There is nothing better than finishing a workout strong. The feeling of pushing yourself to new heights and surpassing goals that seemed impossible just days before is its own kind of high. But before you celebrate your accomplishments, take time to run through some of these simple and effective cool down exercises. This oft overlooked part of exercise is vital to keeping you limber and setting you up for success the next time.
What are cool down exercises?
Where warm up exercises help your body transition from rest to work, cool down exercises help your body transition from work to rest. The process of slowly slowing down reduces strain on your body, keeps your blood from pooling in your lower body after exercise, stops stiffness in its tracks, and prepares you for your next workout.
Cool down exercises reduce strain on your body
Think of what happens when you are exercising at or near peak capacity. Your heart pumps blood quickly to your muscles, your blood pressure rises to compensate for the increased blood flow and you start breathing four to five times faster in an attempt to keep up with your body’s oxygen needs. If you go from machine-like performance to not moving at all, your heart rate immediately begins to drop but your blood vessels will remain dilated to accommodate the increased blood flow to your muscles. This can cause blood to pool in your legs, causing dizziness or even fainting. Cooling down helps your breathing, heart rate and blood flow return to normal slowly, preventing any dizziness.
Cool down exercises stop stiffness
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is that uncomfortable, sore feeling that happens 24 to 48 hours after you exercise. DOMS is caused by a buildup of lactic acid in the muscles. During exercise, your liver releases something called glycogen. After your body uses all the available glucose in your bloodstream, it begins using oxygen to break down glycogen for energy. If there is not enough oxygen available, your body produces lactate that can be converted into energy without oxygen. If lactate (also known as lactic acid) builds up in your bloodstream faster than your body can burn it, it pools in your muscles causing soreness 24 to 48 hours after you workout.
Doing cool down exercises after a workout prevents the lactic acid from pooling in your muscles and causing soreness. Even if you cannot effectively burn all the lactic acid build up in a few short exercises, you will not feel as sore as you would if you skipped cool down exercises altogether.
Cool down exercises prepare you for future workouts
As if helping your body transition to rest and offsetting muscle soreness wasn’t reason enough to start going cool down exercises, the best cool down exercises also prepare you for your next workout. Static stretching (stretching and holding a position) on cold muscles has been linked to an increased risk of injury. However, performing static stretches as a part of a cool down routine can help increase strength and flexibility without the risk of injury.
The trick is to know which stretches to perform and how. Enter a personal trainer. These fitness experts can help craft specific cool down exercises and stretches that target the muscle group that you have been working in a particular workout. What’s more, they can help you learn how to modify your stretching and cool down routines to meet your fitness needs, goals and limitations. That being said, these five cool down exercises are among the best ways to wind down after any workout.
Best Cool Down Exercises: Walking
Whether you are looking for a running cool down or cool down exercises after a weight workout, nothing beats walking. Going for an outdoor stroll for five minutes helps your heart rate recover without placing undue stress on your joints.
When we say walking, we’re not talking about a power walk at near-jog pace. We’re talking about taking it easy until your breathing and heart rate return to normal. For an effective running cool down, be sure to keep walking for five to ten minutes after long distances.
Best Cool Down Exercises: Figure Eight Stretches
When it comes to a running cool down, you cannot neglect your hip flexors. These muscles are vital to the running motion so many athletes rely on for speed and power. That is why most cool down exercises target this part of the body.
Laying flat on the ground, raise your legs, so they are parallel to the floor, your knees bent at a 90 degree angle. Cross your right foot over your left knee. Reaching down, gently pull your left leg toward your body, keeping your hips in contact with the ground at all times. You should feel this stretch in the inside of your hip. Hold to the count of 10 and release, switching legs.
Best Cool Down Exercises: Yoga
While yoga is a workout all on its own, three beginner poses are some of the best cool down exercises out there – downward dog, plank and upward dog. These positions in particular stretch your arms, legs, core, and lower back without having to move your hands or feet.
Standing with your feet shoulder width apart, bend forward, hinging at the hips until your hands are flat on the ground. (You may need to bend your knees slightly.) Take a step back with your right foot, then the left, pressing your weight into your palms and straightening your legs, your hips raised in the air. Hold this stretch for a few seconds, trying to release your heels to the ground for a maximum stretch in your calf muscles and hamstrings. This is downward dog.
Next, transfer your weight from your feet to your hands, moving your body forward into a plank position. Be sure to keep your back flat, and your gaze just forward of your hands. Hold the plank for a few seconds.
Then, keeping your elbows by your sides, slowly lower your body until it touches the ground. Point your toes so your feet, legs, hips and core form a straight line. Keeping your hands near your shoulders and your elbows at your sides, bring your upper body off the ground along with your hips. This is called upward dog and is ideal for stretching abdominal muscles and lower back. Tuck your toes, push your weight through your hands and feet, pressing your hips into the sky to return to downward dog and repeat the cycle three times.
Best Cool Down Exercises: Foam Rolling
Research has found that foam rolling is one of the best cool down exercises for beating muscle soreness and improving range of motion. Foam rolling has long been a key running cool down component but it is finding its way to other activities as well. Even if it looks (and sometimes feels) a bit like a torture device, a foam roller can work out knots in muscles and improve circulation.
Hamstrings: Place a large foam roller under both knees. Using your hands to push yourself forward and back, roll your body along the foam roller so it travels from your knees to your hips and back. Repeat, focusing on any tender spots, gently rolling back and forth until the knot releases.
Quadriceps: From a plank position on your elbows, lower yourself onto the foam roller so it is under your quadriceps. Use your elbows to push yourself back and forth on the foam roller like a saw.
Piriformis: The piriformis muscle is deep in your buttocks which helps the hip rotate. Runners are especially susceptible to soreness here when they run on uneven ground. Sit on the foam roller, crossing your right foot over your left knee. Stabilize your posture on your left hand, turning your body slightly to the side. Roll the foam roller underneath your left buttock, stopping to work on tender spots. Switch sides and repeat.
Still unclear which cool down exercises are right for you? Talk to a personal trainer. They can help you figure out the best cool down exercises for your workout routine, your equipment, your circumstances, and your current fitness ability. Best of all, they are not bound by a gym. Personal training can be tailored to your home gym, your outdoor space and your lifestyle. Regardless of what form they take, cool down exercises are the best way to go from beast mode to rest mode without stressing your body.