After the article I wrote on Warm-up / Activation and explaining why is so important and also so misunderstood, I decided to write this article on cool down as this is just as important and unfortunately also just as misunderstood.
Let’s start with the obvious. If you read my article on warm-ups, you will know what it really takes to get your ‘engine’ started. So for this article I will discuss what it takes to successfully switch your ‘engine’ off and get your body back to its pre-exercise state. I will go through all the systems that are active during your training and also what happens during ‘shutdown’.
If you compare your body to a box of toys, when you start with your activation and your training, you start to unpack your ‘toys’. Let’s say your ‘toys’ are the likes of elevated blood pressure, blood vessel dilation, stress hormone release etc. When your training is complete, you need to put all the toys back in the box. The reason for this is that you need to take your body back to its pre-exercise state. If you don’t do this, you will most likely suffer consequences such as stiffness, lowered immune response, slower adaptation and recovery, amongst others. Let’s take a look at the physiological and psychological effects of training and how a proper cool down will counteract and minimize these effects.
Let’s have a look at some post exercise facts:
Your blood pressure is raised while training, the reason; your muscles need more oxygen, the heart starts pumping more blood around the body with more powerful contractions; cooling down aids in lowering your blood pressure as rapid blood pressure decline happens when blood is allowed to pool in the lower extremities.
As you go through your activation and then through your workout itself muscles move through thousands of concentric and eccentric contractions, lengthening and contracting as you move through your stride. Cooling down aids the muscles in returning to the normal length and tension association, meaning that the muscles shorten and all the tension is released returning the muscle to its pre- exercise state. This also lessens the effects of DOMS
DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) presents 8 to 24hrs after exercise and becomes worse 24 to 72hrs. DOMS is caused by connective tissue micro trauma which happens during the muscles eccentric lengthening. There is no way of getting away from DOMS since there is a huge amount of eccentric action during the running stride but performing a proper cool down will lessen these effects, this would include the clearance of enzymes responsible for muscle damage and residual fatigue once blood circulation is normalized.
Heart rate lowers and body temperature normalizes. This goes hand in hand with blood pressure, if the heart rate slows while you have all that blood in your lower extremities (Blood Pooling) the heart cannot effectively pump all the blood back to the rest of the body or it just takes really long hindering recovery. Cooling down keeps the heart rate elevated enough to recirculate the blood through the entire body to prevent blood pooling in the lower extremities, and in doing that clearing out all the excess hormones and waste away from those areas. This brings me to the next point.
There are several hormones released into the blood stream to aid your body and muscles during your workout these are some of the main ones:
- Cortisol is produced in the adrenal gland and is released into the blood stream in response to stress. One of the main jobs of cortisol is to increase the glucose concentration in the blood to provide more readily available energy for the muscles. Cortisol is also involved in the breakdown of muscle proteins. Once exercise ceases, the levels of cortisol decrease and the body returns to pre exercise state.
- Endorphins are released by the pituitary gland and are involved in blocking pain.
- Lactic Acid is produced when glucose is broken down and oxidized during strenuous exercise when oxygen levels are low more lactic acid is produced in turn producing hydrogen ions which are responsible for the burning feeling in your muscles while training.
- HGR (Human Growth Hormone) targets muscles and cells that are being stressed by exercise and triggers an adaptive response that promotes growth and makes them receptive to adaption.
All the above hormones will be in excess after training and need to be cleared out of the blood stream, a light jog at the end of your session will aid by speeding up the process, the faster the excess and toxins are cleared out the better for our body and the sooner recovery can begin.
Improve your flexibility by putting in a good amount of static stretching after your workout, take advantage of your warm and malleable muscles while they are easier to stretch. If you have a foam roller with you at training, use it to release tension in your muscles.
Psychologically, cooling down with a jog with some friends and getting all those stress hormones back in the box will make you feel better.
Now for the spanner in the works:
All these thing things that I have mentioned above will eventually happen, even if you just stand around after your work-out, so why put in the extra effort?
What if I told you that not only is the cool down a post-exercise reset button, but is also a workout benefit enhancer!
My theory is that, while you are putting all the toys back in the box, you are in fact also training your body to adapt to using muscle fibers that are not usually used for such easy aerobic intensity, because the fibers used in your training session are exhausted. By cooling down, we are potentially teaching our bodies to take up and re-use lactate that is already built up. The brain is the central governor after all, and signals our body when it feels the body has had enough; therefore I believe that a cool down jog is possibly teaching the brain that the body can still do more and that you could hold out for longer.
Why do I say that this is a theory and that all of these are ‘possibilities’? The fact is that there is very little research on cool-downs and the affects and benefits they have on your body and your training. My experience has been that, if done done correctly, you will almost always feel better afterwards if you do your cool down, and the benefits have proven valid to me in my experience as a coach and an athlete.
So…. In conclusion, no matter which way you look at it, the benefits of cooling down after your workout are undeniable whether it be to hasten recovery, reset your body back to pre-exercise state or take advantage of the little extra post workout training benefits.
Here are some cool down tips that I believe would aid in your recovery and would possibly give you benefits to your workout:
- Go for a longer jog, up to 2km with some friends and keep it slow, chat, joke and relax. You will feel happier and more relaxed.
- Static stretching, yes, this is where is comes in. Sit in a circle and stretch all the affected muscles.