By Carl Valle
While cool-downs don’t get the same attention as warm-ups, they are very popular with coaches and athletes. For years, researchers have studied various protocols in cooling down the body, looking for mechanisms and positive outcomes with little success.
Recently, researchers posted a great article with conclusions that pointed to no demonstrated value in post-training cool-downs, and I was worried that we would see an overreaction. The study was a review of the available research, and I was extremely disappointed to see that there isn’t much quality work available in the area. I do agree with most of the findings, but before we get worried that a post-training jog will be a waste of time or actually impair recovery, let’s start digging into the details of the science and then draw conclusions.
What a Cool Down Is and Why It’s Time to Rethink It
Many readers will skip this section and jump into the summary or training advice, but that is a bad idea. The core problem with the entire breadth of research is defining what a cool-down really is. If we can’t define it properly or with enough precision, much of the strength of lateral positioning is lost.
As mentioned previously, the researchers Van Hooren and Peake wrote a fantastic paper on cool-downs and I highly recommend you read it. To me, it’s a classic that coaches should read every year, and they should examine the cited references as well. Van Hooren and Peake define a cool-down as:
“…an activity that involves voluntary, low- to moderate-intensity exercise or movement performed within 1 h after training and competition.”
While the definition looks straightforward, the connections in the title of the article (“Do We Need a Cool-Down After Exercise? A Narrative Review of the Psychophysiological Effects and the Effects on Performance, Injuries and the Long-Term Adaptive Response”) frustrated a few wise coaches and confused younger coaches about its purpose.
The inclusion of injuries, performance, and adaptation left me rethinking the goal of training that concludes the session. Antiquated ideas on lactate still exist, and many coaches still believe that after a hard workout, the body needs help clearing the biochemical internally—like an oil spill in the ocean. Yet, cooling down will happen by literally doing nothing, and time will clear lactate from the body if you want it to. Henk Kraaijenhof argued that if pH changes create adaptations, why clear it out of the body? Unlike warming up for training, it looks like cooling down is just a misguided idea, but it’s not as simple as walking away after the hardest part of the workout.From an applied standpoint, it makes sense to continue using cool-downs. Click To Tweet
Instead of trying to discover why a light jogging session doesn’t help with athletic performance or even recovery, it’s time to think sequence of training and timing of elements with far more precision. In addition to those variables, we need to look at the entire intent of training post main session with a fresh set of eyes. Cool-downs are not windows of time that could deliver some sort of special physical benefit; they are just administrative periods that may be more suited to specific work. However, like post-workout drinks, the science may not support the theory, but from an applied standpoint it does make sense to continue the process.
What the Science Says and What It Misses
The review on cool-downs included a hefty 145 citations, all evidence that doing a light run or workout will not magically help athletes recover. I don’t think we need years of science to conclude that, if the same modality caused you to need recovery, adding a lower-intensity version of it isn’t going to dig you out of the hole. When someone says exercise is recovery, the question I always have is how is it accelerating healing or repair, even if the form is therapeutic in nature.
After a heavy workout, the body is a little fragile, but additional training is sometimes used, piling on more strain. So why do we do cool-downs anyway? Some coaches fear cardiac events, excessive soreness, and jeopardizing next-session readiness or performance by doing too much. Frankly, most sessions won’t make the next day that much better because, if a muscle is broken down, aerobic training doesn’t improve myofibril remodeling of muscle, and tendon healing is horribly slow.
If anyone reading the paper was to trust the conclusion of each section, they would have to take at face value that the individual studies were gold to begin with. The summaries and organization of the paper were outstanding, but the available research they had access to wasn’t as strong as their approach in reviewing it.
If you want to frustrate a high-performance director or coach, have a scientist include a study of a protocol that isn’t realistic with a population that has very little connection to elites. While everyone is human and we are all from the same alpha in origin, “active subjects” doing an “active recovery” jog isn’t the same as an elite for several different reasons—the most important is that coaches want athletes to perform a cool-down to return to baseline during the training session in a controlled manner.Coaches use cool-downs to return athletes to baseline in a controlled manner. Click To Tweet
The science, if repeated with better protocols and better athletes in more realistic designs, will likely have similar outcomes, but I bet the farm that if we looked at different measures, we would see some surprises. Just as a possible benefit may show up with different indices of physiological change, we could see something that impairs the process as well. Still, the long-term effects section of the chart show where the real magic is, because many acute benefits of training as a whole don’t show benefit. A few papers do demonstrate that not much training may have a positive response, but most coaches and scientists would agree that training is systematic and progressive over time, and so the co-components of training should respond the same way.
