The Importance of Stretching and Cooling Down After an Intense Workout

Cooling down and stretching after an intense workout is imperative to your recovery. This gradual decrease in activity will slow your heart rate and lower your body temperature. However, stopping too fast can lead to feeling sick or passing out. So what is stretching and cooling down? Let’s dig into each and talk about the benefits of both.

Key takeaways:
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    Cooling down and stretching after a workout are essential for a better recovery.
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    Even five minutes of stretching can be beneficial for lowering your heart rate and blood pressure.
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    Your cool down should be dynamic, low impact, less than 30 minutes long, and an exercise you prefer.
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    There are four types of stretching: self-myofascial release, static, active, and dynamic.
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    Cooling down offers multiple benefits, including minimizing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), increasing flexibility, and bringing your body back to homeostasis.

What is a cool-down?

Moving from an intense workout to no activity is abrupt for the body. Take the time to cool down your body after exercising — preferably within an hour. This doesn’t have to last long; even five minutes right after high activity can be extremely beneficial.

Cooling down allows your heart to recover gradually and return to its normal rate and blood pressure. This will help your body regulate blood flow.

This study by B.V. Hooren and J.M. Peake defines two types of cooling down: active and passive. Active cool-downs are voluntary low-intensity movements within one hour after training. Passive cooldown is either organic cooling down, such as sitting to rest, saunas, or even compressive therapies.

They found that the type of cool-down exercise impacts the benefits. So how do you know which one works best for you? It depends on your experience and preferences. When creating your cool-down routine, it's recommended to include these points and focus on the specific muscles and their recovery to cool down for next-day benefits properly.

Post-workout stretching

By consistently stretching, your muscles will lengthen. This means, over time, stretching will improve your flexibility and your range of motion. Stretching will also reduce the lactic acid buildup from your intense workout. This excess can lead to muscle stiffness and possible cramping.

According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, there are four types of stretching:

  • Self-myofascial release (SMR). This can be done with foam rollers, trigger balls, or even a rolled yoga blanket. The prop is supposed to break apart knots, or trigger points, in your muscles. This process will allow your muscle fibers to realign and release pressure.
  • Static stretching. Static stretching involves lengthening muscles to their furthest point and holding that position for at least 30 seconds.
  • Active stretching. Active stretching requires stiffening and holding one muscle group to stretch an opposing group. In other words, activate and contract your muscles to stretch others further — yoga is a popular example.
  • Dynamic stretching. This involves working through your muscle’s range of movement to prepare for further activity. Unlike static stretching, you are moving the entire time.

Post-workout stretching and cool-down benefits

After an intense workout session, a byproduct called lactic acid is left in your system. Lactic acid is a chemical created when your body’s cells break down carbs for energy. Taking the time to cool down properly cycles out the buildup of lactic acid and prepares your body for your next task.

Cooling down can minimize delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which typically happens between 24 to 48 hours after your workout because of microtears in muscle fibers caused by an intense workout. So how does cooling down affect DOMS?

Cool downs increase blood flow to the muscles you use during your workout to speed up recovery.

Post-workout stretching helps prevent injuries by increasing flexibility. This can lower the risk of body muscle imbalances. Stretching reduces inflammation, especially after an injury. When injured, your body will increase the muscle tension around the injury to prevent more damage. This process increases the number of knots in your muscles which can decrease movement and elasticity.

You might know that exercise is great for stress relief but did you know cooling down and stretching assist in gradually bringing your body back to homeostasis? Homeostasis is the process of the body coming back into a resting state. This gentle segway of calming your body will ease you back into your day.

How to cool-down and stretch

For a dynamic cool down, continue your workout for around five minutes at a slower pace and lower intensity. For example, if your workout was a run, continue to walk for 5 minutes after. Your goal is to get your heart rate below 120 beats per minute.

After a cool-down, spend some time in static stretches, holding each for approximately 30 seconds. Focus on stretching the body parts used during your workout.

The recovery process is equally as important as pushing your body during intense exercise. Stretching and cooling down bring your heart rate back down and signal your muscles that it's time to relax. This post-workout routine will help reduce muscle stiffness and soreness and increase muscle flexibility and circulation. These extra 15 minutes at the end of your intense workouts will make a world of difference!

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