It can be tough to fit working out into your busy daily schedule. Between work, family, and other to-dos, there are likely some days when you can only carve out 20 minutes or so to spend with your Bike, Tread or Row. So if you are short on time, you should use that limited time to go as hard as you can for the entire workout, right?
Not so fast. Here, we’re diving into the facts on the important yet often surpassed after-workout cooldown. Discover when and why you should include a cooldown in your workout plan, as well as seven exercises to try after your next session.
What’s the Purpose of an After-Workout Cooldown?
“The point of a cooldown is to lower your heart rate and to ease your body into a healthy recovery zone,” says Peloton cycling instructor Hannah Corbin. “Think the exact opposite of a warm-up. If we go from waking up to lifting the heaviest weight of all time, our body is not going to cooperate. The same goes for the flipside. If we go from 10 to 0 with no in-between, the body will be confused and a little cranky.”
There are many physiological reasons you may not feel your best if you skip the cooldown after a hard workout. “A cooldown helps prevent blood pooling in the extremities and promotes the removal of metabolic waste products from your muscles,” explains Austin Cagley, Peloton’s Director of Global Instructor Development. When you do high-intensity exercises, such as interval training, this can cause lactic acid and other substances to build up in your muscles. If you don’t take the time to cool down, these compounds can hang around and cause soreness or discomfort. Indeed, one study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics found that a cooldown increased circulation and the removal of waste in exercised muscles to reduce the onset of muscle soreness later.
Using a cooldown to help support your body’s recovery can even maximize the results of your workouts over time, adds Austin. “It helps reduce muscle soreness, prevents dizziness or lightheadedness, and promotes relaxation, which can enhance overall workout performance and minimize the risk of injury,” he says.
A cooldown will also help with a very practical aspect of working out: “Are you still sweating after your shower? Then make some time to cool down after all the work you put in,” says Hannah.
Strength Workout Cooldown vs. Cardio Cooldown
If you have a well-rounded exercise regimen, you’re likely incorporating different types of workouts, from high-intensity and endurance-based cardio, such as on the Peloton Bike, Tread, or Row to strength and resistance training with weights, barre, or Pilates. And if that’s the case, your cooldown is going to vary based on the type of workout you completed that day.
“For a post-cardio cooldown, you can incorporate exercises like light jogging or walking, followed by static stretches targeting major muscle groups involved in your cardio activity, such as the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves,” says Austin. The jogging or walking will serve to flush those soreness-inducing waste products from your muscles, while the static stretches will relax the muscles that worked the hardest and help maintain your flexibility.
“For a post-strength training cooldown, focus on active recovery movements such as gentle bodyweight exercises or dynamic stretches that help improve flexibility and range of motion in the muscles you trained,” Austin says. Since strength moves typically work your muscles through one plane of movement or one range of motion, it’s important to incorporate other planes of movement into your recovery to maintain mobility. For example, large arm swings, both up and down and front to back, are a great way to loosen up your chest and upper body after doing push-ups.
7 Cooldown Exercises to Try
These seven cooldown exercises will help bring your heart rate down and loosen your muscles after a challenging workout.
1. Standing Chest Opener
Hannah likes to incorporate chest openers after a ride to counteract the tight, hinged forward position of the upper body on the Bike. This move will stretch and expand the pectoral muscles and the anterior deltoids, the muscles on the front of the shoulders.
A. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
B. Tilt your chin up slightly and open your arms wide to the sides in a goal post position.
C. Extend your hands slightly behind your shoulders until you feel the stretch across the front of your chest.
2. Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
Hip flexor stretches are critical for runners and cyclists, says Hannah. They are also beneficial after a row or a lower body strength workout in which you are doing a lot of compressing the hips.
A. Kneel on the floor or on a mat with your butt up off your heels.
B. Step one foot forward so that your leg makes a right angle
C. Gently push your back hip forward until you feel a stretch along the front of your hip flexor. Repeat on the other side.
3. Child’s Pose
“One of my favorite cooldown exercises is Child’s Pose,” says Austin. “It stretches the back, hips, and shoulders while promoting relaxation.”
A. Start on your hands and knees, then sit your butt back on your heels.
B. Drop your head and walk your hands forward as far as you can without your butt lifting from your heels.
“The cat-cow stretch helps release tension in the back and promotes spinal mobility,” Austin says.
A. Start on your hands and knees with your back flat.
B. Arch your back up toward the ceiling and tuck your chin toward your chest like a cat and hold for a few seconds.
C. Drop your belly toward the floor, lifting your chin and tailbone to the ceiling like a cow. Continue to move back and forth in a slow and controlled manner.
5. Downward-Facing Dog
This is an excellent stretch for all the large muscles on the back of the body, including the calves, hamstrings, glutes, and lower and upper back.
A. Start on your hands and knees.
B. Tuck your toes under and lift your tailbone to the ceiling, straightening your legs as much as you can (it’s okay if your heels are off the ground).
C. Press into the heels of your hands, let your head hang, and shine your chest toward your knees.
6. Runner’s Lunge
A cooldown staple, the runner’s lunge is extremely effective at stretching your hip flexors and quads.
A. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
B. Place your hands on the floor in front of your feet and take a large step back with one foot, so your back leg is mostly straight, your front knee is at a right angle, and your hands are on either side of your front foot. Repeat on the other side.
7. Spinal Twist
The muscles of the back and core are working during almost every form of exercise, so it’s crucial to keep them loose. A simple spinal twist is a great way to do so.
A. Sit on the floor or on a mat with your legs straight out in front of you.
B. Cross one foot over the opposite leg, placing it flat on the floor next to your knee or thigh.
C. Hug your knee with the opposite arm and twist toward your leg. Repeat on the other side.
Can You Ever Skip an After-Workout Cooldown?
In general, gentle, low-intensity workouts such as light stretching, gentle yoga, or even a slow Low-Impact Ride on the Peloton Bike may not require a separate cooldown. That said, Austin notes that it can be helpful to incorporate just a few minutes of relaxation exercises after one of these sessions as opposed to running straight to the shower or your next to-do in order to enhance recovery and promote overall well-being.