You’re done with your workout and all you can think about is what you’re going to eat to refuel. Not so fast—what about a post-workout cool-down? Is it really necessary or can you just hit the showers?
What is a cool-down, anyway?
Experts disagree on what constitutes a cool-down, and what it should accomplish. Some exercise authorities say the cool-down should last a few minutes and consist of the same activity performed during the workout, but at a slower pace (i.e., a walk after a run). Others argue it should also include stretching or be an extension of the workout itself, allowing the exerciser to gradually decrease movement without a sudden stop.
What’s the point of a cool-down?
The purpose of the cool-down is up for debate, too, but many experts agree that one important reason to avoid abruptly ending a workout is the possibility of passing out. Including a cool-down after a particularly intense session can slow the body’s physiological responses to exercise, including elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones.
Others say that a cool-down is useful for alleviating muscle soreness. A previously popular theory posited that muscle soreness resulted from an accumulation of lactic acid, and a cool-down supposedly allowed the lactic acid to dissipate. But researchers have found little correlation between the amount of lactic acid present in muscles immediately after exercise and the level of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that typically occurs a day or so later.
The evidence on the cool-down’s benefits is mixed. One randomized, controlled study of healthy men and women found that a cool-down did nothing to prevent soreness in participants who walked backward downhill on a treadmill for 30 minutes. Another study of professional soccer players, however, found that those who cooled down rather than stopped suddenly after a workout had a slight improvement in next-day performance.
Is a cool-down really necessary?
Even though a cool-down may not make a huge impact on soreness or next-day performance, One Medical Group sports medicine specialist Arnold Lee, MD believes that incorporating a cool-down is worthwhile for exercisers who may ignore early signs of injury during intense workouts. “During a workout, people may not notice injuries they’ve sustained, either because they want to push through to the end, or because their adrenaline is flowing,” Lee says. “During a cool-down, you’re more likely to pay attention.”
Regardless of whether you opt to cool it down or throw in the towel immediately, there’s one part of your workout you shouldn’t skip: the warm-up. Experts are in agreement that a proper warm up can prevent injury and enhance performance. Researchers in the aforementioned treadmill study found it to be the one variable that did make a difference in alleviating soreness. So start your workouts with a slow-paced aerobic activity that lasts 5 to 10 minutes, and gradually increase your pace and intensity.
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