Cool it – Cool-Downs

When you’ve just done a hard session the temptation is to hit the shower/pub as soon as possible. The success of your next session is at stake, however, if you don’t take the time to cool down.

Warm-ups are primarily about ensuring the elasticity of muscle and connective tissue so as to minimise the risk of ripping any of it. Cool-downs, on the other hand, are mainly about getting rid of lactic acid and avoiding blood pooling in the muscles you’ve just worked so hard to pump full of the stuff.

Coming to an abrupt halt after exercise can also cause cramps, soreness (often due to lactic acid build-up), dizziness or even abnormal strain on the heart.

A good cool-down helps the body return gently to its pre-workout state with breathing and heartbeat falling to normal levels. Keeping moving also allows the blood to be pumped back from the extremities and muscles. As with warm-ups it’s important to distinguish cooling down from stretching. Going straight into static stretches isn’t going to help your circulation and won’t provide the most gentle route back to normality for heart and lungs.

Probably the best and simplest cool-down is walking. A good striding motion gradually slowed down to normal pace keeps all the limbs moving rhythmically and lets the lungs catch up. Psychologically it’s a great moment to review the session, give yourself a mental pat on the back and come back to the real world. The best time to stretch is after you’ve done five to ten minutes of cool-down because your muscles will still be at their most flexible. Pretty much every gym class these days has a cool-down section at the end, and there are usually a couple of timepressed people who see that as their cue to skip off a couple of minutes early. It’s understandable but not a good idea. Apart from anything else a proper cool-down contributes massively to the feeling of well-being and smugness after a workout and that feeling is to be encouraged if you want your healthy habit to last.

The cool-down is also a great time to reach for that water bottle, and maybe a sports bar or banana to start rehydrating and refuelling. Even if you’re only in the gym because you want to lose weight, that post-exercise refuelling session is the key to ensuring your metabolism bums fat reserves rather than trying to hold on to them.

Cool-down is also a great time to check your heart rate, either manually or with a heart rate monitor. Your heart rate can drop by 20-40 beats per minute in just a couple of minutes after exercise – and the speed with which it returns to normal is a pretty good indicator of how much fitter you’re getting.