The Importance of a Cool-Down After Exercise
For many exercisers, the cool-down is the most neglected part of a workout. Most people have never learned the reasons why a cool-down is important, much less the proper way to do a cool-down.
Many of us focus on the warm-up to get ready for the harder work to come during the actual workout, then overlook balancing our workouts by getting our bodies back to an optimal resting state by cooling down. If you’re not warming up either, you need to look into that right away and make sure to add a warm up before every work out!
In this article, I’ll explain the ins and outs of cool-downs, which you should be doing AFTER EVERY WORKOUT, without exception. I’ll explain why you should cool-down, how to structure a cool-down into your workout routine, and what types of exercises to choose for your cool-down.
Why Cool-Down After Exercise?
Put simply, a cool-down period after a workout allows the body to transition smoothly and safely from a state of exertion to a state of rest. You can think of the cool-down as being the opposite of the warm-up, mirroring the warm-up process, but leading you in the opposite direction. Instead of transitioning from everyday life into an intense workout like a warm-up, a cool-down transitions you from an intense workout back into everyday life.
Benefits of Cooling Down
There are many physiological benefits to cooling down. During a cool-down, you will:
- Improve posture, decrease soreness, and prevent future injury by resetting your neuromuscular system, returning your muscles to their correct length-tension relationships
- Experience a safe, smooth transition back to a resting state by gradually restoring physiological systems such as heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and blood plasma concentration back to baseline levels
- Increase your flexibility, as stretching after exercise has been proven to lead to increases in joint range of motion
- Prevent unpleasant possible aftereffects of exercise such as dizziness and nausea, which is often caused by blood pooling in the lower extremities
You can also use the cool-down period as a psychological transition time. Your body will be pumped from working out, and likely releasing endorphins, possibly giving you that “runner’s high” feeling. Focus on deep, diaphragmatic breathing to increase your oxygenation. Reflect on your workout and all that you accomplished, congratulating yourself for your hard work. Think about your goals for the rest of the day and benefit from the boost in mental clarity and self-confidence many experience right after a workout.
How to Add a Cool-Down to Your Exercise Routine
The cool-down is actually fairly simple. The best cool-down is about 10 minutes total: 5 minutes of low-intensity cardiorespiratory exercise immediately followed by 5 minutes of flexibility exercises.
Make sure to schedule enough time in your workout to devote to your cool-down. Don’t schedule yourself so tightly that you have to leave the gym immediately after working out to go on to your next activity. I know that’s tough in our busy, busy, busy culture where most of us are juggling myriad responsibilities throughout the day, but you have 10 extra minutes in the day to devote to yourself.
If you want to see the best results and experience the most health benefits from exercising you need to spend those 10 extra minutes of your day finishing your workout right by adding a cool-down to your exercise routine.
Cool-Down Exercise Possibilities: Cardio
The first phase of your cool-down should be 5 minutes of light cardio. The choice is yours and should be dictated by what type of cardio you prefer. Options will be different based on whether you are exercising at home versus at the gym where you will have more cardio equipment available.
At home, your 5-minute cardio cool-down can be a slow jog, a fast walk, or even a couple of light Zumba routines if dance workouts are your thing!
At the gym, your options are more varied, including the elliptical trainer, stationary bike, treadmill, stair-stepper, and rowing machine. I prefer to opt for cardio machines that keep me standing and burning more calories such as the elliptical, treadmill, and stair stepper.
Cool-Down Exercise Possibilities: Flexibility
The second phase of your cool-down should consist of 5 minutes of flexibility exercises. Options for flexibility training include self-myofascial release, static stretching, dynamic stretching, or any combination of those modalities.
Focus on areas of your body which you find to be habitually tight in addition to the body parts you trained during your workout. If you need help determining what areas of your body are tight and in need of flexibility training, see a personal trainer.
Ideally, you’ll start with self-myofascial release (SMR) and then transition to static or dynamic stretches. SMR is very effective for relaxing tight, overactive tissues and decreasing soreness. Basically, you use an implement such as a foam roller to give yourself a deep-tissue massage. Follow SMR with a static or dynamic stretch on that same body part.
Check out this video for a demonstration of how to foam-roll your calf muscles, which are tight on many exercisers.
Static stretches are the classic stretch where you assume a position, then hold for 20-30 seconds.
Focus on areas you know to be tight or that you hit hard during your workout.
For example, if you have just performed SMR on your tight calves, you can follow up with a static calf stretch such as the one demonstrated in the video.
Dynamic stretching is an advanced flexibility technique where you move a joint through its full range of motion. Some people perform dynamic stretches during their cool-down, but SMR combined with static stretching is considered the safest and most effective by such authorities as the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
Sample Cool-Down Routine
|Phase of Cool-Down||Exercise Example||Duration|
|Cardio training||Elliptical machine||5 minutes|
|Flexibility training: SMR||Calves|
TFL and IT band
|30 seconds for each area|
|Flexibility training: Static||Calves|
TFL and IT band
|30 seconds for each area|
Keep in mind that the exercises in this table represent a sample cool-down routine. Your own cool-down will vary based on your cardio preferences and the areas of your body that require flexibility training. Be sure to consult a personal trainer if you need help designing a cool-down or any other aspect of your exercise program.
The Importance of a Cool-Down After Exercise: References
1. Clark, M.A., Lucett, S.C., and Sutton, B.G., (Eds.). (2012). NASM essentials of personal fitness training. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
2. Gonya, E. (2012) The importance of warm up, cool down and flexibility in injury prevention. Aurora Health Care, http://www.aurorahealthcare.org/services/smi/chalk-talk/warm-up.asp
3. Mac, B. (2012). Injury prevention. Sports Coach, http://www.brianmac.co.uk/articles/scni46a2.htm