Cool Down or Simply Stop?
The idea that you should cool down after a vigorous workout has been repeated so many times, by so many people, it's practically a commandment.
It's sensible, logical and recommended for almost all the wrong reasons. Let's look at some of the things people are saying a proper cool down will do... and after each one we'll tell you what research has proven.
"Cooling down reduces the immediate post-exercise tendency for muscle spasm or cramping."
Nope, sorry. Spasms are caused by an absence of minerals like magnesium, muscle overload or insufficient hydration. You can't correct any of those causes by a cool down routine. And cramps? Those are typically caused by cold, overexertion, low sodium, low potassium or low calcium levels in the blood. Cooling down won't heat the muscles up, reverse overexertion, replace sodium, potassium or calcium in the blood.
"A proper cool down can help reduce muscle soreness or stiffness."
Not true. There is no physiological reason why it should and several studies have gone on to prove that cool downs do nothing to prevent sore muscles or stiffness.
"Cooling down helps to reduce the level of adrenaline in the blood."
Yes it does, but simply stopping your workout, without any cool down will reduce adrenaline levels even faster. Adrenaline (or epinephrine) is a hormone released from the adrenal glands in cases of danger, during emergencies or when you're in stressful situations. If your body is releasing adrenaline because of working out, then stopping completely is the fastest way to reduce levels of adrenaline in the blood.
"Cooling down allows your heart to slowly return to its resting state."
That's true, but there's no real good reason for a normal person to bring their heart rate down slowly after exercise versus quickly. If a doctor is taking your blood pressure, and your heart is beating too fast, you're going to be told to lie down and relax. Your doctor's not going to suggest you walk around for a while to bring your blood pressure down slowly.
"Cooling down after every workout helps to prevent delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)."
Wrong. DOMS is the result of microscopic tearing of the muscle fibers. Your body rushes immune cells in to repair the damage (mostly cells called macrophages and neutrophils). These immune cells produce bradykinins and prostaglandins, which make pain receptors in your body more sensitive and mediate the inflammatory response. Since the levels of the immune cells reach their peak 24 to 48 hours after exercise, that's when you'll feel the pain the most. Cooling down has absolutely no effect on whether you get DOMS or not.
"Cooling down helps eliminate lactic acid from the muscles so they can repair themselves faster."
True... and false. Taking a few minutes to cool down does force your muscles to dissipate lactic acid. That part is true. But getting lactic acid out of your muscles does nothing to help them repair faster. Muscles grow because exercise stresses and injures them. The muscles become inflamed and satellite cells are called to repair or replace the damaged fibers. Lactic acid neither enhances nor diminishes muscle growth.
"Cooling down properly can help bring blood pressure down to normal levels in a safe manner."
That may be the only completely true statement that's important. When you exercise vigorously and then simply stop, blood has a tendency to pool in extremities (like your legs) and away from your brain. That can leave your brain deprived of both oxygen and blood, leading to giddiness, light-headedness and fainting. Ironically, well-conditioned athletes are more prone to this problem than out of shape people for two reasons. They tend to have bigger veins that have a greater capacity to pool blood. Plus their heart rates tend to be lower than the average person and exercise can slow them down even more.
If you're a trained athlete, a cooling down period is probably a good idea to help prevent light-headedness or fainting. For the rest of us, it appears to be nothing more than a waste of time.
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