For the diligent squash player, the cool-down (or warm-down) has long been as much an integral part of training/playing as the warm-up.
But while for most players the warm-up will follow the same general pattern of progressively warming and mobilising the body in preparation for exercise, there is usually seen a far higher degree of variance in cool-down routines.
Similarly, whilst the benefits of a properly constructed warm-up are fairly well established and understood, you’ll hear a far wider variety of perceived reasons for the presumed necessity of going through a cool-down routine post-exercise. So just how strong is the research support for the cool-down, and if we are going to go through a cool-down routine, what exactly should we be doing?
We’ve looked at warm-ups a number of times here on SquashSkills, and included several squash specific examples that you can use on court for your own games and training. The benefits in potentially reducing the risk of certain types of injury, along with the performance enhancements that come with warming and readying the muscles and joints ready for any kind of physical activity, have become widely accepted and understood for players at most levels of the game.
The cool-down conversely however, is far less well understood. You’ll often hear that having a cool down and stretch after playing/training will ‘help avoid soreness’ the next day, yet it’s fairly well established in the scientific literature that this is actually not the case – the post-exercise soreness often felt by individuals in the next day or two after undertaking physical activity of an intensity of modality they’re not fully accustomed to, is typically due to direct (minor) muscle trauma the like of which cannot plausibly be moderated with any kind of cool-down routine.
As is often the case though, scientific conclusions can take some time to filter down to everyday practice and replace existing dogma – see the cult of pre-game static stretching for another example of this.
The most commonly cited study into the effects of the cool-down remains Law and Herbert’s 2007 paper ‘Warm-up reduces delayed onset muscle soreness but cool-down does not: A randomised controlled trial‘. This study showed some benefits in terms of a small reduction in post-exercise soreness from properly warming-up, but there was no significant difference in subsequent soreness over the next couple of days between participants that went through a cool-down protocol and those that didn’t.
These findings were replicated in a study of increased relevance to squash players, that looked at the soreness in the quadriceps muscles in the days following a battery of lunge exercises.
Participants were put into groups that went through protocols of pre-exercise warm-up, post-exercise cool-down, or neither – again, warming-up showed some reduction in soreness, cooling-down showed no benefits. Other studies have shown similar results, including a study on Spanish professional footballers that demonstrated no significant differences in relevant measures of subsequent performance or lower limb flexibility between players that went through a 20-minute cool-down routine, in comparison to players who just sat down and rested for 20 minutes post-training.
So does that mean that going through any kind of cool-down after your games/training is a complete waste of time?
Not necessarily. Stopping suddenly at the cessation of prolonged, intensive exercise can potentially lead to blood pooling in the circulatory vessels of the legs in susceptible or less well-conditioned individuals, causing dizziness, lightheadedness, or possibly even fainting.
Just lightly moving around for a couple of minutes as opposed to stopping abruptly can help bring the heart rate down and return normal circulation however. This isn’t what most people would really classify as a proper ‘cool-down’ though, and it doesn’t have to involve anything more intricate than just walking/jogging around outside the court for a couple of minutes post-session.
Due to the ingrained routine of the cool-down for many sportspeople of all levels, there can also be quite a pronounced placebo effect for many individuals that shouldn’t be completely discounted. Many still report that they just ‘feel better’ the next day after exercise if they cool-down after. While there is precious little physiological reason why this might be the case, the psychological element should not so easily be dismissed.
If doing a light cool-down routine of general movement and flexibility exercises is a part of your usual post-performance routine, there’s no reason to remove it – it certainly isn’t going to harm you, and indeed post-training is often a good time to complete your mobility drills while the muscles and joints are warm. Just be aware that the benefits from this will not be felt immediately, but rather felt over the long term through making mobility work an integral part of your training.
So is a comprehensive cool-down routine going to make any direct physiological difference to your recovery? Probably not. If you find a routine of some light movement and mobility work is something that helps you relax and wind down following intensive play/training however, it’s certainly not going to cause you any harm. Otherwise, a cool shower and a focus on adequate refuelling will likely serve you better.
The best way to help moderate the effects of tough training or matchplay however, remains properly warming up before you begin.
B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST
SquashSkills Fitness & Performance Director
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