The Classic Rules of Cool-Down Methodology
Change without improvement is just a dog chasing its tail, and we see way too much of that in coaching. A new idea is often an old one repackaged differently, fooling a new crowd of coaches and even some veteran professionals. Cooling down mirrors warming up, and while it doesn’t provide as many of the benefits, it does have value. Cutting out or truncating cool-downs just because we don’t fully understand them is a bad idea. I have seen this happen many times in sport: Science could not find the value, so coaches simply cut things out prematurely. On the other hand, we still need to permanently remove many approaches from training, as they are mainly risky and ineffective.
We should still use the term “cool-down” to support warming up. Various replacement titles, like “movement preparation,” have surfaced, but while the names are snazzy, the methods have failed to evolve, and may have even taken us all backwards. We should consider cool-downs as back-half training, and celebrate them just as much as great warm-up options. Less-intense training is just part of programming, and adding some training under fatigue will be valuable, just not in facilitating actual recovery.
If coaches only get one important takeaway, cool-downs are part of the recovery process but don’t actually improve recovery physiologically. Even ice baths—a true, literal form of cool-downs—don’t seem to help with muscle recovery physically. Time and other forms of training can build a body, but the mind is a much more difficult game.Cool-downs are part of the recovery process, but don’t actually improve recovery physiologically. Click To Tweet
If I called this next section new, everyone would get excited. If I called it old, people might skip it, thinking it wasn’t cutting-edge. Classic is appropriate because timeless principles are true gifts to coaches, and I have learned from mentors that the science will evolve, but the foundational concepts will remain. Here are three good principles that I believe in.
Instill a Process: The difference between a ritual and routine is that the former is a crutch and the latter is a process. Athletes should be fluent in approaches for what they do and not follow a recipe that is static and causes them to be mentally dependent on it. We tend to see a lot of rituals in sport that are subtle—golf and baseball are obvious, but even sports such as track and basketball have similar habits. Small idiosyncrasies that are stylistic are fine and normal, but cool-downs can’t be stuck with unscientific patterns.
Sequence Logically: Logic trumps most of the conclusions we see in narrow science, because it looks at the big picture better. When sequencing the training after the most intense peak of the workout, look at what makes the most sense, not what the latest study has shared. For example, many coaches know the Nordic hamstring exercise is valuable, but if athletes avoid it, it doesn’t get done. Secondary options may be a step down from the evidence, but if athletes are compliant, it’s better than nothing.
Patience Is a Virtue: Training that is part of the cool-down is not just about the immune system or about glycogen restoration, it’s about leaving the workout in the right frame of mind and body. Right after intense training is a good time to reflect on the workout, as well as see how the body is operating after an intense session. Sometimes the feedback after the adrenaline wears off is a better story than just the numbers alone.Process, placement, and patience are the foundations to any training, not just cool-downs. Click To Tweet
These three pillars are what I know works and will continue to work years after I am gone. Process, placement, and patience are the foundations to any training, not just cool-downs. Coaches who see the research but continue to do the same routines are not stubborn—they are wise to know that just because something doesn’t have a clear benefit doesn’t mean they need to scrap it.
Physiological and Medical Benefits
Cool-downs have a lot of social and emotional benefits, as group stretching helps with team bonding and talking to friends on your team may be a winning variable. Still, researchers want to know (and rightfully so) the hard science behind performing routines that resemble low-intensity training. Like lactate, the parasympathetic rebound will come in time, and you don’t need training to make those changes.
Performing light exercise won’t lead to any changes that excite a sport scientist, because clear benefits to next-day performance or supportive adaptations have yet to be seen. My only complaint is that looking at legacy markers of recovery is not going to cut it anymore, and next-day testing isn’t a fair time-course because many of the training effects are cumulative. Why not study more seasons of athletic performance versus short eight-week windows? I understand perfectly how demanding it is to do longitudinal studies, but I believe they are necessary.
The medical benefit of cool-downs is not low-intensity aerobic work—that’s just extra miles or meters. Usually, coaches prescribe exercises or routines to help address problems and don’t expect anything beyond maintenance. Added static stretching or mobility isn’t showing up in a lot of injury reduction research, but that is because injuries are multifactorial. Most of the cool-down routines in programs attempt to reduce the soreness and stiffness seen the next day, and while the intent is great, the research usually doesn’t show anything worth noting. Biochemical evidence or biomarkers are not perfect proxies for restoration, but they are good indicators that intense training occurred.
A better indicator is likely not range of motion or performance the next day, but more chronic changes and more subtle measures. For example, tensiomyography has some ability to see patterns of change acutely, while the long-term electromyography and tensiomyography readings might be more effective in seeing the magnitude.
