Does this workout routine sound familiar? Race to the gym, throw on your workout gear, hit the treadmill for 20 minutes, rush through a few sets of resistance exercises, grab your bag and head home to all the other things that need to get done. Sure, you got a workout done – but what was missing? Did you consider a cool down?
Most of us know we should stretch after a workout, but fewer know why, and even less know what a proper cool down should look like.
The science behind the cool down
Like the warm up, the cool down is an important part of any exercise session – it can even prevent adverse cardiovascular events that may occur if intense exercise is stopped suddenly. During exercise, blood vessels dilate to deliver oxygenated blood to working muscles and they need time to get that blood circulating back to the heart.
If you have certain chronic conditions, such as hypertension or cardiovascular disease, an extended cool down is recommended to ensure that blood pressure, respiration and heart rate have recovered enough to avoid light-headedness, dizziness, nausea or loss of consciousness.
After a resistance or strength-training session, the cool down period allows muscle fibres to return to their normal resting length and tension. During these workouts, your muscles can develop tiny micro-tears in the fibres. The recovery phase is essential for those fibres to rebuild after they have been extended and helps flush out lactic acid, which built up during your workout (creating that “burning” feeling).
What a cool down might look like
Before wrapping up your cardio session, start working at a lower intensity for a few minutes. For example, reduce your run to a jog or walk. This will allow the heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate to gradually, and safely, return to resting levels.
A resistance-training session should be followed by static stretching of each targeted muscle group. Static stretching can be active (held) or passive (extended with no assistance or pressure added).
The recovery period can also include self-myofascial release for areas of deep tightness or stiffness that static stretching may not fully address. Done with a foam roller, massage stick, massage ball, or lacrosse ball for smaller areas, myofascial release can help reduce that pesky next-day soreness (known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS) and increase joint range of motion.
3 tips for static stretching
- Don’t ‘bounce’ during the stretch. Ballistic or bouncing stretches can cause injury to the muscle and do not enhance flexibility.
- Each stretch should be held gently to the point of tension, not pain, for 20-30 seconds. If time allows, do each stretch two or three times.
- Allow yourself to relax and breathe deeply during the stretch.
Cool down and recharge
Think of the cool down period not as winding down from exercise but as preparation for your next session and the rest of your day. Engage in a mindfulness activity and enhance that mind-body connection. Spend time becoming aware of each of your senses, acknowledging what you are thinking and feeling without judgement. Allow yourself to enjoy the sense of accomplishment after a good workout and those feel-good endorphins.
Studies have shown that exercise is as effective as medication for certain mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, meaning in addition to doing something good for your body, you are doing something good for your brain, too. So, make – and take – the time to enjoy it!