Anatomy of a Cool Down
By Dr. Lawrence Waters (PT, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F), O2X Injury Prevention Specialist
As tactical athletes, you aren’t afforded the opportunity to just do whatever you’d like, when it comes to training and performance goals. You need to have intent behind your actions. For some of you, what you do in the gym could mean life or death; for the rest of you it could mean years of happiness or years of disability and pain. With that in mind, let’s focus on the often overlooked cool down.
Why Cool Down is Important
The purpose behind a cool down is to return our body to a resting state gradually to reduce stress on our body systems and promote conditions for recovery, repair, and regrowth. How we cool down will vary based on what aspects of strength and conditioning we were developing in that Sweat session, but they should mirror the work we were doing during the Sweat portion of our training.
Since we’re interested in returning to homeostasis as quickly as possible without stressing out our body systems further, we’ll break this down into key points for the systems in play.
How Cool Down Affects our Bodies
From a cardiovascular standpoint we’re looking to progressively de-load the heart and lungs. We should switch to a mono synchronous exercise and slowly come to a stop. If we were out running, we might switch to a jog, then a walk. In the weight room a nice gentle row on the Concept 2 can have a similar effect. So long as we’re not increasing our heart rate and we’re letting it recover slowly, we’re getting the intended effect. When your heart rate and blood pressure have reached resting values, we can start focusing on other aspects of our physiology. Now would be a great time to replace the fluids we lost through sweat and exhalation. Water is best.
Cool Down Stretches
Next, you want to return our Musculoskeletal system to its ideal state. This is a wonderful opportunity to include static stretching, if that’s your preference. Slow dynamic stretching is also a wonderful technique at this point in your training. Reduce tension on your tendons by moving your joints through a full range of motion, while holding end positions and breathing deeply. The breathing exercises have an added benefit of restoring the Cardiovascular system, as well as down regulating our Nervous system.
5 Stretches to Perform for an Optimal Cool Down
Here are a few of my favorite stretches to perform that hit a variety of muscles. Feel free to add or remove things based on your specific needs.
- Back Foam Roll
- Lying supine with the roller under your shoulder blade, arms crossed in front of you,bend your knees to a hook lying position and bridge up, putting pressure on the roller.
- Using your legs, roll your back up and down the roller in broad smooth strokes.
- If you find a hot spot, pause on it and breathe deeply letting it melt. If it fails to resolve in 20 seconds, move on, the idea is to relax hot spots, not irritate them further.
- This is great for assisting you in relaxing the posterior chain that’s responsible for preventing flexion during most core lifts like the squat or deadlift.
- Glute Foam Roll
- Similar technique to the previous cool down move. Sit on the foam roller with one ankle crossed over your knee. Reach back with your arms to provide stability and lean towards the hip that has the foot on your contralateral knee.
- Roll back and forth for 60 seconds per side. If you find a hot spot, hold there, allowing it to melt away. If you fail to achieve relaxation, go ahead and move on.
- This is another posterior chain relaxation technique assisting you in relaxing your glutes and piriformis.
- Hip Stretch
- In a tall split kneeling position, brace your core and rock forward over your front foot. Your contralateral hip should extend, and you will feel a tight band crossing the front of your hip; this is your iliopsoas or primary hip flexor. Hold this stretch for 60-90 seconds per side. This can help reduce back pain from frequent extension.
- A common mistake includes overextending your spine – this occurs if you’ve failed to keep the core tight. Reset, keeping your ribs tucked down instead of flaring and attempt the stretch again. Another mistake is that you fail to extend at the hip because you are leaning your trunk forward. Get tall through the spine during the set up and keep your shoulders upright.
- Spinal Twist
- In the side lying position, hike both knees towards your chest so that your hips and knees are bent to 90 degrees each. Keep your knees together and extend your hands in front of you, touching your fingertips together. Now, open your arms like a book trying to touch your top arm and shoulder to the ground behind you. Cycle back between the start and end position for 60-90 seconds, about 8 reps.
- The most common mistake is allowing your knees to separate. This will cause your hips to rotate, and you will not achieve a stretch in the lumbar spine and low back. One fix is to place your bottom hand on top of your knees in the start position as a tactile cue.
- Prone Glute Stretch
- This is one of my favorite stretches. It really helps with opening up your hips, and promotes healthy spine rotation.
- In quadruped, bring your knee up to the hand of the same side and rotate your foot so that it crosses underneath your body and rests near the opposite hip or hand. Rock back feeling a stretch in the posterior hip of the knee that is forward.
- You can increase difficulty by coming down to your elbows or by reaching the opposite hand between your stable arm and hip and adding spinal rotation to the stretch. Cycle between or hold the initial position in a static stretch for 60-90 seconds, breathing deeply.
Finally, you’ll want to reset the stress levels in your nervous system. Take time to practice some of your favorite breathing exercises and wellness practices. Take a moment to meditate before moving on with your day. Assess where you are and how far you’ve come. The last thing you’ll do is fuel the body, optimizing your sugar and protein levels with a snack.