More on recovery: should you do a cooldown?

Sure, why not?

“Make sure you do your cooldown,” we’ve all been told by a coach after a hard workout. And your coach is right, but not for the reasons you would think.

It’s thought that the cooldown, or the extra minutes of light exercise after your actual training bout or competition, is a critical component of recovery. In theory, some light exercising is supposed to flush those nasty metabolic by-products out of your muscles, and prevent you from passing out due to blood pooling in your veins.

In reality, your cardiovascular system doesn’t need any help getting back down to resting values. Your heart rate, breathing, and bloodflow are all running on autopilot. As soon as you stop moving your muscles, your brain stops getting the signal to keep those processes in exercise mode, and they return to resting values. Any residual elevation in heart rate or breathing is probably a result of increased body temperature and circulating hormones that help you during exercise. You really don’t need to soothe your body back to rest.

There’s also no evidence that a cooldown significantly changes the removal of those metabolites. Whether you cool down for ten or fifteen minutes or just sit on your butt, your body is very very good at directing blood where it needs to go.

Lactic acid (or technically lactate if you’re a nerd like me) is actually removed from your muscles just fine without a cooldown. And no matter how many times you hear it on Monday Night Football, lactate does not cause muscle soreness. It’s actually a good thing.

But despite the lack of physiological rationale, you should still do some form of cooling down.

There’s a reason coaches still prescribe cooldowns, and probably always will. Like stretching (which still won’t kill you), a cooldown can be a great feedback mechanism: it gives you a chance to get tuned-in to your body. It’s a useful window between rest and exercise that allows you to reflect on your training state. If you just did some hard training and you’re already feeling it during your cooldown, take two days off. If you can’t even do a cooldown, take a week off; you’re overtraining.

It also gives you the opportunity to keep moving, or extend your workout in an easy effort. Instead of helping you recover, a cooldown can help you focus on your technique, or just get a little extra distance in. So do it, in some form, especially after a hard training sesh.

But if you just finished a competition and are planning on taking a few days (or weeks) off anyways, skip the cooldown and go straight to the cold tub happy hour! Just treat yourself to something other than a protein shake.

photo credit: abigail keenan/unsplash
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