This 15-minute routine is taken from the Yoga 15 Sports series.
The traditional model
The typical post-workout cool-down—even for many athletes at the highest level—involves a few minutes of low intensity exercise, followed by 5-10 minutes of basic static stretches that target the major muscle groups. Recent research however, has highlighted significant problems with pre- and post-exercise stretching, and refuted many previously reported claims about its efficacy.
Yoga, designed specifically for athletic recovery, offers a more nuanced and effective approach. This 15-minute routine is designed to ease you into recovery mode, with the ultimate aim of optimising your athletic performance. You can practice it after a run, strength workout, ride, surf, swim—any and all types of exercise.
Why should you ‘cool down’ after exercising?
Here are four reasons to pay attention to your recovery, specifically post-workout.
1. To calm the central nervous system.
When you exercise, your breathing and heart rate elevate to increase the supply of oxygenated blood and glucose to your muscles. Your body temperature rises, you start to sweat, the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol course through your veins and non-essential functions including digestion and reproduction are switched off. At the end of your session, all these physiological processes return to normal as you shift into recovery mode. The aim with the cool-down is to optimise this transition.
2. To restore proper postural alignment.
When you exercise, certain muscles have to work harder than others. Let's take cycling a an example. The main muscles required to generate strength, speed, and power on the bike are the quads, hip flexors, glutes, hamstrings, calves and the muscles in your feet. The more you contract these muscles, the tighter they become. You’ll also find that the muscles in your upper back, shoulders, forearms, hands and neck tighten up from gripping onto the handlebars.
If you don’t stretch out these muscles, over time, imbalances will develop that can lead to debilitating aches and pains, especially in the lower back, neck, and shoulders.
3. Restoration of muscle length.
Here is a quote from legendary Russian powerlifter, Alexander Faleev that explains the importance of stretching, specifically when it comes to building strength.
“When you lift a weight your muscles contract. And after the workout, the muscles remain contracted for some time. The following restoration of the muscles’ length is what recovery is. Until the muscle has restored its length, it has not recovered. Hence he who does not stretch his muscles slows down the recuperation process and retards his gains. If the muscle forgets how to lengthen, it will contract more poorly. And that is stagnation of strength.”
One of the main objectives in the cool-down is to stretch out tight muscles, to restore their ability to work optimally the next time you workout.
4. Bring suppleness back to the body.
All sports require limited range of motion at certain joints and muscles. This may lead to tightness, especially in the shoulders, mid-back, hips, knees and ankles. In the cool-down, you want to move your joints through full range of motion to ensure that you don’t lose that mobility.
Why is yoga effective post-exercise?
As I mentioned in the intro, stretching has been proven to have some inherent problems. Yoga however, offers a more multi-dimensional and effective approach.
In the traditional model, the tendency when you finish exercising is to move through a prescribed set of static stretches, and—without giving it your full attention—try to force the muscles to lengthen. Unfortunately, wrestling with your body in this way is counter-productive. In the cool-down, our objective is to transition into the optimal state for repair and restoration, not to cause further stress.
Here are some features of yoga that make it ideal for athletic recovery:
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 holds. In yoga, we combine dynamic and static stretching, to mobilise 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.
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 riding is 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 get the most out of this routine
- Focus. Bring your full attention to the routine. This is crucial.
- Breathe. Throughout the sequence, try to synchronise your breath with movement to reinforce a sense of calm.
- Control. Maintain complete control as you're moving through the poses. Be intentional with every movement.
- Relax. When you come to a static stretch, relax into it. Breathe and release.
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. Keep in mind throughout the sequence, that 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 your flexibility but to skilfully ease into recovery mode—re-integrating all aspects of your body and mind.
If you have an injury, please don’t be tempted to stretch the affected area and strain damaged muscle fibres 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.
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