By Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Health Sciences
Cooldowns after strenuous exercise are as important as warming up before exercising in an athlete’s continual battle to stay healthy, alleviate muscle soreness and prevent injury. Abnormal heartbeats are most often seen immediately post-exercise and recovery heart rates should be monitored closely using an electrocardiogram machine, particularly in older patients.
Death due to heart problems sometimes appears after long-distance running. For instance, Pheidippides, a Greek soldier who ran 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to bring news of a Greek victory over the Persians in 490 B.C., collapsed and died suddenly at the end of his run. Similarly, distance runner Jim Fixx developed heart failure and died suddenly during a vigorous 10-mile run in 1984 when he stopped abruptly for a traffic light.
There Are Several Reasons Why Gradual Cooldowns After Exercise Are Necessary
For both amateur and professional athletes, exercise intensity should be gradually decreased following a vigorous workout for several reasons. First, systolic blood pressure drops suddenly when exercise is suddenly halted. Blood that has been diverted to working muscles collects in the legs, reducing the amount of blood returning to the heart. A reduced return of blood to the heart causes less blood to be pumped out of the heart to the brain, resulting in dizziness, nausea and fainting.
Epinephrine (adrenaline), a sympathetic nervous system stimulant that increases the body’s heart rate, reaches its peak level during maximal exercise and decreases slowly during exercise recovery. A slowly dropping epinephrine level present at the same time as a rapidly dropping blood pressure may be a strong contributor to abnormal heartbeats.
Second, cooldowns after exercise enhance the disappearance of lactic acid, a metabolic byproduct associated with fatigue. Typically, lactic acid is released from muscles into the blood during high-intensity anaerobic exercise. Performing a cooldown, however, will raise the blood’s circulation rate and reduce blood lactate back to normal resting levels more quickly.
Third, suddenly stopping exercise tends to cause leg muscles to tighten up. As a result, an exerciser later experiences the onset of muscle soreness.
How to Perform Cooldowns After Exercise Properly
After exercise, you should perform a gradual cooldown for at least 10 minutes until your breathing rate and blood pressure return to normal and your heart rate drops to below 120 beats per minute. My personal recommendation to marathon runners is to park your vehicle three miles from the finish line; the walk to your vehicle will force you to cool down by walking this distance after the race.
It’s also useful to perform a set of cooldowns after exercise that are specific to your sport. For example, runners should do some body weight squats to keep the legs pumping blood without the stress of running, and swimmers should continue to move their arms after a workout without the stress of water resistance. These cooldowns after exercise will alleviate the muscle soreness created by the workout, which will aid your athletic performance in future exercise sessions and help you avoid injury.