Do we have to cool down?

RX

GRETCHEN REYNOLDS

Do you often, if guiltily, skip cooling down after exercise? A small but soothing body of new research suggests that you aren't missing out on much.

Most of us were taught that the body requires a formal period of cooling down after a workout or competition. Instructors told us that by slowing to a jog or otherwise lessening the intensity of the workout, followed by stretching or otherwise transitioning out of physical activity, we would prevent muscle soreness, improve limberness and speed physiological recovery. All of this would allow us to perform better physically the next day than if we hadn't cooled down.

But under scientific scrutiny, none of those beliefs stand up well.

In a representative study published last year in The Journal of Human Kinetics, a group of 36 active adults undertook a strenuous, one-time programme of forward lunges while holding barbells, an exercise almost guaranteed to make untrained people extremely sore the next day. Some of the volunteers warmed up beforehand by pedaling a stationary bicycle at a very gentle pace for 20 minutes. Others didn't warm up but cooled down after the exercise with the same 20 minutes of easy cycling. The rest just lunged, neither warming up nor cooling down.

The next day, all of the volunteers submitted to a pain threshold test, in which their muscles were prodded until they reported discomfort. The volunteers who'd warmed up before exercising had the highest pain threshold, meaning their muscles were relatively pain-free.

Those who'd cooled down, on the other hand, had a much lower pain threshold; their muscles hurt. The cool-down group's pain threshold was, in fact, the same as among the control group. Cooling down had bought the exercisers nothing in terms of pain relief.

Similarly, in two other studies published last year, one in The Journal of Human Kinetics and the other in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, professional soccer players in Spain underwent a series of physical tests to benchmark their vertical leap, sprinting speed, agility and leg muscle flexibility, and then completed a normal soccer practice. Afterward, some of the players simply stopped exercising and sat quietly on a bench for 20 minutes, while others formally cooled down.

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