Ever finished a grueling workout only to collapse on the floor and call it quits? We've all been there at some point, but it's vital to your body's recovery to come down gently. Think about it: You don't just slam on your car's breaks when you're going 60 mph, right?
When done correctly, cooling down gives you ample time to slow your heart rate down gradually, which primes your body to transition into recovery mode. Plus, cooldown periods that involve static stretching or foam rolling give your fatigued muscles some much needed TLC.
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Even though it only takes a few minutes, it's easy to fall into the habit of skipping this critical step in your workout. So before you head to the showers, try a 5- to 10-minute cooldown. Keep these four tips in mind, and you'll give your body the best chance to stay healthy and ready for your next workout.
1. Not Cooling Down After Every Workout
While you can sometimes get away with a shorter cooldown, Geoff Tripp, CSCS, head of fitness science at Trainiac, says it's still important to include a quick cooldown of at least five minutes of active recovery following exercise.
During exercise, your body goes through a number of stressful processes. One of those is the break down of chemicals that can cause muscle soreness and fatigue, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). By performing an active recovery cooldown, followed by a series of stretches, you'll prompt your body to begin its repair process, which can help minimize muscle soreness.
Save the last five to 10 minutes of your workout for a cooldown. For example, if you have 60 minutes to exercise, dedicate the first three to five minutes to a warm-up, the next 45 to 50 minutes to the main part of your workout and the last five to 10 to an active cooldown that includes stretching and foam rolling.
“I let my exercise intensity and length guide my cooldown, so if I’m exercising at a high intensity for a shorter duration, I will recover longer, and vise versa,” Tripp says.
2. Stopping Your Workout Suddenly
The cooldown does a few things post-exercise. "First, it returns your body temperature and blood pressure to pre-exercise levels. It also begins the regeneration progress following exercise," Tripp says.
But that's harder to do if you immediately plunk down on the mat for some seated, static stretches. Lowering your intensity gradually is the best way to end your session.
If you're running, bring it to a jog, then a brisk walk, then a slower walk. According to the ACSM, this gradual decrease in intensity (aka active cooldown) will help calm the body and mind and should be included in every workout routine.
“Activities such as stretching, foam rolling, light cardio to gradually return to pre-exercise levels are all appropriate forms of cooling down,” Tripp says.
3. Not Stretching Properly
Muscle soreness is one of the most common reasons people skip their workouts. One way to lessen the soreness is to stretch for the right amount of time after working out.
"During a workout, small micro-tears begin to form in your muscle tissue due the force and resistance you place on your body during intense exercise," says Kelsey Decker, certified personal trainer and education coordinator for StretchLab.
Your body also starts to produce lactic acid, which Decker says is a cause for post-workout muscle soreness. "It's important to stretch after a workout to help your body recover by increasing blood and oxygen through stretching and foam rolling, which help initiate the recovery process."
Aim to do two to four rounds of 15 to 30 seconds per muscle group you trained, according to a February 2012 clinical commentary in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy.
The recommended type of stretches to perform post-workout are static (ones you hold for 15 to 60 seconds) and PNF (stretching and contracting the muscle group being targeted) stretches.
“These types of stretches promote lengthening of the individual muscle fibers, increasing blood circulation, and removing waste products to help bring your body back to a pre-exercise state,” explains Decker.
Remember, stretching should never be painful. If you feel any pain (not discomfort), stop and talk to a qualified professional like a doctor or physical therapist who can assess the situation better.
4. Not Using a Foam Roller
If you haven't given foam rolling a try yet, there's no better time to start! A January 2015 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training found that it not only increases joint range of motion but can also help reduce muscle soreness and speed muscle recovery.
Foam rolling is a great tool that Decker says allows you to self-massage tight muscles and focus on trigger point areas of the muscle.
"This type of muscular release allows the user the ability to control the application of pressure in needed areas of the body, and they are in control of the healing and recovery process," she says.
By applying pressure to your muscles and releasing tight areas, Decker says foam rolling is assisting with increasing blood flow and oxygen to these areas of the body, which aids in recovery and tells your nervous system to let your muscles relax.
Include foam rolling before and/or after your workouts.
"Rolling before a workout provides blood flow and mobility to the muscles you're about to use, especially if you're working out after sitting for long periods of time," Decker says. After a workout, she says your muscles need to release built-up lactic acid in order to allow the recovery process to happen.
Focus on any muscles you've just focused on during your workout. For example, if you've done a lot of squats, lunges and other lower-body exercises, you'll want to roll your quads, hamstrings, hips and calves.
Place the roller under the muscle you're going to be targeting and brace yourself on top, using your hands and feet to control how much of your body weight you let press down on the roller. Roll back and forth a few inches, moving up and down the muscle and stopping on any point that feels especially tight.
Foam rollers are inexpensive and can be purchased online or in most sporting goods stores. One thing to consider when buying a foam roller is density. Medium-density foam rollers will be less painful and offer less compression, while high-density ones will get deeper into the tissue, but will potentially be more uncomfortable.
Additional reporting by Sara Lindberg
- Trainiac: Geoff Tripp, Head of Fitness Science: Personal Interview
- StretchLab: Kelsey Decker, Certified Personal Trainer: Personal Interview
- A Road Map to Effective Muscle Recovery: American College of Sports Medicine
- The Cardiovascular System After Exercise: Journal of Applied Physiology
- Current Concepts In Muscle Stretching For Exercise And Rehabilitation: International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy
- Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures: Journal of