top of page

Book a video consultation with our physios

How do you cool-down after exercise? Here’s what works.

Updated: Feb 17, 2023

A cool-down includes all the activities that you do in the hour after exercise. It can broadly be divided into an active cool-down and a passive cool-down. An active cool-down is commonly believed to be better than a passive cool-down for recovery from training and preventing injuries, but is it really?

I have to admit that I very rarely do any activity that counts as an active cool-down and I can’t really say that I’ve noticed any negative effect. So what does the research say? Am I missing a key part of the injury prevention puzzle or is it something that’s only relevant to elite athletes?

Learn what activities to include in your cool-down after sport.

In this article:

  • What's an active cool-down?

  • What's a passive cool-down?

  • Effects of an active cool-down on performance

  • Removal of lactic acid

  • DOMS and muscle damage

  • Stiffness and range of motion

  • Heart and Lungs

  • Injury prevention

  • Static stretching

  • Foam rolling

What's an active cool-down?

An active cool-down is often referred to as active recovery. It usually consists of low to moderate intensity exercise that is performed within 1 hour of the main training session or competition.

It’s commonly believed that an active recovery or cool-down is beneficial because it helps your body get rid of the chemical by-products caused by exercise (e.g. lactic acid) more quickly than when you just lie or sit around. This, in theory, would mean that you recover more quickly, perform better and could possibly even help you avoid injury.

Researchers from the Netherlands and Australia  recently reviewed all the studies that they could find on the topic and it would seem that an active cool-down may not be as effective as we would like to think. I discuss their findings below.

What's a passive cool-down?

Activities like static stretches and foam rolling counts as a passive cool-down because they don’t involve any exercise.

Effects of an active recovery on performance

In theory one would think that if an active recovery gets rid of all the toxins etc. formed during exercise, it should help you recover better and therefor help your performance. But this does not actually seem to the case.

The research have so far not produced any consistent evidence that an active recovery is any better than a passive recovery when they looked at how athletes perform on the same day as well as the following day.

Removal of lactic acid

Lactic acid must be one of the best known by-products of exercise and has traditionally been associated with fatigue. These days we understand that fatigue in exercise is caused by a lot more than just lactic acid and its relevance to performance is even being questioned.

That said, one of the main reasons that people advocate an active cool-down is due to the belief that it allows your body to get rid of lactic acid much more quickly than if you just sit around.

Spoiler alert! Your body naturally gets rid of all extra lactic acid within 20 to 120 minutes after exercise REGARDLESS of what you do.

In studies where participants did get rid of their lactic acid more quickly than others, this also did not give them any performance benefits.

In some studies the researchers found that an active cool-down even slowed the process. This may be down to the low fitness levels of the participants. If you’re not very fit an active cool-down may actually just add to your training load and cause more lactic acid to build up!

Verdict: An active cool-down does not get rid of lactic acid any quicker than a passive cool-down.

You can consult an experienced sports physio online via video call for an assessment of your injury and a tailored treatment plan. Follow the link to learn more.

DOMS and muscle damage

DOMS stands for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. It can be defined as the soreness that you develop in your muscles in the days after doing a hard bout of exercise.

There is some evidence that an active cool-down can decrease the effects of DOMS in professional and highly trained athletes. But it doesn’t seem to have the same beneficial effects for recreational athletes.

Researchers are able to tell how much muscle damage you’ve developed during exercise by testing for certain markers in your blood. An active cool-down does not seem to influence these markers nor does it allow athletes to regain their maximum muscle strength any quicker compared to a passive cool-down.

Stiffness and range of motion

Exercise (especially eccentric exercise) causes micro-damage in your tendons and muscles. This is part of the natural process that allows the body to rebuild itself stronger in response to exercise.

This micro-trauma is the main reason why you often feel stiff in the days after a hard bout of exercise. A common belief is that an active cool-down decreases this stiffness, but you’ve guessed it – the research have shown that it doesn’t actually have much of an effect on how stiff you feel.

Something that I would love to know and that's not yet been researched is what the effect of a long period of inactivity immediately after exercise is on the recovery of your joints and muscles. I definitely find that I stiffen up dramatically if I sit and work at my desk after I've gone for a run. Whereas I never feel as stiff when I potter around afterwards. I would love to know if this has any detrimental effect the next day or is it just a transient nuisance that I have to put up with for that day?

Heart and Lungs

There is strong evidence that an active cool-down helps your cardiovascular system (heart) and respiratory system (lungs) recover quicker.

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed how wobbly marathon runners can look when they cross the finish line. Yes, this is partly due to the fact that they’re knackered but if you suddenly stop exercising the blood can pool in your legs. This can cause light headedness, tunnel or blurred vision or may even make people pass out. An active cool-down can also decrease this effect.

Injury Prevention

It’s not currently clear if an active or passive cool-down has any effect on injury prevention.

Static Stretching

Static stretching can help you regain your range of motion and decrease the feeling of stiffness after exercise. It doesn’t have any effect on DOMS (the pain you feel after exercise).

The research has also found that it may play a role in preventing muscle strains. I find in practice that children often benefit from it more than adults. They tend to struggle with excessive stiffness when they go through growth spurts which makes them vulnerable to injuries like Osgood Schlatters. Including static stretches as part of their cool-down can have a very beneficial effect on their flexibility.

Foam rolling

Foam rolling appears to be a useful activity to include in your cool-down as it’s been shown to effectively reduce the amount of muscle pain you feel after exercise (DOMS).

The verdict: Highly trained athletes may benefit more from doing active cool-downs than recreational athletes. That said, all of us can benefit from the positive recovery effect it has on your heart and lungs. Static stretching and foam rolling are also useful modalities to include in your cool-down.

Need more help with your injury? You’re welcome to consult one of the team at SIP online via video call for an assessment of your injury and a tailored treatment plan.

About the Author

Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist with more than 15 years' experience and a Masters Degree in Sports Injury Management. Follow her on LinkedIn or ReasearchGate



bottom of page