Whether you're hustling off to work, dinner with the family or home to bed, it's easy to perform the last rep of a workout and head straight for the shower. You've checked exercise off the day's to-do list — now on to the next thing.
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Still, many fitness pros say it's still important to take a few minutes to truly wrap up your session. "Even though exercise is a good stress for your body, it is still stress," says Chris Gagliardi, scientific education content manager for the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and an ACE-certified personal trainer and health coach.
If you don't allow your body to relax and recover from the stress, he says, you're missing out.
The Benefits of Cooling Down After Exercise
You'll Improve Your Blood Flow
During an exercise session, your muscles become engorged with oxygenated blood, creating the "muscle pump" that many weight lifters crave, Gagliardi explains.
However, "this can cause blood to accumulate in the lower extremities and reduce blood flow back to the heart and vital organs, such as the brain, which can potentially lead to lightheadedness," he says. By taking the time to cool down — rather than ending exercise abruptly — you can reduce the risk of this feeling, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
It's the Perfect Time for a Good Stretch
Personal trainers recommend including flexibility exercises in your cooldown. "Post-exercise, the muscles are more pliable and therefore more responsive to static stretching," says ACE-certified personal trainer and Orangetheory Fitness coach Makeba Edwards.
Unlike dynamic stretching, which is better for warming up, static stretching involves staying still and holding a position for a longer duration. Static stretching helps improve muscle flexibility, joint range of motion and muscle extensibility.
"This lengthens the muscles, [which may lead] to increased joint range of motion and functionality during exercise and activities of daily living," Gagliardi says. In fact, an April 2018 review in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that doing static stretching for at least five minutes five days a week can help promote improvements in range of motion.
You Can Reflect on Your Workout
A cooldown offers you a chance to think over what you accomplished during your workout, Edwards says, and that can help create intrinsic motivation to continue exercising.
Additionally, taking a few minutes post-sweat "mentally helps you refocus your energy away from the workout completed and back toward other aspects of your life," Gagliardi says. "It can help you to prepare to reengage with the tasks, responsibilities and commitments that lie ahead."
What Should Your Cooldown Look Like?
There's no such thing as an ideal cooldown. In fact, your cooldown depends on the type of activity and intensity of your workout, Edwards says.
"For example, if you are running, you may slow to a jog, then a walk and conclude with static stretching," she says. "And if you are weight training, you may incorporate flexibility exercises or myofascial release techniques like foam rolling."
After doing a cardio workout or if your heart rate is elevated after lifting weights, you want to cool down with some type of cardio to bring your heart rate down to your pre-exercise pace, Gagliardi says, like a slow jog or a walk. Go at the same intensity and for the same duration as your warm-up, Gagliardi says.
If you're stretching or foam rolling after exercise, focus on the muscles you used in your workout. After leg day, for example, you'll probably want to stretch and foam roll your quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes.
Like with exercise in general, be sure you enjoy what you're doing in your cooldown. Otherwise, you're more likely to skip it, Gagliardi says.
How Long Should You Spend Cooling Down?
Edwards recommends taking 5 to 15 minutes to close out a workout. Hold static stretches for at least 20 to 30 seconds each. When foam rolling, hold the roller on any tender spots until you feel a release, which may take anywhere from 15 seconds to up to 60.
“The ideal cooldown should conclude with you feeling relaxed and ready to go back to the world,” Gagliardi says.
Try This Quick Cooldown
Start with about five minutes of moderate- to low-intensity cardio that mimics your workout or warm-up.
Then, if you're planning to stretch, Gagliardi recommends trying these movements.
Move 1: Downward-Facing Dog
- Starting on all fours with your shoulders stacked above your wrists and hips over your knees, tuck your toes under and lift your hips up, straightening your legs.
- Draw your shoulders down and your spine away from your ears. Elongate your spine and extend the backs of your legs only as far as your hamstrings allow.
- Depending on your flexibility, bring your heels down or stay on the balls of your feet with knees bent.
- Hold for 30 to 60 seconds.
- Complete 2 to 4 reps.
Move 2: Supine Spinal Twist
- Lie face-up and bend your right leg, bringing your knee into your chest.
- Gently cross your right knee over your midline to the left side of your body.
- Draw your right arm (and your gaze) out to your right side and place your left hand on your right knee.
- Hold for 15 to 30 seconds.
- Complete 2 to 4 reps, then switch sides.
Move 3: Half-Kneeling Hip-Flexor Stretch
- In a half-kneeling position, place your right foot on the floor so that your right knee is directly over the ankle. Your left knee should be on the floor directly under your left hip. Place your hands on your right thigh.
- Without arching or rounding your back, lean forward into your right hip until you feel a stretch in your left hip.
- Hold for 30 to 45 seconds.
- Complete 2 to 5 reps, then switch sides.
Move 4: Seated Butterfly
- Sit up straight and bend your knees, bringing the outsides of your feet to the floor and the bottoms of your feet together in front of you. Place your feet as close to your groin as is comfortable for you.
- Keeping your back flat, slowly bend forward from your hips, using your elbows to gently push your thighs toward the floor. You should feel a stretch in your inner thighs.
- Hold for 15 to 30 seconds.
- Complete 2 to 4 reps.
Remember not to bounce in this position.
So, How Bad Is It Really to Skip a Cooldown?
All in all, not so bad. You likely won't experience any increased soreness or negative performance in your next workout if you don't cool down. But taking a few minutes to slowly lower your heart rate and reflect on your sweat session can still have both physical and mental benefits.
The makeup of a good cooldown depends on your warm-up and workout and how much time you have. Take whatever time is available to you to do a bit of light cardio, and consider adding some stretching or myofascial release to the mix.
- International Journal of Sports Medicine: "The Relation Between Stretching Typology and Stretching Duration: The Effects on Range of Motion"
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: "Preventing Overuse Shoulder Injuries Among Throwing Athletes: A Cluster-Randomised Controlled Trial in 660 Elite Handball Players"
- Sports Medicine: "Do We Need a Cool-Down After Exercise? A Narrative Review of the Psychophysiological Effects and the Effects on Performance, Injuries and the Long-Term Adaptive Response"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Why You Get Dizzy When You Stand Up Quickly or Exercise"