“Why do I train? Because muscles are strength… muscles are power… muscles are your heart beating…your ribcage expanding with every breath you take.” ~ Cameron Diaz, THE BODY BOOK
We’re spoilt for choice when it comes to fun and creative ways to work out. If the gym isn’t your thing, there are a dizzying array of classes you can sign up to, from Stiletto Fitness to Ballet Boxing, Naked Yoga and Cycling Karaoke. And if you don’t have time to fit an hour-long session into your work day, there’s almost certainly a high-intensity version you can download onto your phone to squeeze in at lunchtime.
Your Body on Exercise
When you workout, your breathing and heart rate elevate to increase the supply of oxygenated blood and glucose to your muscles. For each different type of exercise, certain muscles have to work harder than others. Let’s take cycling as an example.
The main muscles required to generate strength, speed and power on the bike are your quads, hip flexors, glutes, hamstrings and the muscles in your feet. The more you contract these muscles, the tighter they become. You may also notice that the muscles in your upper back, shoulders, neck and forearms tighten up as you grip onto the handlebars.
When you finish your session, your breathing, heart rate and body temperature return to normal as you transition into recovery mode. At this point, you also need to release tension from the muscles that have become tight, so that your body can return to a balanced postural alignment.
If you don’t stretch out these muscles, over time, imbalances can develop that may lead to aches and pains, especially in the lower back, neck and shoulders.
Working Out and Working In
The typical post-workout cool-down involves a few minutes of low intensity exercise, like jogging or walking, followed by some basic static stretches that target the major muscle groups. Unfortunately, this approach can be counter-productive. If you finish a workout and and try to race through 5 minutes of stretching so that you can get back to work on time or beat the traffic home, instead of releasing tension in your muscles you’re more likely to increase to the tightness.
Our objectives for the cool-down are to:
- • Calm down the central nervous system
- • Stretch out tight muscles
- • Bring suppleness back to the body
- • Re-balance postural alignment
- • Reduce aches and pains
- • Prevent injury
- • Improve posture
- • Boost energy
Yoga to the Rescue
Yoga is a perfect way to cool down after a workout as it works on many different levels.
1 // Combining strength with flexibility. In yoga, we simultaneously lengthen and strengthen muscles. This restores balance to the body rather than exacerbating existing areas of strength and weakness.
2 // Alternating movement and stillness. In yoga, we combine dynamic and static stretching, to mobilize and restore suppleness to the body.
3// Complexity. Yoga poses engage and stretch multiple groups of muscles simultaneously, instead of targeting the same few muscles over and over.
4 // Focus on the breath. Deepening the breath transitions the central nervous system from sympathetic to parasympathetic mode—the natural state for rest and recovery. Throughout the sequence, try to synchronize your breath with movement to reinforce this sense of calm. Relax into the stretch. Breathe and release.
5 // Awareness. You can use this as an opportunity to notice areas where you feel particularly tight. This will give you clarity around how your workouts are affecting your body so that you can work towards restoring balance.
6 // Proper alignment. In yoga, we pay special attention to your alignment in the poses. Poor alignment can exacerbate dysfunctional postural patterns and even cause injury. Practice in front of a mirror if you can.
How to Approach This Routine
Try to maintain a sense of control, awareness and relaxation throughout the sequence.
As you take your first few deep breaths—in and out through your nose, deep into your abdomen—pay attention to how this affects your physiology. Notice as your heart rate drops and your body relaxes. Flow through the poses confidently, focussing on how every part of your body feels. Your aim is to restore suppleness and ease of movement to your body.
Be careful not to over-stretch and risk tearing a muscle. The aim is not to increase flexibility but to skillfully ease into recovery mode—re-integrating all aspects of your body and mind.
If you have an injury, don’t be tempted to stretch the affected area and strain damaged muscle fibers and connective tissues as they try to repair themselves. Work closely with your doctor or physical therapist to ascertain the best approach for your rehabilitation.
15-Minute Post-Workout Cool-down
More from Abi:
ABI CARVER designs 15-minute yoga routines to improve flexibility, strength and balance, de-stress and ease aches and pains. Her videos are available to download from her site www.yoga15.com. Follow her on Instagram @yoga15abi for more yoga tips, tricks and inspiration.
Photo credit: Hugo Pettit