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Coach's Column: What Makes a Good "Cool Down" Effort and Why it is Important

Posted by: Shannon Boffeli |June 5, 2013 2:53 AM
Coach's Column with Alison Dunlap - What Makes a Good "Cool Down" Effort and Why it is Important After a Race or Hard Training Ride

Question: What would a proper cool-down entail and why is it important to do a 'cool-down'?

Answer: Another very often neglected component of racing and training is recovery.  Many times after finishing a race we spend 30 minutes to an hour hanging out at the finish line with family and friends sharing stories from the just completed suffer fest.  Or we finish a hard training session at home, jump in the shower and then rush to consume large quantities of food.  What we’re forgetting is the recovery part of a race or training session.  A good recovery can have a dramatic impact on your ability to train or race again the next day, or how much energy you have later in the evening, or even how sore your muscles get post workout. 

When we exercise the muscles in our body become sore.  Why do our muscles get sore?  Exercise causes a couple different things to occur on the cellular level.  First is the wear and tear on the muscle fiber. Using a muscle will create very minute micro-tears in the muscle fiber membranes.  In response, our bodies increase the blood flow to the muscles which brings proteins and nutrients needed to repair the damaged cells. However this increase in fluid puts pressure on the nerve endings which in turn causes the pain we feel post exercise.

The second reason our muscles get sore is the damage caused by the release of free-radicals.  When free-radicals are released during exercise they attack the walls of the muscle cells damaging the membranes, increase protein breakdown, and damage the mitochondria.  This also contributes to muscle inflammation and soreness. [1]  

The third reason our muscles get sore is the effects of cortisol.  Cortisol is released during exercise to help our body utilize various sources of energy. This process, however,  causes damage to muscle tissues, increases protein breakdown in the muscle cells, and blocks the entry of amino acids into the cells for protein synthesis.  Again, more damage to the muscle cells causes more inflammation which increases the pain and soreness we feel post exercise.

So what does this mean for recovery?  A good recovery or cool-down can speed up the amount of time it takes to return to your normal pre-race or pre-workout state. The faster you recover, the sooner you’ll be able to do hard training again.  The faster you recover, the better you will be for the next day of racing in a multi-day stage race.  But how? By doing a light high-cadence spin after a race you are increasing circulation which is bringing needed nutrients and energy to your depleted and damaged muscle cells.  Increased circulation will also speed up the removal of the lactic acid in your blood stream by moving it to the liver where it is reconverted back to glucose.  And finally a light spin can also reduce the inflammation and swelling of the muscle tissues which in turn reduces soreness.  

Consuming a "recovery drink” within 30 minutes of exercise will also speed up recovery.   Immediately following exercise the muscle cells in our bodies are extremely sensitive to insulin.  Insulin regulates the transport of glucose from our blood into our muscle cells. When there are sufficient carbohydrates in our stomach, glycogen replenishment will happen at a faster rate during this time immediately following a workout.  However, this insulin sensitivity goes away after 30 minutes. So consuming a recovery drink as soon as your race is over will have a bigger impact than eating a large pasta dinner two hours later. [2]  

So what does all this mean in practical terms? 

-  After you cross the finish line go immediately to your car and grab your recovery drink or some kind of     food that is full of carbs and protein.  Eat!

-  Change out of your wet sweaty race clothes into dry riding clothes.

-  Jump back on your bike and ride around for 20-30 minutes in a nice easy gear with a low heart rate and a high cadence (95-105rpms).

-  Now you can visit with family and friends and hang out enjoying more good food and the post-race celebration.

A good cool-down and proper recovery is easy to do, feels good on the legs, and can make you stronger and faster for tomorrow’s race or your next day of intervals. 

Happy trails!

Alison


[1] Burke, E.R. "What causes muscle soreness?” Optimal Muscle Recovery (1999): 39-41

[2] Burke, E.R. "What causes muscle soreness?” Optimal Muscle Recovery (1999):44-45


Alison Dunlap is a certified Level II USAC Coach and has been working with athletes for thirteen years.  She coaches both road and mountain bikers and runs skills clinics and camps throughout the summer with her company the Alison Dunlap Adventure Camps.  Alison is also a two-time Olympian, MTB World Champion, and 13-time National Champion. Please visit www.alisondunlap.com for more information.

 


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