Should You do a Cool-Down After a Workout?
Written by TJ O’Brien

The jury is out on whether or not performing a cool-down – five to fifteen minutes of low-intensity exercise following a workout – does anything for delayed-onset muscle soreness or tomorrow’s performance. 

What does the research say about cool-downs?

A recent literature review concluded that “Most evidence indicates that active cool-downs do not significantly reduce muscle soreness, or improve the recovery of indirect markers of muscle damage, neuromuscular contractile properties, musculotendinous stiffness, range of motion, systemic hormonal concentrations, or measures of psychological recovery.1

Jeez, right?! As a coach who has extolled the virtues of a proper cool-down, I was puzzled by this. Isn’t cooling down supposed to flush the body of lactic acid, therefore reducing soreness in the subsequent days? Apparently not, as delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS is caused by cellular damage caused by eccentric loading and not by the accumulation of excess lactic acid.2 What about improving the speed of our recovery or helping or preventing injury? Again, according to most research, the effects are minimal. 3  

What does anecdotal evidence say about cool-downs?

My thoroughly unscientific approach, as in, my empirical evidence from coaching and personal experience would say otherwise, and so would all of the athletes I spoke to about this. This could be because 89% of coaches recently surveyed recommended a cool-down,(4) so perhaps this idea is so pervasive that the placebo we get from it is strong enough to make us think that it’s effective. 

On a recent Friday, our group classes re-tested Open Workout 19.1. The following five Fridays brought us more Open workouts during which we pushed the limits of our physical and mental capabilities. 

If we warm up properly for these tests or for any workout of high intensity, we should be priming our bodies and minds to go to places we don’t usually go. This means inducing a sympathetic nervous system response – the “fight or flight” state that developed to save us from dangerous situations during our long evolutionary history, but now tends to unexpectedly creep up on us – it can turn running late to a meeting into road rage or public speaking into a nightmarish experience. 

Remember, exercise is just a controlled dose of stress we’re putting on our bodies, and our response to that stress causes a beneficial adaptation, otherwise known as “gainz.” We can’t get results without some sort of stress, but how we recover from that stress is incredibly important. 

If we jack ourselves up on coffee, get fired up in the warm-up, and hit a workout like “Fran,” lying out of breath in a puddle of our own sweat for a couple of minutes does nothing to bring our brain back to a parasympathetic (think “rest and digest”) state. 

What makes a proper cool-down?

What I believe we’re missing is that a proper cool-down brings your body from a heightened state to a relaxed one, a skill whose utility extends far beyond the four walls of the gym. When I was asked to write this blog post, it was to be on “one great bang-for-your-buck stretch that you can perform during your cooldown.” This led me down the rabbit hole of the research above. 

However, I do think there are things you can do in your cool-down to jumpstart your recovery, the most important being bringing yourself to a parasympathetic state through particular breathing patterns. What you do while you breathe in the following way is, in my opinion, less important. 

In my classes, I give athletes a 10-second grace period of post-workout time spent on the ground, but don’t let the workout think that it beat you. As soon as you’re finished, the recovery process begins, so get up, and take a walk outside or around the gym. Attempt to elongate your exhales and try to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, until you can breathe only through your nose. This may take a couple of minutes. 

Options for Cool-Downs After Exercise

Then, you’ve got two options: a directly breath-focused cool-down, used mainly when athletes are too pooped to do anything else or take further direction, or a breath and movement focused cool- down. 

Breath-Focused Cooldown

Lie down on your back with your feet up against a wall. Allow your low back to decompress down to the floor. Tuck your chin slightly to bring length to your cervical spine. Exhale all your air out then: 

  • Breathe in for a count of 4 
  • Hold your breath for a count of 7
  • Exhale for a count of 8 

Make your inhales as expansive as possible, initiating them by breathing low into the belly before letting the chest rise. Hold with as little effort as possible. On the exhale purse the lips and try to let the air out without forcing it out. This style of breathing, called “4-7-8” has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety and even aid in getting people to fall asleep. 4

Breath & Movement-Based Cool-Down

OR try this hip-focused flow that connects the breath to the body, opens the hips, and simultaneously brings the heart rate back down. Using the contract-relax breathing method helps to bring the body back to a parasympathetic state. Take a breath into the stretch, hold that breath for a moment and while you do, attempt to contract the muscle you are stretching, on the exhale, attempt to sink deeper into the stretch. You can play with whatever tempo you’d like on this, but try to make the exhale longer than the inhale, perhaps trying to exhale for twice as long as you inhale. 

Check out the video above and follow along with these movements:

  • 90/90 Hip R leg forward 
  • Down dog 
  • 90/90 Hip L Leg forward 
  • Frog puppy dog 
  • Child’s pose 

What does your anecdotal evidence tell you about cool-downs? Share your favorite post-workout routine in the comments!


References

  1. van Hooren, B., & Peake, J. M. (2018). Do we need a cool-down after exercise? A narrative review of the psychophysiological effects and the effects on performance, injuries and the long-term adaptive response. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.)
  2.  Nosaka, Ken (2008). “Muscle Soreness and Damage and the Repeated-Bout Effect”. In Tiidus, Peter M (ed.). Skeletal muscle damage and repair. Human Kinetics. pp. 59–76. ISBN 978-0-7360-5867-4
  3. Walter SD, Hart LE, McIntosh JM, Sutton JR. The Ontario cohort study of running-related injuries. Arch Intern Med. 1989;149(11):2561–4.
  4. Chandla, S. S. et al. (2013). Effect of short-term practice of pranayamic breathing exercises on cognition, anxiety, general well being and heart rate variability [Abstract].

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