Whether you are an aspiring athlete, or already an elite one, or even a regular fitness enthusiast who is keen to do your weekly routines well, there is an important aspect of a workout routine that is sometimes neglected: cool-down.

Most are aware about the regular warm-ups and what it takes to get your body in readiness for the intensity of a workout. But one aspect that is often neglected is the cool-down. Maybe you are in a hurry to get back home after that session in a gym to beat the traffic, maybe you are really tired after a cricket or football match and don’t feel like exerting more. But sports science says without cooling down properly, you end up exposing yourself to a variety of avoidable issues.

In a conversation with Scroll.in, South Africa’s Leandi van Zyl, who is the head of Sport Science and Strength and Conditioning at Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre, spoke about the various aspects of a cool-down and why it is so essential for your workout routine.

Excerpts from the conversation:

Question: Strength and conditioning is a part of an almost athlete’s daily routine these days but there is also more and more awareness among regular exercisers. How are warm-ups and cool-downs different for these sets of people and what makes them important?

It’s definitely important for everyone to do warm ups and cool down. Probably the time that you take for a warm up, if you’re an elite athlete, versus just a weekend warrior would be different. So the components would probably be the same. So we usually for a warm up we use aspects such as dynamic stretches. As an elite athlete, you just spend more time on each of those and then have individualised areas where you need to pay attention to.

I think a cool-down is definitely something that for both groups of people would be similar. Yes, elite athletes probably have a lot of options at their disposal, such as pneumatic compression, or, you know, a masseuse that can massage them. But I think when it when it comes down to something as simple as stretching, it is not much different.

Firstly, a cool-down is very important. And secondly, you don’t need any equipment for it, and you can do it by yourself. I think cool-down will probably be a little bit more similar, whereas a warm up will there will be certain components that there are anyway, but you’ll have to be a little bit more specific for athlete.

The warm-ups and the subsequent workouts have their own roles to play in a routine. What specifically does cool-down entail?

Cool-down is a process associated with decreasing your core temperature, and reducing the neuro and physiological state of your body after training or sport. The warm-ups bring your temperature up and then we want to bring it down. And we just kind of want your neurological system and your whole body to kind of just start relaxing again, back into your resting levels.

You would start with higher activity and then go to lesser levels. So let’s say, for example, level of active recovery, so maybe a run around the field, like a slow jog, and then you would start going into maybe foam rolling or stretching after that.

Does cool-down depend on how intense the workout was?

Think this would definitely depend from individual to individual. You see a lot of athletes who take almost an hour to cool down and some athletes just take half an hour. The general rule is to have half an hour of a cool-down.

It is about educating athletes, or even the general population, that if you feel tighter in specific areas, to spend more time on those. I think it’s not a cookie-cutter approach, like the warm up kind of is. You can’t just say ‘Okay, do this and this’. I think a cool-down is very specific to where the athlete or the person feels that they’re tighter and they might be stiff in a specific area and spending more time there makes a lot of sense.

So, why is a cool-down important? If someone decides, ‘okay, I’ve had enough exercise for the day, I’m done’. What is the danger?

For regular people, I think a cool-down is probably the most neglected part of our workout, because we want to get done and we want to get home right after we train (laughs). I think it’s, it’s really important to focus on why it’s necessary. Just to lower your heart rate. That process really just helps with your body, pumping blood to all the areas, just really relaxing. Otherwise, you can sometimes feel a little bit dizzy or you know, light-headed. Just sit down, do a few stretches, wait for your heart rate to come down, for your blood pressure to come down.

In elite sport, it’s needed to be ready for your next session. A lot of elite athletes train two or three times a day, and you want to be ready for your next session. So that’s kind of the thought process behind cool-down there.

Another reason why it’s important, across the board, is that it prevents injuries. No one wants to be injured ever. If we think of a specific muscle, let’s take our quadriceps... if your quadriceps get tight from a workout, and you don’t stretch it and don’t put it back in position (because muscles, shorten when we work them out). So now if we don’t stretch them out, and we don’t put it “back”, then for our next session our quadricep muscle is still not in its right position. And then that limits the quality of our movement, and later programmes that we do. This is a simple example and it’s not literal, it’s not like your quadricep will shrink. But your movement quality will be compromised. And then you are predisposed for an injury.

Leandi van Zyl (R) overseeing a training session / Photo: Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre

So that ends up affecting subsequent workouts more and more.

Exactly, The next reason, and one we can all relate to also, is the delayed onset of muscle soreness. So we all get that soreness after a really hard workout. And it’s really not fun to say ‘ow! ow! ow!’ every time you want to sit down. I think that can be a motivation for cool-downs. It doesn’t mean you won’t have any soreness, but it will be less and it’ll probably decrease sooner.

In your experience working with athletes, do they usually understand the importance of cool-down? Or is it something that has to be drilled in, over and over again?

(Laughs) Yeah, sometimes the athletes just want to be done with it. For them, the most important part is the training. They give everything in the training. And when they’re done with it, they’re going want to say, ‘Okay, thank you, bye, I’m gonna go nap now!’

