Is the Cool Down Necessary After a Workout?

Is there any real benefit of cooling down after your workout?

should athletes cool down
should athletes cool down. photo (c) Micheal Steel / Getty Images

You may have heard the advice to cooling down so you "won’t be sore tomorrow." But does the cool down really help reduce muscle soreness? The research doesn't support the theory that a  cool down after exercise prevents muscle soreness or speeding recovery.  So does a cool down have any real benefits for athletes? 

A cool down often feels good, and the psychological relief of riding easy, or walking around after a tough workout, can do wonders for your mental well-being. But many well-designed studies found no amount of cool down will prevent muscle soreness after exercise. In fact, studies show that a proper warm up before exercise is more likely to reduce your post-exercise muscle soreness.

The Benefit of Cooling Down

So does the cool down have any benefits? Well, yes, there is one major benefit: a few minutes of cooling down after maximal efforts can help prevent an athlete from feeling dizzy or possibly passing out. What this means is that you may not want to end your workout (or a spin class) with an all-out sprint, maximal effort or a tabata session and then jump off the bike and touch your toes. And for any athlete racing in competitions, it makes sense to keep moving around slowly for several minutes after you cross the finish line.

Other Benefits Debunked

So far, the research has pretty well debunked the following so-called benefits of cooling down after exercise.

According to the current research, cooling down has little effect on:

  • Reducing muscle soreness after exercise
  • Aiding recovery
  • Increasing flexibility
  • Increasing strength gains
  • preventing injuries

The benefit of cooling down after hard exercise is mainly that it prevents the blood from pooling in the extremities after maximal efforts, which can cause dizziness and fainting. By exercising at a slower intensity for several minutes after a hard effort, sprint or maximal effort, you'll allow your circulatory system to slowly return to a resting state while maintaining proper blood pressure. When an athlete faints or collapses after max efforts (or when crossing the finish line), the most common cause is stopping so suddenly that the blood pools in the extremities (usually the legs), and the brain is deprived of oxygen for a moment. It’s called postural hypotension and is the same mechanism that causes you to feel dizzy if you stand up too quickly when you have low blood pressure. Other less likely culprits for dizziness include severe dehydration, a lack of sodium (hypernatremia), heat illness, or heart attack — all of which are fairly rare.

The treatment for postural hypotension is to simply lay the person down, and raise her feet above her heart until the blood and oxygen get back to the brain. If that doesn't solve the problem, then something more serious could be going on, and medical help should be sought immediately.

Other common words of wisdom about the cool down say that it will help you will recover faster and prevent soreness. The idea that cooling down will reduce or prevent muscle soreness has not been found to be true with research. In fact, what has been discovered is that muscle soreness after exercise is caused by micro tears in the muscle fibers. Ironically, this is also how a muscle gets stronger. After the small tears are produced, the muscle tissue repairs and rebuilds itself (hypertrophy) and in doing so, gets bigger.

So by all means, continue to cool down after exercise if you like. Just understand what a cool down can and cannot do for you.

View Article Sources
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  • Olsen O, Sjøhaug M, van Beekvelt M, Mork PJ. The effect of warm-up and cool-down exercise on delayed onset muscle soreness in the quadriceps muscle: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Human Kinetics, 2012 Dec;35:59-68.
  • Rey E, Lago-Peñas C, Casáis L, Lago-Ballesteros J. The effect of immediate post-training active and passive recovery interventions on anaerobic performance and lower limb flexibility in professional soccer players. Journal of Human Kinetics 2012 Mar;31:121-9
  • Rey E, Lago-Peñas C, Lago-Ballesteros J, Casáis L. The effect of recovery strategies on contractile properties using tensiomyography and perceived muscle soreness in professional soccer players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Nov, 2012;26(11):3081-8