The purpose of post-exercise stretching is to restore muscle length, so static stretching is the key. Research has shown that 30 second slow static stretches are the way to go (Ayala et al 2010). Two to three repetitions are favoured by most researchers. But, you should really listen to your body and if you feel an extra stretch or two of a tighter than normal muscle group is what you need, I’d suggest you give it a try. Your body rarely lies and has a pretty good idea what it likes. It is also important to stretch all the muscles that were involved in your activity.
What about Massage and Foam Rollers?
You can probably also guess that a light non-traumatic style massage or use of a foam roller may also be very helpful at restoring your post-exercise muscle length.
Mental recovery is overlooked part of the recovery process as we lead busy lives and it is often difficult to ensure that we adequately take the time to relax and let our mind calms down. Relaxation techniques can be a useful tool to help you with this, but even taking a few minutes to slowly cool down, some meditation or having a relaxing soft tissue massage can help you reflect upon you training performance or to mentally recover for your next session.
Preparation for your next exercise session. Sometimes cool down is truly an ice cold. That’s why ice baths are used by professional athletes post-event or post-game. The benefits of ice baths have been shown to assist post-exercise bruising and bleeding, joint or muscle inflammation and to provide pain relief - even if it is a bit chilly when you first hop it. Of course, the less brave can simply use ice packs to painful bits. It all aims to stop things swelling too much, which aids your recovery time.
Things to Avoid in Cool Down.
Just as there are lot of good things to do in a cool down it’s also good to avoid less helpful things. Avoid heat - you’re already hot and further heat will only encourage bleeding.
Avoid alcohol - I don’t want to be a party-pooper but alcohol encourages inflammation and dehydration.
As I mentioned earlier the benefits of an effective cool down help you to recover from your session and prepare for the next. Now it’s up to you!
Recovery Treatment Options
Ayala F, de Baranda Andujar PS. Effect of 3 different active stretch durations on hip flexion range of motion. J Strength Condition Res (Lippincott Williams Wilkins). 2010;24(2):430-436.
Mattes AL. Active isolated stretching. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 1996;1(1):28-33.
Roberts JM, Wilson K. Effect of stretching duration on active and passive range of motion in the lower extremity. Br J Sports Med. 1999;33(4):259-263.
Winters MV, Blake CG, Trost JS, et al. Passive versus active stretching of hip flexor muscles in subjects with limited hip extension: a randomized clinical trial. Phys Ther. 2004;84(9):800-807.
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