Whoa There! Don’t Skip That Cooldown

Cooling down after a race isn’t cool any more. I mean, when The New York Times has pointed to studies showing that cooling down doesn’t reduce muscle soreness, it’s likely the practice won’t survive for long. If it doesn’t reduce soreness, what’s it for? Why bother?

But if you saw any post-stage coverage of the 2016 Tour de France, undoubtedly you saw a whole bunch of riders, including Chris Froome, cooling down on rollers. Cooling down – what gives!? Is Team Sky run by a bunch of dummies?Head Coach Todd Hunter cools down after a cyclocross race.

In fact, there is more to cooling down than reducing muscle soreness. Cooling down has other legitimate benefits for endurance athletes.

  • When you finish a hard workout, your heart is going like gangbusters. A cool down period allows your heart rate and breathing rate to come down more slowly while your leg muscles gradually pump blood back to your heart. This reduces how much blood is pooling in your veins. Hypotension – that’s the word for blood pooling away from your heart – can lead to dizziness or blurry vision due to low blood pressure. Cooling down eases this, providing a more comfortable transition to your post-workout/race routine.
  • You’ve probably heard about the “the magic window,” the period of about an hour after a workout when your muscles are especially able to absorb amino-acids to repair the damage done during harder workouts and carbohydrates to restore muscle glycogen so you’ll have plenty of energy for your next workout. Your muscles are actually in that special condition so long as you are exercising, but when you exercise hard, they use up the amino-acids and carbs faster than they can absorb them. When you switch from working hard to cooling down, the capillaries are still open, the muscles are still ready to take up nutrients, but they can finally take up more than they are using. The magic window ends about an hour after you stop exercising entirely, so an active cool down extends the time during which you can take up extra nutrients and speeds recovery. Keeping the capillaries open and the blood flowing while you take on water or an electrolyte drink helps speed up the clearance of metabolic wastes from your muscles as well so a cool down enhances recovery at least two ways.
  • Cooling down also allows your body to… well…cool down! On a hot day, stopping your workout abruptly without a cool down risks additional heat stress. Cooling down by spinning easily reduces the heat your body is generating while taking advantage of the evaporative cooling of the breeze on your skin. Continuing to sip electrolytes while you’re cooling down further helps to combat heat stress.
  • Then there are the mental benefits. The cooling down period provides an excellent window of time to relax and reflect on what you’ve accomplished. Reviewing a race or workout as soon as it’s over is a very good way to cement the effort in your mind, so you can repeat the good parts and work on the challenges.
  • In addition, you can use cooling down to give yourself a break! The lives of active people are packed with stimulation and multi-tasking. It’s hard to fit it all into one life, and the cool down is a wonderful opportunity to pause, appreciate life and give yourself credit for a job well done. Post-race cooling down is also a great way to connect with other competitors and stay in touch with your racing family.
  • Finally, some people with certain health conditions such as diabetes must follow very different rules regarding exercise. Most of us are probably in great shape, but how many of us know for sure that nothing is wrong? Before making any changes to a successful exercise regimen, even an innocuous one like eliminating cooling down, it’s always smart to check with your doctor.
  • In short, cooling down has stuck around cycling for a host of reasons, not just one. So be sure to consider all of the benefits of something tried and true before you eliminate it.

Coach Kim Walsh is a USA Cycling certified coach and skills instructor who works with road and mountain bike racers as well as those who wish to give racing a try. Article contributions by Andrew Osborn.