Performing a warm-up before you get into a high-intensity workout helps prevent injury and prepares your entire body for the demands you’re about to put on it. But after that long run or HIIT circuit, it can be just as important to reverse the process and cool your systems back down.
“[Performing a cooldown is] a good idea for extremely high intensity exercise or after competition, because of the forces applied to muscles,” says fitness coach Pete McCall, MS, CSCS, author of Smarter Workouts: The Science of Exercise Made Simple and a forthcoming book on recovery. And it’s good for after lower intensity exercise, too.
What is a cooldown?
Just based on the pools of sweat after an intense session, it’s a no-brainer that exercise literally heats up your body. But an elevated body temperature is just one part of it. Physical activity, especially hard workouts or competitions, also raises your heart rate to high levels, and the process of burning calories for energy produces lactate and other metabolic byproducts in your muscles. Once you finish a hard workout, your body temporarily remains in an elevated state.
“Homeostasis is the normal state of rest of the human body,” explains McCall. “Exercise is a physical stress that disrupts homeostasis, and the higher the intensity or the longer the duration, the greater the disruption. The cooldown is the process of the body returning to homeostasis.”
What are the benefits of cooling down after exercise?
When you work out, the aim is to put stress on your muscles, joints, and bones, causing microtrauma (and often muscle soreness) so your body rebuilds to become stronger and faster. Therefore, active recovery is nearly as important in your training as the workouts themselves. This goes for including rest days in your overall routine, but also active recovery immediately following that sweat session. “The faster the body can return to rest, the quicker it can recover from the workout,” McCall says.
However, going from 60 to 0 isn’t ideal, as that rapid of a drop-off leaves those metabolic byproducts in your bloodstream. Taking a few minutes to cool down flushes them out and sends oxygen and nutrients to repair the muscles you just asked to do all that work. Finishing up with a good old-fashioned cool (but not cold) shower is also ideal for bringing your body temperature back to normal.
What are some good cooldown exercises?
You usually don’t have to spend more than a few minutes cooling down. “For most low-to-moderate intensity exercise, slow walking for three to five minutes is all that’s necessary,” says McCall. “The higher the intensity of the workout, the longer the cooldown period should be.”
In addition, you may also take some time easing out any muscle tension, either by stretching (more coming on that), or by using a foam roller or other self-massage tool that can relax and smooth out post-workout knots. If you use a foam roller, McCall recommends taking a slow, steady tempo, moving just one to two inches per second down the length of each muscle.
What are some good cooldown stretches?
Generally, if a muscle feels tight after working out, that’s a good muscle to focus on during your cooldown exercise. You can combine standard pull-and-hold static stretches, which should be held for a minimum of 30 seconds each, with “dynamic” movements that gently take your joints through their full ranges of motion and help ease muscle soreness or stiffness. Below are a few of McCall’s favorites, from his book Ageless Intensity: High-Intensity Workouts to Slow the Aging Process. Check out the video demonstrations featuring Ashley and Amanda Rosenberg (@roseytimestwo), sisters and founders of the strength, HIIT, and mobility app, @buildandburnco.
Child’s Pose with Cross-Body Reach
Instructions: Kneel down on a mat, sit your butt back over your heels, reach your left arm forward, and cross your right arm over your left with your palm facing up. Look to the left. Settle and hold for 30 to 45 seconds before switching arms and repeating.
Targets: Upper back muscles, hips, and glutes
Supine Hip Crossover
Instructions: Lying on your back on the mat, extend one arm perpendicularly to your body on the floor. Bend the knee of the same-side leg and rotate from the hips to cross it over your other extended leg, in the opposite direction of the extended arm. Place your free hand on top of the bent knee and turn your head toward your extended arm to intensify the stretch. Hold up to 45 seconds, then do the other side.
Targets: Mid-spine mobility, core muscles, hips, shoulders and chest
Supine Hip Circles
Instructions: From your back, bend your knees and grasp your shins just below the joints with your hands. Slowly circle both legs in the hip joints, rotating inward eight to 12 times, then outward the same. Then do the same with each side individually.
Targets: Range of motion and stability in the hip joints
How should you cool down after running?
Coming down from this highly aerobic exercise should focus on slowing your heart rate and breathing. First, simply walk it off, for up to 10 minutes depending on your workout’s intensity. Then, if desired, you may stretch the calves, hamstrings, adductors, and hip flexors, as those take the greatest beating from running, says McCall. To try:
Kneeling Hip/Abductor Twist
Instructions: From a high-kneeling position, bend your right knee up to place your foot on the floor, rotating your hip out away from your body so your foot and knee are pointed 90 degrees from your left supporting leg. Place your left hand on your left hip and reach your right arm straight out then across your body. Lean your weight forward into your right hip and hold for five seconds, release, and repeat that contraction for five to six reps up to 45 seconds. Switch sides and repeat.
Targets: Abductors, hip flexors, and lower back
Instructions: Starting on all fours, keep your arms straight and slowly lower your hips toward the ground allowing your spine to fully extend. Your entire upper body to the tops of your thighs should remain off the floor. Hold for 30 to 45 seconds and release to the ground.
Targets: Hip flexors and the entire front body
How should you cool down after lifting weights?
Strength training with weights can take many forms, from more cardio-intensive circuits to slow-and-steady heavy lifting. So while, again, it will depend how hard you went in your session, a few minutes of low-intensity walking, some foam rolling or stretching of whatever muscle groups you targeted, and a cool shower are all you need to get on with your strength-focused workout recovery, and your day.