Your PE teacher may have told you that your post-workout cool-down was the ticket to reduced muscle soreness, but research indicates that's not true. In addition to not helping with the dreaded delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), cooling down with active recovery and static stretching helps your future anaerobic performance or flexibility about as much as simply sitting still. Recent research indicates this window is less about reducing muscle soreness and more about kicking off your recovery.
When you exercise, your body is in an excited state: Your heart is pumping blood at a powerful clip, your lungs are working hard to keep up with oxygen demand, and your muscles are generating energy and waste byproducts. As such, your muscles are engorged with blood and other bodily fluids. When you stop exercising, your body must reverse the whole process to return to homeostasis. Your heart and lungs do the bulk of the work, which they'll do regardless of whether you slow things down gradually or suddenly. But the gradual approach is a better idea.
Here are several rules of thumb for giving your body its much-appreciated "recovery assist."
The ideal cool-down depends on whether you were doing strength training or cardio. For the latter, there are some clear signs of when you have cooled down enough.
"From a cardiovascular standpoint, a cool-down should last as long as it takes for your heart rate to return to within 20 percent of your resting heart rate, and for you to stop sweating and breathing heavily," says William P. Kelley, a doctor of physical therapy and strength coach who specializes in sports physical therapy.
It's harder to tell when you have cooled down enough after strength training, but Kelley has a suggestion:
"From a muscular standpoint, you need time to address all the muscles used during the activity you performed. A rule of thumb for cool-down time is 15 minutes, but it depends on the individual."
Either way, the goal is to keep moving. For instance, if your workout was heavily weighted toward running, gradually slowing to a jog then a walk is an excellent way to start your cool-down. And if you just spent your workout lifting legs, you might want to start with a series of lower-body dynamic stretches followed by a slow walk.
Stretch Things Out
The best time to engage in static stretching is when your body is nice and warm, just as it is following a workout. (We don't recommend static stretching as a warm-up precisely because your muscles are cold and stiff.)
Static stretches held from 10-30 seconds can help maintain and increase range of motion and flexibility. If you want to increase range and flexibility, your cool-down period is an excellent time to perform this style of stretching. Kelley's only tip is to wait until your respiration and heart rate have slowed before you start these stretches.
Roll Out The Kinks
Nobody wants to pull out the foam roller after a workout, but some studies indicate that a post-workout roll could reduce DOMS in the days following a tough workout.
"Foam rolling is a type of myofascial release that helps you feel looser and lighter," says Lauren Alix, a physical therapist and certified strength coach who works at the Hospital for Special Surgery. "Rolling helps to break up adhesions and increase blood flow to your muscles."
The trick, of course, is to do it correctly. Focus on the muscles targeted during your workout, and perform slow, controlled rolling over each muscle belly, avoiding joints and bony points. And when you find a tight knot, stop rolling and "melt" into the roller until the knot loosens up.
Rehydrate & Fuel Up
While post-workout hydration isn't limited to your 15-minute cool-down, it's a good time to start replenishing the water your body lost through sweat and respiration. All your body's chemical processes take place in the medium of water, so if you're dehydrated at the end of your workout, your body will have a harder time recovering.
Start the rehydration process by sipping on a bottle of water as you're cooling down. A good rule of thumb is to start by drinking 8 ounces of water within 30 minutes of your workout, then continue drinking based on your thirst. You want your urine to be straw-colored to transparent yellow within a couple hours of your workout.
Post-workout is also the most efficient time when your body absorbs protein and its ability to help with muscle recovery is unparalleled. Especially in liquid form, a protein shake will hit your muscles faster than if you got your protein from food, and will jumpstart protein synthesis which helps in recovery to build lean muscle from the ashes of the microtears created from your workout.
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