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Smart training: Why a cool down really matters

The set is over, why can’t I just stop?

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We’ve all been there – you’ve been invested and engaged all workout, pushed yourself during the main set and now you’re exhausted and spent. You take a quick look at the clock and see there are only 10 minutes left in practice. Your brain switches gears and heads away from the bike studio, track or pool.   You’re no longer thinking about pace times, smooth pedal strokes or your heart rate. Instead, thoughts of what’s for dinner, the kids after-school activities, meetings you need to prep for or reports you need to write start crowding in. What a difference an extra 10 minutes would make! You slip quietly away from the workout without cooling down.

Sometimes there are real urgent needs, and it might be necessary to miss it, but the cool-down is as essential a part of the workout as any other, and skipping it has consequences. Let’s look at why.

A typical workout starts with a warm-up, then maybe some technical work and builds in intensity towards the main set. Often you will complete the hardest part of the main set as you get to the end of the overall session. Although this is not the only way to structure a workout, it is a pretty common format, and makes a lot of sense. If you save the hardest work for last, you aren’t being asked to do additional work once you are exhausted, allowing you to work to your max without having to worry about “saving” anything for later.

Related: Indications of a successful workout

What this means is that your body will have created the greatest amount of metabolic waste towards the end of the workout. Lactic acid is an example of a waste product your body is often flooded with at the end of a workout. If you step away from the workout without doing a proper cool-down, that lactic acid will stick around for a long time, up to twice as long as if you had done an active cool-down. This means that skipping the cool down will slow your body’s recovery from the workout and leave you feeling tired for longer.

The best way to deal with all this metabolic waste is to complete a 10- to 15-minute cool-down at about 80 to 100 per cent of threshold pace. This may seem pretty high for a cool-down, but you can’t go at too low an intensity or you won’t maximize blood flow throughout the body. If this seems too high, I would encourage you to pick a pace that feels best for you, as good results are also seen when athletes self-select the pace at which they cool down. If you are doing a cool down at this intensity, the vast majority of benefits will have been accrued after a little more than 10 minutes, with a return to near normal levels by 15 minutes. Once you’ve done this, feel free to switch over your brain and start to stress about making it to the office on time!

Darian Silk is a triathlon coach and Clinical Exercise Physiologist based in Toronto.  Read more about Darian here or email him at darian@teamatomica.com.  You can also check out his TrainingPeaks profile here.