Time to skip the post-workout cool down

Bas Van Hooren, Jonathan M. Peake. 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.  Sports Med (2018) 48:1575–1595

This happens to be a myth-busting paper – and I love myth busting. A lot of times we listen to experts making a reasonable guess at best practices, but when evidence comes around that debunks non-evidence based recommendations it is incumbent upon us to take note and change our behavior appropriately – for time is the most valuable thing in the universe.  Don’t waste time doing unnecessary stuff…

It has become dogma that an active cool-down is more effective in promoting exercise recovery than a passive cool-down (doing nothing).  An active cool-down is purported to have numerous benefits such as a faster recovery of heart rate, less muscle soreness, and a more rapid reduction of metabolic by-products such as lactic acid. Recovery methods such as cold water immersion, compression garments, and cryotherapy have been well-studied.  Up until now, the active cool-down is one activity that has yet to be examined in a systematic way.  I thank the authors for their work in this endeavor.

For the purposes of this review and for this post, an active cool-down is an activity that involves low to moderate intensity exercise or movement performed within 1 hour after training or competition. It’s fairly widely used with a recent survey finding that 89% of US collegiate athletic trainers recommended it and 53% of them recommending jogging as the activity.

So the BLUF is that, based on the evidence currently available, active cool-downs are largely not effective for improving most markers of post-exercise recovery, but may nevertheless offer some benefits compared with a passive cool-down.  Here are the top TEN take-aways from the paper:

  • Studies indicate overall that an active cool-down does not improve sports performance later on the same day when time between successive performances is < 4 h and may even have small detrimental effects.
  • There was no significant effect from an active-cool down on blood pH levels after exercise and lactate clearance was unaffected in muscle tissue (although an active-cool down did reduce serum markers of lactate). Since lactate returns to normal levels as soon as 20 min after exercise, increasing clearance for recovery is probably irrelevant.
  • No effect on delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
  • Does not attenuate the decrease in range of motion (ROM) or the increase in musculotendinous stiffness following exercise.
  • Findings indicate there may be a faster recovery of the cardiovascular and respiratory system after exercise.
  • No significant effect on hormone levels between active and passive cool-downs
  • Active cool-down does not affect injury rates – although there is a surprising paucity of evidence in this area
  • An active cool-down can theoretically reduce the risk of injuries during a subsequent training session, because a better recovery may result in less neuromuscular fatigue
  • No effect on immune system recovery after strenuous exercise.
  • Preliminary evidence suggests that an active cool-down consisting of 15 min moderate-intensity jogging does not attenuate the long-term adaptive response in well-trained intermittent sport athletes

And here is a little Bonus info for you…Many of you will be wondering about static stretching and foam rolling.  Well, this was reviewed as well and static stretching, a universally used activity, showed no evidence of aiding recovery.  Foam rolling performed after exercise has been found to decrease DOMS, increase ROM, and enhance sports performance the next day.

So if you have time for a cool-down then go for it – there certainly is not any harm.  But if your time is limited it is probably helpful to spend a few minutes foam rolling the exercised muscles but even that may not be necessary for the recreational athlete.


Lanny Littlejohn, MD

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