Many people dismiss the cool-down as a waste of time, or simply unimportant. But if that were the case, then why is that we see Games athletes spending time on the aerodyne (a training bike that uses air resistance) immediately after the event? I witnessed several athletes making their way back to the rower after the Triple 3 event at this year’s Games to spend five to ten minutes rowing at a controlled, steady pace. The truth is that performing a cool-down after a workout is just as important as warming the body up in preparation for exercise. But why?
Benefits of cooling down
It is firstly important to note that a cool-down is different from active recovery. A cool-down consists of the actions taken immediately post-WOD while you are still at the box. ‘Active recovery’ means the steps you take to recover from a workout when you return home or on the day(s) following exercise. During an intense training effort, metabolic waste products are lodged in your body all the way down to the individual muscle cells. The fluid that surrounds them – as well as the capillaries, veins, and lungs – needs to be flushed out before you rest.
The main aim of the cool-down is to promote recovery and return the body to its pre-workout state. During a strenuous workout, your body goes through a number of stressful processes; muscle fibers, tendons and ligaments get damaged, and waste products build up within your body. The cool-down, performed properly, will assist your body in its repair process.
Helps waste removal and decreases blood pooling
A demanding workout, as is common to many a CrossFit program, generates metabolic wastes like lactic acid and hydroxyproline. These waste products are lodged in your body all the way down to the individual muscle cells. The fluid that surrounds them–as well as the capillaries, veins, and lungs—need to be flushed out before you rest. In addition, energetic exercise causes the blood vessels in your legs to expand, bringing more blood into the legs and feet. If you stop exercising suddenly (i.e. when you finish a WOD) and don’t take the time to cool down, your heart rate slows abruptly and the additional blood can pool in your lower body, causing dizziness and even fainting. The risk is greater for serious athletes, whose veins hold more blood, therefore making their heart rates slow down much faster: this is why you always see elite athletes cooling down.
Lessens the effects of DOMS
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a common side effect of intense exercise. DOMS begins to develop 8-24 hours after exercise has been performed, and may produce the greatest pain 24-72 hours following the fateful WOD. Symptoms include muscular pain, swelling and stiffness. It was once thought that the cause of DOMS was linked to lactic acid accumulation and toxic metabolic waste build-up, though this has since been proven to be an outdated theory. Though the jury is still out on what the main cause of DOMS is, it is widely believed that it comes about due to connective tissue micro trauma, which occurs when muscles lengthen and stretch during exercise. There is no way to avoid the onset of DOMS completely, but cooling down can soften the blow. Post-WOD low intensity exercise can enhance the clearance of enzymes responsible for muscle damage and residual fatigue—not to mention the stiffness we all feel the next day from those miserable goblet squats! In addition, dynamic stretching (which is a part of cooling down) activates the muscles and increases body heat and blood flow, which helps to provide your muscles with nutrients that can reduce soreness.
One of the best times to work on your flexibility is after your work out, as part of your cool-down. This is when your muscles are warmest and most pliable, making them easier to stretch and reach new levels of flexibility. It’s also a good opportunity to work on your myofascial release and stay on top of the fascia that if left unattended can cause knots to form and hamper your posture and mobility.
The key stages of an effective cool-down
Now that we know what the cool-down does and why it’s so important, let’s have a look at the structure of an effective cool-down. There are three key elements, or stages, which should be included to ensure an effective and complete cool-down.
Your goal during a cool-down is to gradually bring your heart rate back to its resting level. When your workout ends, keep up your body active but move at a slower pace; reducing your pace every minute or two. Your cool-down should last for at least five minutes, but you may need to keep moving longer if your heart rate is still elevated. Getting on the rower, aerodyne or jumping rope are all good ways to cool down gently, whilst also providing you with an opportunity to work on technique.
Stretching when your muscles are warm, as they are after a workout, can improve your flexibility over time, which in turn helps prevent injury. Stretching also relaxes your muscles, contributes to improved circulation and hastens the removal of waste products from your workout. Stretch every major muscle group after a workout, holding each stretch for 30 seconds to a full minute. Stretching shouldn’t be painful, but you should feel tension in the muscle being stretched. Dynamic stretching activates the muscle and increases body heat and blood flow, which helps to provide your muscles with nutrients that can reduce soreness.
You can lose large amounts of fluid during training, especially if you’ve been working out outdoors when it’s hot and humid (or in a box without air conditioning). Making sure you drink enough water to replace the fluids you have lost during the WOD is another important part of recovery. Water supports every metabolic function and nutrient transfer in the body and taking in plenty of water will improve every bodily function. After depleting your energy stores with exercise, you need to refuel if you expect your body to recover, repair tissues, get stronger and be ready for the next challenge. Ideally, you should also try to eat within 60 minutes of your workout, making sure you include some high-quality protein and complex carbohydrates (like sweet potato, a personal favorite). This would also be an opportune time to gulp down your go-to post-workout protein shake to feed those hungry muscles.
Photo courtesy of Runar Eilertsen/(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)