You’re drenched in sweat. You’re breathing hard. Your muscles are burning. While it may be tempting to rush out of the gym as soon as you finish your final rep, you still have some important work to do in order to check the box on a successful sweat session.
What is a Cooldown?
If you’ve ever been to a group cardio or strength class, you know that many save the final few minutes for a dedicated stretch and cooldown segment. This isn’t the instructor’s way of phoning it in—it’s a critical, yet often overlooked, ingredient to reaching your fitness goals.
“After exercising, particularly at higher intensities, an individual’s heart is beating faster than normal (along with increased blood flow to working muscles and higher body temperature), which poses a certain level of risk when stopping exercise too quickly,” says Orangetheory research scientist Brittany Leboeuf, PhD. “A cool down after exercise is important to allow a gradual decrease in heart rate and intensity at the end of the workout.”
Just like a warmup prepares you for exercise, a cooldown helps you recover after. Here are four benefits of a cool down after exercising:
- Recover Faster. Research suggests that an active cooldown increases the blood flow to your muscles and skin. This boost in circulation may reduce the build-up of metabolic by-products that are associated with muscle soreness and help speed up your muscle’s repair process. Translation: You feel less sore, and bounce back faster for your next workout.
- Nix Nausea. Ever feel lightheaded or nauseous following a tough workout? There’s a scientific reason for that. “From a cardiovascular perspective, when the body goes from working at a high intensity (like doing an All-Out effort on the Tread at OTF) to ending the exercise session, the strength of muscle contractions can be lower due to fatigue,” says Leboeuf. “When exercise is stopped abruptly, blood can pool in the lower extremities, which delays the return of oxygenated blood back to the heart and the brain. This makes the body more susceptible to dizziness or passing out.” Incorporating a cooldown period helps reduce this risk by improving blood flow throughout your body, ensuring that your hard work doesn’t derail the rest of your day.
- Stretch Your Range. “From a muscular perspective, incorporating recovery immediately following a workout is important because the joints and muscles are warm from the work they just did, making it easier for them to stretch and move into different positions,” says Leboeuf. “We would expect to see greater or more steadily maintained flexibility in members who regularly perform a cooldown and incorporate recovery into their workout routines.”
- Reduce Injury Risk. While you may not care about doing the splits, flexibility and mobility are the secret sauce that enables us to move safely and easily—in workouts and everyday life. “Consequently, flexibility can be a factor in injury prevention so we would expect to see less injuries over the long term when participating regularly in cooldown blocks,” says Leboeuf. This is especially important if you leave the gym and go sit at a desk all day, which can place your muscles in a shortened position. Over time, this can lead to decreased strength and power, poor posture, and an increased risk for back pain.
How to Cool Down Properly
There is no definitive list of the best cooldown exercises after a workout, but there are a few overall pointers to keep in mind.
How long should a cool down last?
“Generally, a good way to approach a workout is to allow for 5–15 minutes of cooling down at the end of an exercise session,” says Leboeuf. “That can look different depending on the length of the exercise session, and the type of activities that were performed.” For example:
- After a cardio workout (such as running on the treadmill), you might want to add a few minutes of walking at a lower intensity, followed by some stretching of the calves, quads, hips, and hamstrings, says Leboeuf.
- After a strength workout (such as lifting in the weight room), Leboeuf recommends stretching the muscle groups that you were just training, paying attention to anywhere that you feel particularly fatigued.
“Regardless of the workout, if there are areas on your body that feel tender or you just feel the need to stretch them, make sure to include those, in addition to using recovery tools such as a foam roller or percussive equipment.” You might mix it up day to day or week to week, but the goal of the cooldown will always remain the same: Listen to your body and pay attention to what it needs, so you can help it recover better, faster, and more fully.