Remember that feeling, when you’d just finished a tough gym class, or a swim practice full of muscle-rending intervals, a or brutal cross country workout—your sport of choice really—and just as you were about to bolt for the locker rooms, Coach barked, “Hold on! Nobody leaves here until they’ve done their cool down!”
If you were like me, you thought, “Do I have to?”
Well, my emotionally scarred friend, it turns out you didn’t—not really anyway.
Cooling down, we were told, helped our muscles limber up so they wouldn’t cramp, injure as easily, or plain old hurt so much the next day.
In answer to this conventional wisdom, the New York Times pulled together several studies yesterday that show, fairly conclusively, that your post-workout jog doesn’t really do much of anything for your muscles—maybe a bit for your circulation and your sense of normalcy, but not for your muscles.
• Norwegian scientists had 36 active volunteers do a series of lunges while holding barbells, an activity almost guaranteed to burn the next day. One group did a 20-minute warm-up on a stationary bike, another a 20-minute cool down, and the control group just did the lunges. On each of the following two days, the researchers tested pain thresholds on a particular leg muscle and found only the warm-up group to be less sore. The cool-down group and the control both had similarly low pain thresholds: their legs hurt to the touch.
• Two studies of Spanish soccer players (here and here) found that a combination of 12 minutes of light jogging and 8 minutes of static stretching, as compared to 20 minutes of bench rest, barely affected performance at all—and soreness none.
• A 2007 study out of Australia found that warming up reduced perceived muscle soreness 48 hours after “unaccustomed” exercise—in this case, walking backwards downhill on a treadmill. But cooling down? Nada.
However, according to two other physiology experts the Times spoke to, there are two marginal benefits of a post-workout wind-down. Walking for a few minutes after exercise gets your circulation back in check by counteracting “venous pooling,” which causes blood to pool in your lower body.
And the other benefit? It gives you a psychological transition period between a hard workout and regular life.
Your muscles couldn't care less.