The training topic for today is all about the cool-down! No, I don’t mean chill-out with a cold beer and binge watch the latest show just added to Netflix. By cool-down, I mean the finale of your workout. Yes, it’s great that you have started a workout routine, but the end of your workout should be just as important as the beginning.
You are probably wondering what exactly is involved in the cool-down portion of a workout and what the point of it even is. I know back when I first started track and field in high school I definitely didn’t understand the concept of running at a slower pace (after running all practice long) and stretching for 10 to 20 minutes before being able to finally go home. It wasn’t until I had to leave practice early before stretching a few days that I truly began to understand the real importance of cooling-down. That next week my legs were so tight that I tried to the best of my ability to avoid walking up and down stairs. You may have experienced something similar to this the day after moving furniture or going for a long hike with a friend. Excessive muscle tightness and soreness can deter anyone from wanting to be physically active, but this is where a proper cool-down comes into play.
There are three main reasons to cool-down after the conditioning phase of a workout. The point of a post-workout cool-down is to gradually bring the heart rate back down to resting levels, prevent dizziness, and lengthen contracted muscles to become more elastic and increase flexibility.
If you have ever participated in a group exercise class like Zumba or BodyPump you might have noticed that the last 5 minutes or so of the class is usually dedicated to slower movements and slight stretching. This part of the class is the cool-down, in which your heart rate starts slowing down and you most likely start smiling because you know you made it through a strenuous workout. Gradually decreasing the heart rate by cooling down is important because abruptly stopping exercise can put unnecessary stress on the heart. Also, if you suddenly stop moving than you may feel dizzy or, in extreme cases, run the risk of passing out. Blood vessels expand after a workout and gravity causes blood to pool in the legs and feet. This leaves less blood for the brain, hence the possibility of dizziness or passing out. Not all people might experience dizziness after a workout, but it certainly is something to be aware of. As long as you listen to your body and maintain good hydration throughout a workout than you should be fine throughout your cool-down.
Another reason the cool-down is so important is because it decreases the possibility of muscle tightness and increases overall flexibility. The muscles are constantly contracted and relaxed throughout a workout which creates a feeling the great Arnold described as “the pump”. This so called “pump” is when the muscles have filled with nutrient and oxygen-rich blood. You may feel bigger and stronger, yet tighter at the same time. I’ll admit it is a pretty cool feeling and gives a sense of accomplishment after a workout. However, if the contractile proteins of the muscles are not stretched than they will remain in a contracted state, which in turn leads to muscle tightness and soreness. Muscles are best statically stretched when they are warm so the perfect time to stretch is right at the completion of a workout. Static stretching is when positions are held (no bouncing) to a point of slight discomfort (not pain) for a period of 20 to 30 seconds. Lengthened muscles are more likely to perform at a higher level the next time they are needed to contract, and can increase your overall flexibility over time.
To summarize, cooling-down is a necessary part of a well-rounded exercise routine because it gradually brings your heart rate down to resting levels, prevents post-exercise dizziness, decreases muscle tightness, and over time increases contractile performance of the muscles and their flexibility. From the transition of the conditioning phase of a workout to the cool-down, the pace of movements should begin to slow. Once the heart rate comes down enough, static stretching should be performed on all muscle groups.
Now that you have successfully concluded your workout with a proper cool-down you can carry on with the rest of your day feeling strong and accomplished, yet quite loosey-goosey from taking the time to stretch! Keep an eye out for a future post about the differences between the many types of stretching. In the meantime stay calm and keep living Happily Ever Healthy!