Cooling Down After Exercise

Cooling down is an important, but often neglected, part of an exercise routine. During an energetic aerobic session, the heart and lungs work quickly to keep the blood circulating around the body. Stopping suddenly places strain on the heart. Cooling down involves slowing the body’s activity in a controlled fashion, gradually bringing down the heart rate, breathing and temperature, and helping blood to return from the body’s extremities.

Cooling down involves the same type of gentle rhythmic exercises as warming up. These include activities such as walking, marching on the spot or gentle jogging (performed at a slower pace than when warming up), combined with specific muscle stretches of the type that follow in this section. A cooling-down session should be performed after any kind of workout, whether playing football or tennis, jogging or lifting weights. The session should take approximately five minutes unless you are unfit, you have worked very hard or it is a hot day, in which case you will need to take a little longer.

BENEFITS OF COOLING DOWN

Stretching after a workout is vital. It lengthens and relaxes your muscles after they have contracted during exercise and it prevents blood pooling in the extremities -this can cause dizziness and fainting. Stretching the muscles will also help to prevent soreness over the next two days. Sore muscles are not only uncomfortable; they can temporarily prevent you from exercising. Stiff, painful muscles can also act as a powerful deterrent to first-time exercisers or people who are unaccustomed to exercising.

COOLING-DOWN STRETCHES

Although an exercise instructor can give expert guidance about exactly how to perform stretches to maximize the benefits, the following exercises can all be practised at home. Since the emphasis is on stretching, these exercises can also be performed as part of a self-contained routine to promote muscle flexibility throughout the body. Older people or people who are unfit can benefit from incorporating some of these exercises into their day-to-day lives, rather than treating them as post-exercise routines.

People who lead a sedentary lifestyle and spend most of their time sitting down may also benefit from practising these exercises as a self-contained routine. Such people often have tight muscles in the back of their legs (hamstrings), tight muscles at the front of the hip (hip flexors) and tight chest muscles (pectorals).

Never force your body into a stretch; slowly relax your muscles into the stretch without making any bouncing or jerking movements. Each stretch can be held for as long as feels comfortable; aim for about 10 seconds at first. To increase flexibility, gradually work up to holding each stretch for 30 seconds or more. A good stretch can be pleasurable, but if you feel any discomfort or pain while stretching, slowly release the stretch and try it again on another day. For balance, ensure that each stretch is practised on both sides of the body.

When you stop exercising, your body temperature can drop rapidly, especially if you have been exercising outside, so make sure that you have an extra layer of warm clothing (such as a sweatshirt and sweat-pants) to wear while you are stretching.

The following stretches are sufficient to cool down the muscles after exercise. To expand your repertoire of stretches, you can also perform some warm-up exercises.

Back stretch 1

This stretches the latissimus dorsi muscles in the back.

1 Starting on your hands and knees, extend your arms forwards so that your back and outstretched arms form a straight line. Push your buttocks back; keep your knees at right angles.

2 Now move both hands to the right so you extend the stretch down your left side. Then move both hands to the left to extend the stretch down your right side.

Back stretch 2

This series of movements stretches the erectus spinae muscle in the lower part of the back.

1 Lie on your back, bringing your knees into your chest and wrapping your arms around the backs of your thighs, so you are hugging them. You should feel a stretching sensation in the lower back. You can do the following steps instead of or as well as this ‘leg hug’.

2 Lie on your back with the knees bent, the feet flat on the floor and the arms extended out to either side. Let your knees drop to one side, keeping your shoulders on the floor. Feel the twist in your lower back. Now drop the knees to the other side and feel the stretch.

3 When you are ready, place the soles of your feet together, so that your knees fall apart to either side. Now extend your arms above your head. Feel the stretch right down your trunk.

Side stretch 1

This exercise stretches the oblique abdominal muscles.

1 Sit in a cross-legged position with the spine vertical. Place one hand on the floor next to your buttock; extend the other arm over your head.

2 Now lean over, leading with the extended arm. Keep both buttocks on the floor; feel the stretch down your side. Repeat on the other side.

Side stretch 2

This exercise also stretches the oblique abdominal muscles.

1 Sit on the floor and extend your right leg in front of you. Put the left foot on the floor to the far side of the right knee. The left hand provides support.

2 Hug the left knee with the right arm and twist the body to the left. Keep the head aligned with the shoulders. Feel the stretch and change sides. To extend this stretch, twist your body round and look over your left shoulder. For support, turn your left hand around to point backwards.

Abdomen

This stretches the rectus abdominus

1 Lie on your front with your palms and forearms stretch, stick your chin out. To further increase resting on the floor. Slowly arch your back up so that you are looking forwards. Keep your hips on the floor and support yourself on your forearms.

2 Ease your whole body forwards until you feel muscles. A stretch down the abdomen. To increase the the stretch, come up on to your hands.

Buttocks

This stretches the large gluteal muscles in the buttocks.

1 Lying flat on your back, cross your right leg over your bent left leg. Reach between your legs and take hold of the back of the left thigh.

2 Now gently pull the left leg in towards you. Feel the stretch in the right buttock. Hold for 10 seconds or so and then change sides.

Front of legs

This stretches the quadriceps muscles at the front of the thighs.

1 Lie on your front, with your forehead resting on your right forearm. Reach behind with your left hand and take hold of the left ankle (or the back of your training shoe).

2 Ease the foot into the buttock and the left hip into the floor. Feel the stretch; lift the left knee to extend it. Change sides.

Extended inner leg

This stretches the adductor muscles on the insides of the thighs.

1 Sit upright with your back straight and the soles of your feet together. Place your hands behind your buttocks or rest your elbows on your thighs and then ease your thighs down. Lean forwards, keeping your back straight. Feel the stretch along the inner thighs.

2 Sit up and extend your legs so they are as wide apart as possible. With your hands behind you, lean forwards from the hips, keeping your back straight and your toes up. Feel the stretch.

3 When the tension eases, try to extend the stretch further. If you are quite supple, then extend the stretch further by grasping the feet, keeping the back straight and bending at the hips, not the back.

Extended hamstring stretch

This stretches the hamstring muscles at the backs of the thighs.

1 Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Bring your right knee as close as you can into the chest. Clasp your hands behind your bent knee and hold it there.

2 Extend the right leg and ease it towards your head, holding at the foot, ankle or calf. Relax the rest of the body and keep your head on the floor.

3 Point and flex the right foot and then keep it flexed as you ease the leg down. Feel the stretch down the back of the leg. Change sides.

Alternative hamstring stretch

You may prefer to stretch the hamstrings in a sitting position.

1 Extend the left leg in front of you and bend the right leg so that the right foot is close to the left knee and the right knee is on (or near) the floor.

2 Pull up so you are sitting tall. Ease your weight forwards from the hips and feel the stretch down the back of the left leg. If you are flexible, reach for the left foot, keeping the back flat. Change sides.

Full body stretch

Finish your cooling-down session with a full body stretch.

1 Stand up straight and then slowly bend over from the hips, so that your arms are hanging and your hands are touching (or nearly touching) the floor.

2 Slowly uncurl the body, starting from the spine. Come to a standing position. Keep your body relaxed; the only muscles that should be tense are the ones that are helping you to stand up.

3 Now slowly extend your arms above your head and clasp hands, knuckles down. Push up and feel a stretch through your entire body. Arch backwards and to each side to extend the stretch.

Calf

This stretches the Achilles tendon and the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles in the calves.

1 Put one foot in front of the other and bend the knee of the front leg, hands resting on the thigh.

2 With the back leg straight, push the heel into the floor. Feel the calf stretching. Change sides.