I have had to reiterate it to a lot of athletes that it is very important. But once you get into a team, and they can see the benefits, they start doing it themselves. So it’s really important for them to see that, because none of us will do something if we don’t understand the benefits of it.

So, how does that conversation go? What does it take to convince an athlete that this is important: is it just a matter of waiting for them to see the benefits or do you bring in the science of it all?

Yeah, that’s a good question. I think we use this technique called the ‘AM Wellness’. So every day when an athlete comes in, we asked them how they’re doing, how they’re feeling, how much soreness they have on a scale of one to five. And sometimes I use that as a very effective tool.

I’ll tell them, ‘oh, you see yesterday after stretching, you’re feeling better today. That’s good, right?’ And then kind of make them realise.

Other than that, sometimes, if they can see better ranges in their exercises itself, after a long time of doing, you know, stretches, and foam-rolling, and all of these things. Then I tell them, ‘See, this is good. You don’t have any pains, you don’t have any aches and your technique is much better’.

And at the end of the day, that technique in strength training is the most important. It’s probably just these little snippets where you have to, you know, get their attention to it. Initially, you have to force them a little bit. Elite athletes typically will do anything and everything to be the best. So this is just one added something that they can do.


And is a cool-down ever optional? Do you ever tell an athlete: ‘Okay, so you’ve had a really intense workout today, so hold off’?

What I’ll do is I’ll try different techniques, because we all get bored if we just do the same thing day after day. So instead of stretching one day, I’ll tell them, okay, let’s do some foam rolling, or I’ll change the muscles that they want, they need to stretch. So that’s not it’s boring for them as well. And then sometimes, you know, they’ll get a massage or something like that. And I’ll say ‘okay, don’t worry about the stretches today because you’re anyways going to get a massage is say half an hour’. They always look forward to the massage!

What are the different components that are part of a cool-down procedure?

Stretching is the basic one. That can be divided into static and dynamic. Static being a position that you hold, dynamic being active movement with the stretch. Again, dynamic we would want to do as a warm up. static stretching we would do as a cool-down. That’s very important.

On the static stretching, we also have active and passive. So active static stretching, is if you stretch yourself. Passive static stretching is if a partner helps you out.

Foam-rolling is the next one that uses cylindrical foam. There are specific techniques that you can use on it to, to basically release all your muscles. I usually tell people, it’s like a massage. And you can do it yourself, which is good right now when no one wants to go near others (in a pandemic).

Is it’s kind of not as easy to come by as the others. We call it water immersion ice-baths. So basically, maybe an a drum or a bath-tub, or you get these really fancy cool tubs, where you basically want the water to be more or less under 15 degrees celsius. And you immerse your whole body in the water for about 10 to 15 minutes. Very, very, super cold. But there’s a lot of benefits that help with that. And it’s been shown to really help athletes recover properly.

Another kind of aspect or same thought process for the ice-box is the cryotherapy. So this is usually with cryo chambers, where you can control the temperature in these chambers. Again here, it’s, it’s very, very cold. It’s about minus 100 degrees Celsius. You only spent about two or three minutes in there.

There are massages always, everyone likes that. And another one I’ll just touch on briefly is pneumatic compression. Almost looks like a space boot that you put on your leg. And basically what happens is there’s air pressure, and it compresses your muscles to kind of pump and circulates your blood a little bit better. And that as well, really helps recovery and decreases pain and swelling and stiffness. A lot of athletes really opt for this one.

Training is usually sport-specific. Are cool-downs like that too?

In some cases it would be different. For combat sports, say boxing, judo, wrestling, we would use ice-baths. On the day where they’re doing their bouts, you use ice-baths. After strength sessions, they will probably always do stretches and other routines. But then depending on what their entire plan is, for the week, we would pick specific days where we would do specific things. Maybe after a cricket match, we’ll do the compression.

In your eight years of experience in this field have you seen an increase in awareness of the sports science aspect of what goes into a proper routine?

Definitely, in the last few years only, I’ve seen a drastic change in India itself. I think strength training was not considered important. I think it’s changing a lot. There’s a lot of athletes who are just ready to do whatever it takes to be the best. And they’re more open towards doing strength training, doing it scientifically. Sometimes when athletes come from really hard backgrounds, they just grind the whole time and they just want to do everything; so you need to kind of pull them back and make sure that they recover properly as well.

There’s more awareness in strength training, but now we need to make sure that they also recover properly. A good characteristic, you know, but as professionals in sports medicine, we need to make sure that they don’t overdo it. And that we put proper monitoring in place.

Specifically recovery and cool-down, these things are now becoming more important because they’re doing more. There’s still a lot more that we can do. Athletes, coaches, physiotherapists are more aware.


About Leandi van Zyl: Honours Degree in Sport Science, Certified Strength Training and Conditioning Specialist from NSCA and ASCA level 1 Strength and Conditioning Coach. Worked with national and international level athletes from a wide variety of sports such as Kabbadi, athletics, football, tennis, wrestling, judo, boxing and swimming.