If I had a dollar for every single time I read “I was limited on time, so I cut the cool-down short” in Post-Workout Notes written by athletes who I coach, I would have been able to retire at the age of 33.
I mean, I get the temptation that exists here. Age-group athletes are busy people with so many competing demands for their time. Often, these athletes are squeezing in workouts in between other obligations, such as picking up their kids, work meetings, grocery shopping, or household tasks. When they find themselves with less time available than the workout calls for, a default strategy is to get the “important” parts of the workout in and to shorten the “unimportant” parts.
However, there is a method to the madness. Coaches (including me) don’t just put something on a training schedule because they want to write extra words or because they’re bored. ALL pieces and parts of a workout serve a functional and important purpose, and this is especially true of the Cool-Down.
As such, there truly aren’t “important” and “unimportant” parts of a workout. More accurately, we could describe different aspects of a workout as “more fun” and “not as fun”. The temptation to shorten or skip a Cool-Down exists because it doesn’t feel hard and it doesn’t feel like it’s serving a purpose. Other times, athletes just want to be done, so they skip ahead to the finish.
A proper Cool-Down is the first step in the Active Recovery process - no matter what sport you’re engaging in. Active Recovery is a process that uses gentle movement/exercise to stimulate circulation (blood flow) in the body. By continuing to move your body at a slow pace and light intensity, the body is able to return to its resting blood lactate levels more quickly. Additionally, it helps the body adjust back to normal blood pressure and blood flow.
There are normal (and desired!) changes to blood flow, blood pressure, and core temperature that occur during exercise. In order to get desired training adaptations over time, it is necessary to have a “bridge” (in the form of a Cool-Down) between the work done in a workout and “normal life” after a workout.
If an athlete doesn’t have a proper Cool-Down (i.e. they cut it short, skip it, or don’t plan for one), blood flow in the body drops significantly - to the point that the body is limited in its ability to get nutrients into the cells of the body. Additionally, the body is unable to offload the extra heat that is generated by an elevated core temperature during exercise. When the core stays hotter/warmer, more blood flow is sent to the skin in an attempt to keep the body cool. Since we have a finite amount of blood in our circulatory systems, this means that that blood flow is being diverted away from elsewhere; namely the muscles that worked during the workout. This keeps the body in a stressed state for a longer period of time, keeps metabolic waste in the muscles longer, all of which increases inflammation. This manifests to the athlete as feelings of soreness, fatigue, stiffness, and general unpleasantness.
Enter the magical Cool-Down. As part of an Active Recovery process (keeping the body moving), the Cool-Down allows the body to maintain an appropriate amount of blood flow back and forth from the muscles, which promotes proper muscle repair by allowing nutrient exchange.
It’s important to note that there are differences in how each gender responds to a Cool-Down. Females experience a greater decrease in arterial blood pressure than males do after a workout and have a harder time thermoregulating (read: females have a harder time offloading heat and reducing core temperature after a workout). The reason for this is due to the hormone progesterone; it increases core temperature in females and delays their sweat response. Females actually need a longer Cool-Down than males in order for them to have a good recovery after the workout. An active recovery Cool-Down (perhaps with the assistance of an ice bath after a proper moving Cool-Down) is extremely effective for females at cooling down the body and initiating the recovery process.
Males do not have this issue to the same degree as females; unlike in females, the blood vessels in males naturally constrict in a quicker timeline after a workout to flush blood away from the skin and back to the core for central circulation. (This is the reason why ice baths are much less effective for males than females; ice baths for males can actually inhibit recovery by causing micro-spasms in the muscles due to their lower core temperature.)
I plan for Cool-Downs in every workout I write for athletes that include written instructions for a very easy bridge to the “post-workout state.” How I plan the Cool-Down depends on the sport, but there’s always some sort of Cool-Down planned. For running (which elevates heart and respiratory rates more than any other sport), I plan for extended Cool-Downs that incorporate mobility work beyond the workout itself.
Many, many times, athletes see these and think that they are not as important as they are. Very often, athletes execute Cool-Downs with far too much effort (this is especially true of athletes who are time-focused or trying to “beat themselves” in workouts). Additionally, many either don’t realize or embrace the truth that the sequence and timing of these elements is planned specifically to help set them up for success in their other workouts in the training week and training cycle. From what I’ve observed working with hundreds of athletes over the years, it seems to be a universal trend to diminish and/or disregard the value of workout Cool-Downs.
Finally, Cool-Downs serve as a very important opportunity for mental training. On race day, you don’t get to cut the race short and still finish. You must complete the distance of the race in order to officially finish. Practicing keeping going (even if you’re bored or tempted to quit early because it’s “close enough”) is a very important skill to have in your Athlete’s Toolbelt, both in training and most especially on race day. You wouldn’t stop a mile away from the finish line because it’s “close enough”, would you?
So…don’t skip the Cool-Down. In addition, don’t alter the Cool-Down so you’re working harder than is planned, shortening it, or doing something else. If you’re pressed for time, cut some of the Main Sets. Yes, yes, I know that the Main Sets feel “more important” at face value. But truly, they’re not as important as creating a bridge between your workout and your after workout time. And they’re not as important as creating a bridge between this workout and the one you have coming up next (and all the ones that follow) in your training schedule.
Yes, indeed. Cool-Downs are important. Embrace and respect this, and your training will be transformed. :)
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.