We hear a lot about the importance of an effective warm-up, but what’s less discussed is the importance of a cooldown. I bet many would admit to skipping the cooldown. After a tough workout, most of us are ready to relax, not to continue exercising. We wonder, “Do I really need to cool down after exercising?”
Yes, cooldowns are important, but really only after higher-intensity workouts. An efficient and effective cooldown is typically short (about 10 minutes) and soothing, and will feel like the perfect way to complete your workout.
The science behind the cooldown has been debated in the sports-science world. It used to be thought that a cooldown after your workout would prevent delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), but recent studies have shown that this is not the case.
Though cooling down might not help soothe DOMS, there are other benefits to cooling down, like bringing your heart back to a normal rate. Stopping exercise too abruptly might make your heart rate drop too fast, and could cause dizziness and even fainting.
After an intense workout, a short walk or jog will bring your heart rate back down slowly. Once you’ve slowed your heart rate, the next part of your cooldown should include a combination of static, functional stretching and muscle releases.
When you exercise, your muscles spend that time constantly lengthening and shortening. Static stretching will help your muscles deactivate and calm down after all of that activity. Stretching post-workout can also help increase your flexibility.
Here are some excellent stretches to do post-workout:
King Cobra Stretch
Generally, people overuse their hip flexors. When you are exercising, I can almost guarantee that you are overworking your hip flexors. The king cobra is a great stretch to open up your hips.
- Lie on your stomach with palms of hands down and turned out. Your arms should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Slide one leg up and turn out, keeping the other leg turned in.
- Push shoulders off the floor until your arms are straight. Keep your shoulder blades down and back.
- Keep your hips down on the floor with elbows close to your sides. Squeeze your glutes.
- Look up and twist to the side of your bent leg.
- Hold for 30 seconds on each side.
Your piriformis is a deep external rotator, meaning it helps rotate the femur outward when the hip extends (and is an internal rotator in hip flexion past 90 degrees, if you want to get technical). The piriformis tends to get tight and cause all sorts of aches and pains, including sciatica. Stretching this muscle will help it maintain proper resting length, avoiding tightness and overuse.
- Start in a standing, straight position
- Place the outside of your raised leg on a cushioned tabletop or bed in front of your body, with the knee bent and your shin as close to parallel to the bed as possible.
- Keep your foot flexed.
- Position one: Twist your torso toward your raised foot. Fold toward your raised leg, raising the top arm above the head. Return to a standing position.
- Position two: Keeping the torso squared straight, fold toward your raised leg, extending your arms above your head and resting on the table. Return to a standing position.
- Position three: Twist your torso toward your raised knee. Fold toward your raised leg, raising the top arm above the head. Return to a standing position.
- Hold each position for 30 seconds.
Standing Cross-Legged Hamstring Stretch
You’ll feel this stretch, performed different ways, in both your medial and lateral hamstring, as well as in your lower back.
- Place your left leg in front of the right leg and bend forward, keeping your right knee locked.
- Reach both hands to the inside of your right foot to stretch your lateral hamstring and lower back. Use your abdominals to bend forward to allow a stretch of your lower back as you bend from the hip (and not from your upper or mid back).
- Reach your hands outside of your right foot to stretch your medial hamstring and lower back.
- Reach your hands forward to stretch your entire hamstring and lower back.
- Repeat on the opposite leg.
When you work out really hard, you can start to overwork certain muscles, which can lead to injury. Releases aid recovery and loosen the tight muscles that can get overworked during exercise.
Here are the main releases I recommend for cooling down:
Hip Flexor Release
- Equipment needed: Tape two lacrosse balls together to use during this release.
- Lie on your stomach, and place the double lacrosse ball just below your hip bone. Lean a tolerable amount of weight onto the balls.
- Bend the knee on the side you wish to release back to a 90-degree angle. Swing your leg side to side in a tolerable range of motion.
- Repeat in 30-second intervals for 2 minutes.
Outer Quad Release
- Equipment needed: foam roller.
- Lie on the side you wish to release.
- Place the foam roller under your bottom leg halfway between your hip and your knee.
- Slide your leg up and down along the foam roller, moving it from the top of the knee to the base of the hip. Try to work over the more tender areas (as you can tolerate).
- Repeat in 30-second intervals for 2 minutes.
- To focus on a specific area of the IT band, locate the most tender spot with the foam roller. Your IT bands are the band of fibrous tissue that runs down the outside of the thighs, and works with the quadriceps to stabilize the knee joint during movement.
- Bend your knee at a 90-degree angle and then straighten. Repeat this motion of bending and straightening your knee for 10–15 seconds. You may repeat this with other areas along the vastus lateralis, the muscles that run along the sides of the quadriceps. These muscles help you rise up from a squatting position, and allow you to extend your lower leg.
Distal Hamstring Release
- Equipment needed: lacrosse ball.
- Sit on a bed or chair with a lacrosse ball behind your knee.
- Kick your leg up and down while maintaining contact with the ball throughout the movement.
- Do this for 20–30 seconds, 2–3 times.
The stretches and releases above will work for any kind of activity. Of course, you can expand on this list, depending on your activity. For example, if you’re a cyclist, a doorway pec stretch would be a good addition to combat the time you spent hunched over the bike. Think of the muscles you work during your exercises, and focus on stretching and massaging those areas.