What's the Best Way to Cool Down After Exercise?

Rose Hoonan Fact Checked
illustration of a man and woman stretching
Ada Love

As soon as you finish a workout, do you head straight to the shower? Grab a post-exercise snack? Not so fast. 

There’s one important activity that comes before you peel your sweaty sports bra off: a cooldown. 

Dr. Alison Putnam, a physician at the Sports Medicine Clinic at Ballard, explains why a cooldown is an essential part of your workout and how to effectively cool down after you exercise.

What is a cooldown?

A cooldown eases you out of your workout and allows your heart rate and breathing to gradually return to normal.

Think of your workout as if you’re driving fast on a highway, and you see a red light. Your cooldown is like you gradually braking for the red light: You’re easing your body out of high-intensity activity instead of abruptly ending it by braking at the last second.

Noted. Don’t slam on the brakes. But how does that translate to your specific workout?

“Cooling down basically means you’re doing the same activity with less intensity, for usually about five to 10 minutes,” says Putnam. 

For instance, if you just went for a run, cool down with a light jog or walk. A cooldown for a strength workout such as Pilates could include some yoga poses

The benefits of cooling down

Here’s why that post-workout walk or yoga sequence is worth your while.

“Cooling down reduces the amount of lactate in your blood. By getting the lactate out of your bloodstream faster, the thought process is that blood flow helps you recover faster,” says Putnam.

You know that muscle burn you feel when you finish that last set of lunges? That’s caused by lactate, an organic acid made by tissue and red blood cells, in your muscles. The lactate then travels into your bloodstream and — if you cool down after a workout — is quickly cleared out of your system. This fast-tracks your recovery, which means less time spent being sore after a workout.

“Both warmups and cooldowns can reduce delayed onset muscle soreness,” says Putnam. “We also think cooling down can actually prevent immune system depression after you do strenuous activity.”

Even more reason to cool down after a workout. 

How to cool down

To cool down, pick a low-intensity activity that is similar to the exercise you did for your workout. 

You can cool down after a swim workout with some easy laps, end a bike ride with a few minutes of light pedaling and cap off a weightlifting workout with some dynamic stretches

Other low-intensity cooldown activities include jogging, moving through some yoga poses or going for a short walk.

As you do your activity, think about whether or not you could hold a full conversation with someone — it should be that easy. Notice your heart rate slow down and take some deep breaths. Let your body relax and unwind from the hard work you just did. 

Once you’ve done five to 10 minutes of your low-intensity activity of choice, you can stretch.

Static stretch it out

While your body is still warm from your workout, consider doing some static stretches. 

“Static stretching is usually done as a part of a cool down,” says Putnam. “It’s not necessarily one and done, but it is one part of a cool down.”

That’s because static stretches — where you hold a stretch for 30 to 60 seconds at a time — are best performed when your muscles are warm, as opposed to when your body is stiff and cold before you’ve worked out.

What’s the benefit of static stretching?

“Regular stretching can increase your flexibility, which we think can improve your performance and decrease your risk of injury,” says Putnam.

(But don’t try ballistic stretching, where you stretch as far as you can, and then you “bounce” further than your muscle range is used to. Putnam says that it can increase muscle tension and potentially cause more harm than good.)

Three static stretches that she suggests incorporating into your cooldown routine:

Hamstring. Sit on the floor with one leg out straight. Bend the other leg at the knee and position the sole of that foot against your opposite inner thigh. Then, extend your arms and reach forward over your straight leg, bending at the waist. Go as far as you comfortably can (no stress if you can’t touch your toes). After 30 to 60 seconds, switch to your other leg.

illustration of a woman stretching her hamstring
Ada Love

Calf. Place your hands on a wall  and step one foot back into a small lunge, bending your front leg and keeping your back leg straight. Lean into the wall and press your back heel down so it's flat on the ground. After 30 to 60 seconds, repeat on the other side.

illustration of a woman stretching her calf
Ada Love

Arm. Bring your right arm across your chest. Place it in the crease of your left elbow and use your left hand to support your right arm. After 30 to 60 seconds, switch to the other arm.

illustration of a man stretching arms
Ada Love

Repeat each stretch three to five times and consider your cooldown complete. Your muscles will thank you.

Before starting a new exercise routine, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor — especially if you have any health conditions or are recovering from COVID-19.