So you’re at the end of a gruelling workout. You’ve either lifted weights, sweated during cardio, or both, and now’s the time to recover. This begins as soon as you finish and the best way to start the recovery process is to run through a proper cool down routine. While a proper cool down can benefit your body, these benefits are often misunderstood among casual exercisers and fitness professionals alike. Learning about the exact science behind the cool down will help you understand just what those extra minutes of exercise can and cannot do for your body.
Why is a cool down important?
The best way to think about a workout is like a car journey. After along car journey, the car will take time to cool down and restore to normal. The same applies to your body. One of the most important functions of the post-exercise cool down is to prevent dizziness. Strenuous exercise causes the blood vessels in your legs to expand, bringing more blood into the legs and feet. When you stop exercising suddenly without taking time to cool down, your heart rate slows abruptly and that blood can pool in your lower body, causing dizziness and even fainting. The risk is greater for serious athletes, whose heart rates slow down faster and whose veins can hold more blood; for casual exercisers, something as simple as walking from the treadmill to the locker room may be enough to prevent dizziness.
What are the benefits of a cooldown?
There are a number of benefits to a proper cool down and I’ll tackle each on in turn.
- Restoring you bodies normal heart rate
A cool down after exercise just means you gradually bring you heart rate back down to normal. During exercise, your heart is beating harder than normal, and blood vessels are dilated. If someone just stops immediately after having heart rate elevated during exercise, there is an increased risk for passing out or feeling sick. How do you know how long to cool down or when is safe to stop? According to the American Heart Association (AHA), walking or a light jog for 5 minutes can suffice as a cool down.
- Resynthesizing glucose from lactate acid
If you want to stop feeling sore the next day during training, make cooling-down a priority. This gives the body a chance to flush lactic acid away from your muscles and out of the body swiftly. When this waste is not disposed of, you will be left feeling tired, sore, and uncomfortable the day after.
- Restores normal body temperature
Working out increases body temperature, especially when working out in a hot climate. Cooling down after a workout can help lower body temperature gradually. Cool down should also be followed with replacing lost fluids and electrolytes during exercise.
In general, a guideline for proper hydration with exercise is to replace every pound of fluid loss with 2 cups of fluids. Drinking fluids before or after cool down can further help body temperature return to normal. When you exercise less than 30 minutes, in general you don’t need to worry about replacing fluids. The more prolonged the exercise, the greater the concern.
- Improves flexibility
Stretching is an important step for increasing flexibility and is usually the last step of a workout. Stretching is usually encouraged as a way to lower risk for injury. Here are some guidelines for stretching during the cool down according to the Australian Sports Commission:
- Stretch all muscles that were used for exercise during the cool down.
- Stretch gently and slowly.
- Never bounce when stretching.
- Breathe while stretching, never try to hold your breath.
- Prepares for the 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.
What should I do during the cooldown?
So, what should you do for a cooldown? Here’s my advice…
- Walk for about 5 minutes, or until your heart rate gets below 120 beats per minutes
- Hold each stretch 10 to 30 seconds. If you feel you need more, stretch the other side and return for another set of stretching.
- The stretch should be strong, but not painful.
- Do not bounce.
- Breathe while you’re stretching. Exhale as you stretch, inhale while holding the stretch.
- So do your body a favor. Take time to gradually progress into your workout and cool down when you’re done being physically active.