When I was a kid, I ran 10Ks with my parents, starting at age 8. Yes, this has nothing to do with rock climbing — you’re right. But nonetheless, one of the first training rules I learned from them has stuck with me to this day. I’d finish a training run, and all I’d want to do is sit down or lie down. But Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me — they always, unfailingly, made me walk it out. I had to walk around for a few minutes before I was allowed to sit down. I never knew exactly why I had to do this, but the lesson stuck with me — you don’t just stop. You slow down gradually, and then you stop.
The more I’ve learned about training, the more I’ve come to understand about the whys of the whats I’ve always done — and of course, I’ve learned about the things that people got wrong. Things like static stretching prior to engaging in sports or training, which we all know (or should know by now) is a big no-no. Still, I was surprised to learn that many of the touted benefits of a cool-down after working out have little scientific backing.
Does this mean that cooling down is worthless or a bad idea? Not necessarily. In fact, the cool-down period following intense exercise provides you with one of the easiest times to capitalize on improving your body’s flexibility and promoting quicker muscle recovery via sound nutrient timing. I also personally believe that a reflective cool-down can provide you with a calming segue back into the real world, a time of lighter activity during which you can review the day’s successes and struggles, learning what you can from the latter to positively inform and help you plan out your next day of climbing or training.
But first things first — let’s talk briefly about what a cool-down isn’t likely to do for you.
Myths About the Cool-Down
Adding a sport-specific active cool-down to your climbing day or training regimen may not bring about the benefits that you expect. According to experts interviewed by Gina Kolata for the October 13, 2009 “New York Times” article “Is the Exercise Cool-Down Really Necessary?“, the majority of popularized notions of what a cool-down will accomplish have not been supported by scientific research. Cooling down after intense exercise has not been demonstrated to reduce muscle soreness or improve post-exercise recovery time. And as for the much-misunderstood function of lactic acid, a lengthy cool-down might actually be a counterproductive measure, possibly even robbing your body of a potential fuel source (lactate!) that can aid in muscle recovery. In fact, the build-up of lactate and other metabolites that accumulate during exercise doesn’t actually cause delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in the days following exercise, as explained by University of Maryland kinesiology professor Stephen M. Roth in the January 2006 “Scientific American” article “Why Does Lactic Acid Build Up in Muscles? And Why Does It Cause Soreness?”
Potential Benefits of a Cool-Down Routine
When you warm-up, you’re preparing your body for the climbing day or training routine yet to come. Conversely, the cool-down period serves to bring your body and your mind gently back into your pre-workout or climbing state, gradually lowering your muscular and core temperature while also decreasing your breathing and heart rate. Think of it like an airplane flight — the warm-up takes you down the runway and lifts you off the ground. During the meat of the session or climbing day you’re airborne. The cool-down brings you back in for a gentle landing, during which you softly touch your wheels down on terra firma and coast down the runway, instead of crashing abruptly into the ground.
What you’re trying to accomplish from the sport-specific part of your cool-down — in terms of tangible physical benefits recognized as valid by researchers in the field — is avoiding blood pooling in your extremities. I don’t want to get too scientific mumbo-jumbo on you, but the basic idea is that when you’re exercising hard, your heart is pumping a larger volume of blood to your active muscles. They, in turn, contract, helping to return the blood back to your heart, as described in the LIVESTRONG.COM article “Does Abruptly Stopping Intense Exercise Cause Blood to Pool in the Lower Extremities?” Obviously, climbing uses muscles in both the arms and legs intensely, meaning theoretically, you could have blood pooling happen in both. Suddenly ceasing intense activity can cause blood to get stuck (or “pooled”) in your extremities, causing dizziness or even passing out. Slowing down gradually with easier activities that keep the blood circulating to your muscles can help reduce the strain on your heart and prevent dizziness or fainting.
How to Cool Down
The cool thing about a worthwhile cool-down is that it doesn’t have to take much time. When you lower off after your final hard redpoint effort or start to feel fatigued from trying hard boulder problems, don’t just take a seat and call it good. Instead, stay standing or walk around the area and do some light arm circles and wrist rotations. Once your breathing and heart rate have gotten closer to normal, you can cool-down with several easier climbing moves, boulder problems or even an easier route or two. If this isn’t possible or seems like too much activity/a waste of time, simply do some light dead hangs or pull-ups/assisted pull-ups. You shouldn’t have to try hard or breathe hard on these moves, climbs or during these exercises.
After you’ve spent anywhere from 3 to 15 minutes slowing things down, move into the second phase of your cool-down — stretching the muscles used during the workout or climbing day. The cool-down period provides you with the perfect time to try to improve your climbing-relevant flexibility. Since your muscles are already warmed up, you don’t have to warm up separately to stretch. Aim to spend at least five minutes stretching tight muscles to work on improving your range of motion for climbing moves. And lastly, before you stretch or in between stretches, ingest a recovery snack containing a 3: or 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein, as suggested by the International Society of Sports Nutrition’s October 2008 position stand on nutrient timing. You’ll want to consume this snack within 30 minutes of completing the intense portion of your climbing or training day to start yourself on the right track toward rapid recovery.
Summing It Up: Should I Cool Down?
Even if you decide to skip out on step one of the cool-down — the active and sport-specific portion involving climbing or climbing movements — you shouldn’t shirk on replenishing your body within 30 minutes of finishing your intense activity. This is part of sound sports nutrition and the most crucial component of your cool-down routine. Static stretching fits in well as part of the cool-down after an intense period of exercise, providing you with the opportunity to improve your climbing-relevant range of motion, which can in turn lead to better climbing performances in the future. Lighter sport-specific activities or even just walking around/hiking down from the crag can all provide you with the opportunity to avoid potentially detrimental effects of blood pooling after intense exercise. Establishing a 15-minute cool-down routine also gives you the time to review your climbing day and/or workout and to consider what you need to focus on during your next session.
This multipart series of blogs and articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. My designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.
One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing and training!