Why Cooling Down After Exercise is So Important
Olympic track athlete Gen Gregson tells us about the importance of cooling down after exercise for recovery and gives some top tips on how she does so as an elite athlete.
I feel like I’ve spent my whole life being active. I don’t really remember a time where I wasn’t exercising in some way or another. In saying that, I’ve also learnt some crucial lessons about the importance of recovery after exercise as I’ve become a more experienced athlete over the years.
There are many tips I’ve accumulated over time that I’d love to give to my younger self, but instead I’ll share them for you today, so you can take care of your health, mentally and physically, when incorporating exercise into your weekly routine.
A cool down is definitely something I used to take very lightly, however, this aspect of my daily sessions has proved to be very important. A cool down for me is more about allowing my heart rate to come back down and find a more normal state after intense exercise.
If I’ve developed lactic acid from faster and more intense training, a cool down can help the body and muscles shake out any remaining lactic acid, so your legs don’t feel so heavy the next day.
For a beginner in exercise, I’d say cooling down is great for preventing soreness or DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). When doing activities that your body isn’t used to, the muscles can stiffen and become very sore the next day. Cooling down can assist in preventing that horrible post-exercise feeling and allow the muscle fibres to adapt to the work load faster.
Yoga or Stretching
I’ve read a lot about stretching and when it’s the best time to do so. Before? After? From personal experience, I’ve gravitated towards stretching post-exercise. I do this because my body is always warmer and more limber, so my muscles respond better to static stretching.
I haven’t been someone that’s done a lot of yoga in the past, however, this year it’s something I’ve tried to incorporate into my routine more often. I’ve found it helps my joints move much more freely the next day after intense exercise.
It can also be such a great way to relax and meditate in your own thoughts when you do a calming flow session. I highly recommend yoga if you’ve done an intense workout or feel a bit wound up from a hard week and need to release some tension.
Fuel is one of the most important parts of recovering from exercise. When you exercise, you’re not only breaking down your muscles and thus, need to replenish them with protein, but you’re also relying on fuel for your body to generate energy to train. As such, there’s a huge need for fuel to go in before exercise, but more importantly, to help you recover post-exercise.
My experience as an elite athlete has opened my eyes to the importance of food for recovery. I never used to emphasise the need for protein post-exercise, but it’s now the most important part of my recovery. After all my training, I always make sure I get a minimum of 20g of protein in, whether it’s from a protein drink or food. This allows your body to rebuild the damaged muscles, but can also help the muscles absorb the work you just put in.
Another key to protein intake is that it can kill the late-night cravings. If I’m ever up at night feeling super hungry, it usually means I haven’t had enough protein that day and my body is craving what it needs.
Relaxation is commonly overlooked as a form of recovery. I believe it’s crucial if you’re trying to exercise and deal with general demanding life stressors. As an elite athlete, my performances at training and competitions are extremely important and sometimes I can get burnt out physically and mentally. This means relaxation is something I must practice often during a heavily loaded week.
I’ve found that one of the best methods to relax both physically and mentally is a hot bath with Epsom salt or scented bath minerals. I often take time at night during the week, maybe after a hard day or tough session, to have a salt bath and switch off mentally. It’s extremely relaxing but also the Epsom salts assist recovery to rid the muscles of soreness and tension. A must try if you haven’t yet!
Never neglect your sleep time! It’s such a huge part of recovery and something I keep track of very closely. Your body needs sleep, and if you’re a very active person, more sleep is a necessity. I aim to get a minimum of 8 hours a night. If I get under that, I try to make it up the following night.
This isn’t just for your body’s physical state, but probably more so for your mental state. A lot of recovery happens when you sleep and your motivation to exercise can be dependent on whether you feel recovered or not. So, don’t expect your body to continue to perform when you’re sleep deprived.
Finally, something I tell people to have when trying to exercise a lot is a training diary. This not only acts as a great way to stay motivated, but a way to track your progress so you can understand when your body feels tired.
Sometimes I may feel flat during exercise and not really understand why I’m not as fresh as normal. A training diary allows me to look back and see why this is the case. It may be a lot of consecutive days of hard work without enough emphasis on rest or stretching, or maybe I’ve had a stressful week and lacked a bit of sleep.
A training diary allows you to track your progress and understand your body better, so you can make sure you get the important recovery methods in when feeling a bit off.
I hope these post exercise recovery tips assist you in your weekly training and allow you to optimise your performance physically and mentally.
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