Is a cool down completely necessary?
Let’s be honest, not many of us cool down after exercise. We’re either really happy that we’ve completed some form of exercise in the first place or we’ve just done a gut busting workout where we can barely stand…and just want to sit down!
Strict timely routines for workouts are common, i.e. “I have to be home for dinner” etc., and when time is of the essence, the first sacrifice is usually the cool down…even before the warm-up.
Although cool downs are recommended after all types of exercise, they are most beneficial after any cardiovascular exercise, both endurance and high intensity workouts- generally those workouts that make you breathe a little harder and your heart pump faster.
So…here are 5 reasons why you should perform a cool down post-workout
1. Prevent Blood Pooling
When our exercise intensity increases, our demand for oxygen at the working muscles also increases and thus the heart pumps both harder and quicker to supply this oxygen. However, when we come to an abrupt stop after exercise, the working muscles are now demanding less oxygen than before, and the strong pumping action of the heart slows dramatically. With a slower pumping action and lower force of contraction from the heart, the pressure inside our blood vessels decreases making it harder to move the blood along. The blood already distributed to the working muscles, particularly those in the lower extremity, finds it much harder to return back to the heart; One, due to the reduced blood vessels pressure; and two, our muscles aren’t performing a squeezing action aiding blood back to the heart. Consequently, blood starts to pool in our vessels, which can make our legs feel rather heavy. Pooling blood in the extremities reduces the amount of blood to our brain and can also cause dizziness and in some cases fainting.
2. Removal of Waste Products
We’ve all heard of the term “lactic acid” right? But… do we know where it comes from? When we perform exercise in anaerobic conditions (without oxygen), our body starts to produce lactate- a substance that is broken down to provide our muscles with glucose and thus energy. However, when there’s too much, lactate then becomes a waste product. Once lactate production surpasses lactate removal (the ability to get rid of lactate), this can accumulate in our muscles, making our muscle cells more acidic. This can often result in a burning sensation and making our muscles feel quite heavy- decreasing our performance. Performing a cool down, with light exercise, helps to keep our blood pumping and maintains the cycle of removing waste products from our muscles. You’ll certainly thank yourself the next day as you’re less likely to feel sluggish, and ready for your next session!
3. Reducing Injury
One of my favourite analogies is when we compare our body to our car. They generally work the same: the engine is our heart and the wheels are our muscles that make us move. But…why is it, that we’d get an MOT for our car in a heartbeat but not for our body? Or when you hear a clunk in the engine, you don’t wait a couple of weeks to see how it goes because something worse might happen- so why do we think our bodies are any different? They can’t be neglected and need to be taken care of. Cool downs provide a perfect opportunity for you to start caring about your body!
Following exercise, our muscles are warm and pliant, a little bit like play-doh – when we roll it in our hands, it becomes warm and stretches further and more malleable. This makes a cool down period a perfect opportunity for us to stretch those muscles we have just used, to get the most out of them. Waiting just 10 minutes will allow our body temperature to drop significantly, making it more difficult to manipulate our tissue. After exercise, we don’t want to make our muscles shorter, we need them to return them to their original length, if not longer- if you’re tight!
It’s also be worth mentioning, static stretching before exercise is not advised. Not only does static stretching NOT reduce your injury risk, it actually increases your risk for injury and reduces power. Our muscles have clever feedback mechanisms, that provide continuous information to our brain about the length of our muscles- i.e. if we overstretch. If we stretch before exercise, these mechanisms can be turned off, and thus there’s nothing telling our brain if our muscles reach lengths that are prone to injury. Stretching cold muscles can also be quite uncomfortable too, so don’t waste your time!
4. Take a moment & Take a Breath
Cool down routines can actually be quite therapeutic- incorporating light exercise accompanied with static stretching, foam rolling and some mobility work. If you’re someone that suffers from stress quite regularly, a cool down- just 10 minutes, is a great way to reflect on other aspects of your life. Exercise actually releases neurochemicals such as dopamine and serotonin, more commonly known as endorphins- or the happy hormones! These hormones provide a euphoric effect- this is why we generally feel good after exercise and also have a sense of achievement. With this state of mind, a cool down enables our body to relax whilst performing therapeutic stretches, accompanied with some breathing exercises.
5. Increase you performance
Although a cool- down might not directly influence a performance increase- it does provide us with the opportunity to train more regularly and at greater intensity. All of the aforementioned factors above; blood pooling, waste product removal, returning muscle length and stress relief; all influence our performance. The former two factors, both ensure there are minimal byproducts at our muscles, making us feel fresh the next day. Stretching will ensure your muscles are at optimal length – as we know that shorter muscles will hinder our performance, and down time to relax and breathe may just help with your mentality approach to work or exercise.
So…now we know how a cool down may help, but what do we include
This will keep blood flowing and reduce likelihood of blood pooling and continue the removal of waste products, whilst your heart rate, breathing and body temperature gradually decline to baseline. Might consist of walking or a very slow jog.
Should help with returning muscles to original length and might reduce soreness the following day. Targeting those muscles used in the specified exercise is the go to. Remember…dynamic stretching before and static stretching after!
These exercises are designed to improve the mobility of our joints and muscles and are usually performed dynamically. These might include hip, shoulder or spinal routines and might depend on what activity you were undertaking.
Will identify any tight areas immediately, and perhaps give you an idea where you might be tight the following day. This is a great chance to iron out those creases, making you feel as fresh as possible. Foam rolling also acts as a secondary muscle pump, helping to squeeze blood vessels and aid blood back to the heart.