Cool-Down, Why Bother?

Everyone knows we need to cool-down after training or competition, indeed it’s one of the first lessons we’re all taught as juniors. Does anyone ever question why though?

The perceived benefits

A while back I did a little straw poll on Facebook and Twitter to try and get some of your opinions on the benefits of a cool-down. Here’s what we came up with:

  • Improve recovery between sessions
  • Reduce DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness)
  • Dissipate waste products
  • Return to a resting mind-set

I guess the first two are the big ones so that’s what we’ll focus on. Are we really doing these with our cool-down? Well, you’ll have to read on to find out!

What is a cool-down?

A cool-down is a short period of activity which typically follows a bout of training, competition   or other intense exercise. Its aim is to allow the body to gradually transition from a state of exercise-induced stress back down to a state of rest.

How is cool-down typically structured?

The cool-down is generally broken down into two types of activity:

  • Gentle, regressive aerobic activity
  • Stretching

Somewhere in the region of 5-10 minutes of cooling-down is recommended for recreational exercisers, extending to 10-20 minutes for experienced athletes. History dictates that stretches are normally static, although the prevalence of dynamic stretching during the cool-down seems to be increasing.

What does the cool-down do (in theory)?

Let’s get physical to start with (or physiological for the pedantic). A cool-down is proposed to do the following:

  • Gradually decreases heart-rate and breathing
  • Gradually cools body temperature
  • Return muscles to their optimal length-tension relationships
  • Prevents venous pooling in the lower limbs
  • Restore physiologic systems close to baseline
  • Reduces sympathetic nervous system

Now that all looks very lovely on paper, but will doing absolutely nothing not accomplish most of these too?

When it’s a no-brainer

General consensus does dictate that some level of cool-down should be undertaken after an extended period of intense exercise in an effort to reduce blood pooling. This should help to dampen any sharp changes in blood pressure and reduce the risk of dizziness and/or feinting.

 

So now we’ve established what it is and what it should do, let’s get on to answering whether or not the cool-down is fit for purpose?

Does a cool-down improve recovery?

Maybe. Whilst research suggests that cool-down interventions carry no significant restorative benefits over passive (i.e. doing nothing) recovery (1-5), Kinugasa and Kilding (3) have noted improvements in athletes’ perceptions of recovery. Maybe this belief alone is adequate to facilitate better performances when next called upon. From my own experiences, as both a coach and an athlete, I’m not really convinced there’s any improvement. Then again, I’ve not undertaken any well controlled trials… yet.

At this point it is important to stress that nutrition, hydration and sleep have a far more pronounced impact on recovery than a cool-down; these must be prioritised.

Does a cool-down reduce DOMS?

Perhaps. Again, I’ve not seen any evidence from my own coaching or training to suggest that it does. If training is going to make you sore, it’s going to make you sore. At the moment there isn’t really a consensus in the literature; a new study by Rey et al (5) suggests potential for a reduction in DOMS whilst older studies suggest no such benefit (e.g. 6).

The only way a cool-down could physiologically reduce DOMS, as discussed by Law and Herbert (6), would be by interfering with the secondary processes that succeed muscle damage. If this did occur then a cool-down may even carry the risk of blunting potential training adaptations, as had been proposed with the use of ice baths (7).

Summary

The cool-down should not be considered an essential practice after training or competition in the majority of circumstances. Some individuals appear to perceive a cool-down as beneficial to their recovery; with these individuals a cool-down may be a worthwhile prescription.

My View

I bet you’re thinking that I’m pretty anti-cool-down, right? I guess to some extent I am. I think the cool-down practices engaged in by the majority of athletes and coaches are a waste of time. However, I do believe that the cool-down period itself is an important one.  How do I think it should be used? That’s a topic for another article…

 

References:

  1. Tessitore, A, Meeusen, R, Pagano, R, Benvenuti, C, Tiberi, M, and Capranica, L. (2008). Effectiveness of active versus passive recovery strategies after futsal games. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 22: 1402-1412.
  2. Andersson, H, Raastad, T, Nilsson J, Paulsen, G, Garthe, I, and Kadi F. (2008). Neuromuscular fatigue and recovery in elite female soccer: effects of active recovery. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise 40: 372-380.
  3. Kinugasa, T and Kilding, AE. (2009). A comparison of post-match recovery strategies in youth soccer players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 23: 1402-1407.
  4. Andersson, H, Karlsen, A, Blomhoff, R, Raastad, T, and Kadi, F. (2010). Active recovery training does not affect the antioxidant response to soccer games in elite female players. British Journal of Nutrition 104: 1492-1499.
  5. Rey, E, Lago-Penas, C, Lago-Ballesteros, L, and Casais, L. (2012). The effect of recovery strategies on contractile properties using tensiomyography and perceived muscle soreness in professional soccer players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 26: 3081-3088.
  6. Law, RYW, and Herbert, RD. (2007). Warm-up reduces delayed-onset muscle soreness but cool-down does not: a randomised controlled trial. Australian Journal of Physiotherapy 53: 91-95.
  7. Leeder, J, Gissane, C, van Someren, K, Gregson, W, and Howatson, G. (2012). Cold water immersion and recovery from strenuous exercise: a meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine 46: 233-240.
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