Tissue is not easy to evaluate, and scoffing at trigger points that have no evidence isn’t helpful when anyone can see that texture of tissue is a dynamic and real issue in sport. Hypertonicity and cramping is an extreme form on the continuum, but muscle function is not just on and off. While some functions of tissue are oversold, we need to see how recovery from a neuromuscular and central response works, rather than just peak height on a jump test.
Acute responses to joint and tissue may not need mobility and stretching, but both those practices certainly create awareness for the coach as to the intensity and type of work done by the athlete. Subjective indicators are sometimes deceptive, so it makes sense to take everything with a grain of salt, but not dismiss it. Early communication and documentation of the cool-down activities may be more important than the physiological responses.
Common Cool-Down Options
There are four common modes of training that we feel make a difference in the outcomes in training, but they are not miracle or magical options by any means. Most of the benefits of cool-down activities are simply added training that is appropriately placed later in the workout. Remember that priorities sometimes come first, and that means warming up to prepare for risky activities, such as popularized activation exercises and potentiation methods. Athletes should always perform the most demanding and important activities earlier, and do supportive exercises—provided they are safe—last.
Easy Aerobic Work
We don’t see any changes in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), as most of the benefits come from a good warm-up, proper load, and sound rest later. Most of the easy conditioning is not labelled “cool-down,” as athletes tend to just abuse the training period because it’s seen as a time with very little coaching supervision or effort. The strange part of the research review by Van Hooren and Peake is that the study done by Olav Olsen clearly says at the end that warming up and warming down (cool-down) have benefits for post-training soreness, but Olsen’s study was barely mentioned in the review.Perhaps recovery done later instead of earlier is a better option. Click To Tweet
Maybe the design has flaws that the two researchers don’t feel comfortable with, but we found that warming up and warming down seems to throttle load for the session and next day. Speaking of the next day, I find more value in training easy the next or following day than right after training. Perhaps recovery done later instead of earlier is a better option.
Finisher Strength Exercises
I don’t know how many people use strength training as recovery, as circuits seem like ways to keep athletes sharp, but they don’t actually help athletes recover. Sure, the improvements in mood and opiate response may be useful, but adding on strength training after a session is more for fun than physiology.
I shared a brief protocol (see “circuit” link above), as a little pump at the end does feel good for many athletes because it encourages endorphins. Speed and power athletes get endorphin responses mainly from longer sprints and light weights, so adding in a few exercises at the end of a session or as a primary session later in the week may do the trick with qualitative recovery.
Injury Reduction Exercises
In the past, most injury-reduction exercises were isolation- or activation-type work, and we don’t do much in my own program, for good reason. We have learned that good injury prevention training is just good program design, and it’s always been that way. Correctives or other type of work is nice, but it should not be a major part of an athlete’s exercise diet. Some movements and exercises may be useful if the load is high enough, but then what is the point of placing them into the cool-down category? I find high rep strength training a good way to get the work needed, but it can hardly help with recovery unless the athletes enjoy it.
Stretching, Mobility, and Self-Care
Even before DOMS hits, athletes may feel stiff and tight, but all of the foam rolling and acute work is just transient. It may create a temporary response, but it’s not proven to make a big difference. On the other hand, stretching at night may help sleep, and it may accelerate recovery if it creates a relaxation response. This is the reason timing and sequence matter, because shutting down may be more important than actually cooling down for some athletes.For some athletes, shutting down may be more important than actually cooling down. Click To Tweet
What I liked about the review study mentioned is that foam rolling may have a benefit for athletes if done after training, but we need more research. Mobility may just be a nice routine to keep athletes engaged in knowing how their bodies are handling training, but a lot more research is necessary to determine whether joint play makes a difference.
Countless workouts and techniques exist after training—use what you think makes a realistic difference. Most of the above likely won’t ever show up in research, but a few methods may be enough to show real statistical meaning.
Cool Down by Programming Smarter
It’s easy to get complacent and suggest some body-building exercises, junk reps or junk runs, and even lazy nutrition advice after training, but we can all do better. If you want to make good use of time and energy, add specific modules of workouts and also think about the administrative side and not just the physiological side. It’s easy to get lost in the deep anatomy and biochemistry of training, but the practical needs are just as important because communication between coach and athlete is paramount.Cooling down is part of the training process, even if research doesn’t support the claimed benefits. Click To Tweet
Cooling down is a part of the training process, even if the research doesn’t support the claimed benefits that many coaches believe. What we do know is that most of the training doesn’t cause injury or poor performance, so don’t stress if a certain protocol isn’t showing clear evidence.