While there is still much to be known about the "cool-down" from a scientific perspective, one thing that is abundantly clear about this portion of the workout is that it's the most frequently neglected aspect of the exercise experience. While you may be pressed for time, there are a few general guidelines to keep in mind when wrapping up your sweat session in order to stay safe and feel great afterward—which means you'll be able to hit your next workout feeling your best. [Tweet this tip!]
Slow It Down
Just as it's important to gradually increase core body temperature and heart rate during the warm-up portion of a workout, so too is it important to gradually decrease the intensity of exercise during the cool-down phase. Taking the time to allow your heart rate to come down and your body to transition comfortably and safely to a diminished level of work, such as by walking or jogging at a low- to moderate-intensity, assures that blood flow back to the heart is maintained in the face of significant amounts of blood going to the previously working muscles. Abruptly stopping intense exercise can cause blood to pool in the lower extremities, which can lead to dizziness and even fainting post-workout.
Give It a Roll
Incorporating self-myofascial release into your cool-down using tools such as a foam roller or tennis ball can address any tight areas of the body, helping to relieve tension, improve mobility, increase blood flow, and reduce stress. Focusing first on addressing tissue density will help to then address tissue length through the incorporation of static stretching.
Stretch It Out
While flexibility training is an important component of a well-rounded workout routine that can be done either as part of a workout or solo, current fitness guidelines state that performing flexibility exercises when the muscles are warm following cardiorespiratory or resistance training may prove to be most effective. [Tweet this fact!] A regular routine of static stretching to address tissue length can help to increase flexibility, enhance joint range of motion, and even improve posture.
The length of the cool-down and the movements and activities it entails can vary greatly depending on a number of factors, including the type of activity engaged in; the intensity of those activities; your current fitness level, personal health, and fitness goals; and the amount of time you have. Below is a sample cool-down that puts the above considerations into practice in a way that would be suitable following almost any workout. Keep in mind that the exact number of exercises performed can be scaled up or down to meet your specific needs and time allotment.
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1. Low- to moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (e.g. walking, jogging, cycling, at an easy pace) to gradually decrease heart rate (2 to 3 minutes)
2. Foam rolling to address tissue density (15 seconds per exercise)
3. Supine shoulder flexion to stretch the muscles of the shoulders and back (30 seconds; rest briefly and repeat; 2 reps per side)
4. Figure 4 stretch to stretch the muscles that externally rotate the hips (30 seconds; rest briefly and repeat; 2 reps per side)
5. Supine hamstring stretch to stretch the muscles of the back of the thighs (30 seconds; rest briefly and repeat; 2 reps per side)
6. Side-lying quadriceps stretch to stretch the muscles of the front of the thighs (30 seconds; rest briefly and repeat; 2 reps per side)
7. Supine hip flexor stretch to stretch the muscles that flex the hips (30 seconds; rest briefly and repeat; 2 reps per side)
8. Supine spinal twist to stretch the muscles of the trunk and relieve tension in the spine (30 seconds; rest briefly and repeat; 2 reps per side)
9. Upward-facing dog to stretch the muscles of the trunk, pelvis, and hips (30 seconds; rest briefly and repeat)
10. Downward-facing dog to stretch the entire body, with specific focus on the calves, hamstrings, and shoulders (30 seconds; rest briefly and repeat)
11. Child's pose to rest, restore, and rejuvenate (30 to 60 seconds)
For images of all of these exercises, check out the ACE Exercise Library.