Just How Important Are Workout Cooldowns?

Recruits cool down after a physical fitness assessment.
Recruits perform cooldown stretches after their final physical fitness assessment at Recruit Training Command, the Navy's only boot camp. (Lt. Liza Swart/U.S. Navy photo)

A cooldown activity is a helpful part of a workout, but when it comes to their training day, most people ignore both a warmup and a cooldown. Why are these activities so important, and why should we add them to the end of a stressful workday?

You should never skip a cooldown after physical activity. Here's why.

According to sports injury specialist Sarah Pitts of MostMotion.com, cooling down does far more than just reduce body temperature and heart rate. Of course, a proper one will do that, but a cooldown also has central nervous system benefits that help the brain and body disconnect from a "fight or flight" response and move into the "rest and digest" state.

Life, Work and Even Exercise Is Stress and Trauma

Depending on how hard you push yourself with sprints, heavy lifts, high-repetition calisthenics and other activities listed as high intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts, you will engage the sympathetic nervous system and, therefore, definitely cannot skip the cooldown. The cooldown is simply meant to slow you down, ease the strain and effort and slowly take you back to a normal operating state. Adding de-stressing moments throughout the day, after work or after physically, mentally or emotionally demanding events will help you pursue recovery by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system.

Here are Ten Recovery Tools We All Should Know that will show you skills, gear and habits to help you engage the parasympathetic nervous system more frequently. You should consider this a daily minimum standard like brushing your teeth, something you should do at least 1-2 times per day.

Parasympathetic and Sympathetic Nervous Systems

Without getting overly scientific, think of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) as a "parachute" that slows you down before you crash into the ground. The PNS does this by releasing the hormone acetylcholine to reduce the heart rate and relax the body.

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS), on the other hand, is the speed-up system. You can keep them straight by remembering that both sympathetic and speed start with S. The SNS is our natural performance enhancer and lifesaving system when in life-or-death situations. The stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are the "fight or flight" hormones that can be triggered by workouts, thoughts, danger, trauma, anxiety, caffeine and regular daily stressful situations.

We tend to stay in the stressed mode if we do not actively pursue recovery. The easiest way is to stretch and breathe. Yoga-based stretching and breathing practices are ideal. If you are not into yoga, my recommendation is to give it a try. You also can do 10-15 minutes of easy non-impact cardio activity, coupled with deep breathing (box breathing, for instance), to start the process of reengaging the PNS.

Here are the basic reasons why skipping cooldowns fails to engage the PNS:

  • Skipping a cooldown leaves the body in an agitated state that's hyper vigilant, alert and stressed.
  • Skipping a cooldown also leaves blood lactate levels high and muscles in their most shortened state, resulting in tight muscles and joints.
  • Skipping a cooldown does not unwind the muscles after their most repetitive period.
  • Skipping a cooldown can cause digestion issues.

The Big Five of Physical Cooldown

  1. Breathe deeply
  2. Water
  3. Food
  4. Mobility and stretching
  5. Sleep

Recovery begins with the cooldown. You cannot experience recovery without these five elements that all help you reengage the PNS, the rest and digest part of the central nervous system.

Breathing -- Breathing is the quickest way we de-stress before a situation becomes overwhelming and starts to affect our mood and physiology. Deep and relaxing breaths will slow your daily stress and naturally ease anxiety. It is the best natural stress reliever and will produce stress-relieving hormones.

Try box breathing: Four seconds inhale, four seconds hold, four seconds exhale, four seconds hold. Repeat until you notice your heart rate and other stress responses are back to normal.

Stretching and mobility work: Find time to do a few moments of easy cardio (biking, elliptical training, walking or swimming -- non-impact preferred) and do all the dynamic stretches you normally do before working out or running (butt kickers, leg swings, Frankenstein walks, high knees, side steps, etc.). Then add in static stretching to top off the workout.

Swimming is my go-to cooldown activity. It's perfect for practicing easy technique, treading water and doing dynamic stretches in chest-deep water. Moving with full range of motion in the pool with all of your joints (especially the hips and legs) can help if you're getting burned out from lifting, high-repetition calisthenics or high miles of running and rucking.

Nutrition and recovery supplementation: Eating well helps the body regain the vitamins, minerals and nutrients it just burned. Go with fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats from fish and nuts, and even supplemental protein powder if you are burning the candle at both ends.

Hydration and electrolytes: You cannot recover from a workout or sweaty day if you're dehydrated. Always drink water, but if you're sweating profusely, you should add salts like sodium, potassium and magnesium. Antioxidants like beta-carotene, Vitamin C and turmeric can help the body recover. These can have anti-inflammatory effects as well and help you metabolize stress.

Sleep is the #1 recovery tool: Without this critical piece, recovery cannot happen. Create sleeping rituals for yourself and focus on getting more and better sleep.

Stress -- the perfect storm: Chronic stress will occur if you're continually overloading the sympathetic nervous system, and the results are not pretty. This situation requires a different focus on the parasympathetic side. The cooldown has to engage this system, and it takes some effort.

If you don't pursue daily recovery, long-term chronic stress can result in high blood pressure, high cholesterol, increased body fat, decreased immunity, uncontrollable mood and attitude, decreased muscle tone and decreased sexual desire.


UC Davis Sports Medicine

Most Motion

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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