Active or passive cool down? Which is the best? A review of the literature.

A cool down after a hard workout has long been thought of as the best way to recover from the session. Just spend some time on Google and you will find out how amazing this part of any exercise routine is.

“These stretches will keep you limber and prevent tightness, helping you avoid injury” claims Best Health Magazine1.

Very Well Fit2 states "that you might be tempted to skip your post workout cool down, but there are several reasons that cooling down in important.

  • Allows heart rate to return to normal. Most forms of exercise cause your heart rate to increase. Cardiovascular exercise, also called aerobic exercise, can increase your heart rate substantially. At the end of your workout, you want your heart rate to return to normal slowly. This helps you to avoid lightheadedness or a feeling of faintness.
  • Gradually slows breathing. When your heart rate increases with exercise, your breathing becomes deeper as well. This is a sign that you are working hard and burning more calories with exercise. A cool down allows your breath to gradually return to the same rhythm it had before you started your workout.
  • Helps prevent muscle soreness. It's common to feel stiff or sore after an exercise session. Cool down exercises may help your body to feel better in the hours and days following your workout.
  • Improved relaxation. One of the most important benefits of exercise is improved confidence. Your cool down is a great opportunity for you to reflect on your accomplishment and give yourself credit for the hard work you did during the workout. This can promote a sense of relaxation and well-being.”

So what is the best way to cool down. Active or passive? Van Hooren & Peake conducted a narrative review on this particular topic that was published in Sports Medicine.  They state that “It is widely believed that an active cool down is more effective for promoting post exercise recovery than a passive cool down involving no activity. However, research on this topic has never been synthesized and it therefore remains largely unknown whether this belief is correct.”

They performed an extensive literature review into the effects of the various cool downs with regards to sports performance, injuries, long-term adaptive responses and psychophysiological markers of post-exercise recovery.  

Some of the results they found were very interesting and possibly not as positive as one would have first thought.  They found that active cool downs :

  • Are largely ineffective with respect to enhancing both same and next sports performance, but some beneficial effects on next-day(s) performance has been reported.
  • Do not appear to prevent injuries.
  • Performing them on a regular basis does not attenuate the long-term adaptive response.
  • Accelerate recovery of lactate in blood, but not necessarily in muscle tissue.
  • May partially prevent immune system depression and promote faster recovery of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. However, it is unknown whether this reduces the likelihood of post-exercise illnesses, syncope and cardiovascular complications.
  • Do not significantly reduce muscle soreness, or improve the recovery of indirect markers of muscle damage, neuromuscular contractile properties, musculotendinous stiffness, range of motion, systemic hormonal concentrations, or measures of psychological recovery.
  • Can interfere with muscle glycogen resynthesis.

“In summary, based on the empirical evidence currently available, active cool-downs are largely ineffective for improving most psychophysiological markers of post-exercise recovery, but may nevertheless offer some benefits compared with a passive cool-down.”

Now there is some food for thought next time you are trying to recover from your long hard session at your chosen sporting venue.

If you are looking out for advice on anything injury related, head to our injuries page to find out what conditions people are commonly presenting with at Sports & Spinal Albury.

If you need an appointment, you can book online here or call the clinic on 02 6021 1975 to speak to one of our friendly staff.

-  Dr Vaughan Saunders

B Sc (Clin Sc) M Hlth Sc (Osteo)


1, 6 Essential Cool Down Stretches, (2010), Best Health Magazine,

2, Frey, M, (2018), “The Benefits of Cooldown After Exercise”, Very Well Fit

3, Van Hooren, B. & Peake, J.M. Sports Med (2018) 48: 1575.