How — and Why — to Design an Effective Cool-Down Routine

by Carla Henderson

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Are you guilty of finishing your run, giving your legs a two-second stretch and dashing inside without a proper cool-down?

Here’s why you should think twice about doing that: The calf muscles are like your second heart; they pump blood back up to the heart, where it needs to be. When you suddenly stop exercising, the calf pump slows down. Blood may stay in the legs too long, making you feel dizzy, or potentially even making you pass out. A proper cool-down helps prevent blood pooling, as well as restoring the body back to a lower-intensity state.

Many people skip cool-downs because they feel that the actual workout is more important, or they don’t have a cool-down routine. We’re going to help fix both of these limitations right now. Beyond blood pooling, why do we need to cool down?

There are four major reasons to cool down.

1. Redistribute Circulation

While you were working out, the working muscles demanded more oxygen. Your body re-distributed the blood flow to give the muscles the oxygen they needed to keep working. It took blood away from your organs (including your brain). Cooling down helps level the distribution so you can increase your brain’s focus on work or studies, and digest food properly.

This re-distribution also helps prevent blood pooling, and clears hydrogen ions and lactic acid that could make your muscles cramp.

2. Calm the Nervous System

During your run, your sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system took control. Great for running; not great for work or studying. Consider this: if your brain is in non-stop fight-or-flight mode while trying to work or study, how will this impact your concentration and communication with other people? Cooling down restores your parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous system, which is much better at focusing and engaging in inter-personal communication.

3. Rebalance Your Hormones

Running increases cortisol (your stress hormone). This is appropriate while you exercise. However, chronic cortisol elevation leads to difficulty sleeping, regulating sugar and salt cravings, and fighting off illnesses.

4. Restore Muscle Length-Tension Relationships

When you run, some muscles increase tone, and others decrease tone. Those with increased tone tighten up. Those with decreased tone appear more flexible. This is a wonderful adaptation to help you run your best. If left in this state long-term, however, muscle imbalances and compensations that lead to repetitive stress injuries emerge.

Now that we have insights on why cooling down is just as important as your run, let’s learn how to cool down.

What Makes a Good Cool-Down? 

  1. Make sure it’s 5-10 minutes long, and aim for 10-15 minutes if you’re in extremely cold or hot environments.
  2. It should feel like a 1-5 intensity on a scale of 1-10.
  3. It should bring your heart rate down to 100 beats per minute.
  4. You should be keeping your head above your heart.
  5. You should stay in motion.
  6. It should include all major joints and muscles.
  7. Include all directions: forward/backward, sideways, and rotation.
  8. Start with bigger motions, then work toward smaller motions.
  9. It may include static stretching.

Follow-Along Cool-Down:

Do each exercise 10-20 times, depending on how long you want your cool-down routine to be. Gradually slow down from rep to rep within each exercise.

  • Twist your torso side to side, allowing your trailing leg to rotate to follow the motion
  • Walking lunges
  • Air squats
  • Plie squats
  • Zombie walks (like a kick to the front that stretches your hamstrings)
  • Kick each foot toward your buttocks
  • Hug each knee to your chest
  • Do big arm circles forward, then backward
  • Slow Carioca (aka grapevine)
  • Slow side shuffles (get low)
  • Circle your shoulders back
  • Rotate your head from side to side

Finally, perform your favorite stretches for 30 seconds each. Try to include a stretch for your low back, hamstrings, quads, glutes, and calves.

Have a favorite move we left out? Feel free to sub it in, or add it in! If you have a favorite closing stretch with your head below your heart, save it for the very end (or at least until your heart rate is under 100 bpm); this reduces the risk of getting dizzy or passing out.

Next Steps

Don’t just follow this advice, feel it! Try the cool-down after your next run and open your senses to how your body feels during, after, and even the next day. Then, do your own experiment! On the next run, go back to your old cool-down (or absence of cool-down). Compare your sense on the day you cooled down versus the day that you didn’t. What did you find?

Finally, before you go, take a moment to save this cool-down routine so you can refer to it each day. Spread the love of cardio fitness by sharing it with a runner friend too.