The perfect pair ... warm-up and cool-down
Posted: Apr 16 2020
We couldn’t write a blog post about warming-up, without following with a post about cooling-down. We’ve all been there; it’s the end of class and the teacher or choreographer says “do your own cool-down”… and we all turn around and head straight out of the door, back to our dinner and a hot shower. But I think we can all agree that we regret it the next day when we wake up feeling achy and lethargic, with heavy muscles and lots of knots. So, how can we cool-down properly and why is it so important?
Why is cool-down important?
A cool-down is all about slowly helping your body to return to a ‘normal’ state. During dance your body is working at an elevated level, with your heart beating faster, muscles on overtime and nerves firing efficiently. If your body were on high alert like this all the time, then you wouldn’t be able to function normally, and you’d be totally exhausted. So, a cool-down helps to return your body to a more relaxed state.
During anaerobic exercise (which you will likely be doing at many points during any dance class) lactic acid collects in the muscles creating that burning sensation you sometimes get (followed by that heavy, leaden feeling afterwards). Cooling-down properly helps to break down this lactic acid, which in turn reduces inflammation and helps your muscles to recover better after exercise. Without a proper cool-down our muscles also get tighter and less flexible. You’re then not dancing at your best and even worse, you might get injured. All dancers want to be flexible and healthy, and a proper cool-down is the best way to achieve this.
If you want to read a more ‘sciency’ article about lactic acid then try this one: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-does-lactic-acid-buil/
Remember that by clicking on a link you will navigate away from our website.
So what should a cool-down include?
Firstly, you need to help your body return to a more relaxed state by slowing your heart rate back to normal. This cannot be achieved by just sitting down or stopping, as the blood will still be pumping around your body and may even pool in your legs, making you feel light-headed. The best way to avoid this is to keep moving but slowly reduce the pace over time. Take two minutes to wind-down this way, either by walking around the space at a decreasing speed, or by going back to the yoga sequence you did to warm-up. It’s basically the backwards version of what you did to get your heart rate up in the first place!
Secondly, you need to stretch out your muscles to keep them flexible and to help break down that lactic acid mentioned above. So, now is the time for your static stretching...
We’re going to recommend passive stretching here, which is where you relax into a stretch using your own body-weight and slowly sink into it to help lengthen the muscles. If you're stretching just to cool-down then 30 seconds in each stretch should be enough, however if you're stretching for flexibility then did you know that it only works if you hold for more than 1 minute? But also, did you know it is pointless to continue after 2 minutes as you have achieved the full stretch that you can by this point. That’s right! Those of you who sit in a stretch for 10 minutes are totally wasting 8 minutes of your life.
For the most effective stretching you should also focus on deep breathing, as this will not only aid in slowing your heart rate but will also help you to relax further into your stretch by accessing your parasympathetic nervous system. This is super important because when we stretch a muscle it responds by contracting. This is an inbuilt stretch-reflex designed to protect us, but it doesn’t help if we actually want to lengthen a muscle! By breathing deeply we can access the parasympathetic nervous system and in turn convince our muscles to relax, thus allowing them to be stretched. To learn more about how deep breathing can help you relax, you might want to read this article: https://www.thecut.com/2018/12/what-deep-breathing-does-to-your-body.html
We’ll also discuss stretching and flexibility in more detail in our next blog post.
The main muscles to stretch are:
Calves (higher - with a straight knee)
Calves (lower - with a bent knee)
Inner thighs (i.e. second position)
So far, if you're doing 30 seconds on each stretch then that's only 8 minutes of stretching, and if you're stretching for flexibility (1 minute on each) then that's 16 minutes of stretching.
Of course the list could go on forever, so it depends which muscles you've worked hardest in that class, and how much time you've realistically got. For a great video of ballet stretches try following this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_CtYzmM3C0 and if you're stretching for flexibility then we recommend holding each of these stretches for 1 to 2 minutes.
Finally, if your muscles are tired and you’re prone to knots, then finish up with some massage using either your hands or a ball (e.g. a golf ball is good for the calves, whereas a tennis ball is great for your back or glutes) or a foam roller (foam rollers are amazing for the legs). Massage will help blood flow to your muscles to help them repair. This is really important for helping to reduce soreness in your muscles the next day. It is also worth repeating the massage at the end of the day, before bed. Don’t forget your feet, as they have worked super hard too!
So that's 2 minutes to slow your heart rate, 16 minutes to stretch, and then let's say 7 minutes of massage. That's a 25 minute cool-down (or 17 minutes if you're doing shorter stretches). So for the benefit of your health and performance, those of you who have been doing a quick 5 minute stretch, you might want to re-think your cool-down routine!
If you're short on time
If you're short on time how about taking 2 minutes to slow your heart rate, followed by 3 minutes of massage on the most important areas: your calves, quads, hamstrings and glutes. Then you can do your stretching before bed, which is as effective as after class, as we'll discuss further in our next blog post.
What do the professionals say?
To get some professional advice we spoke to Tasha Danischewsky, who is a physiotherapist at Addenbrookes hospital in Cambridge. She agreed that a proper cool-down is absolutely essential for maintaining health and flexibility, and for reducing the risk of injury. On the subject of massage and foam rollers she added that “Using a foam roller is extremely useful before or after dancing as it’s a form of soft tissue or myofascial release. Rolling through your muscles essentially ‘reorganises’ the muscle fibres to help them form more uniformly, and it can give you a really nice ‘lifted’ feeling afterwards, like you’re walking on air.” Tasha recommends using a coke bottle with a towel round it, or a golf ball, if you don’t have a foam roller.
Is it really worth the bother?
We’ve spoken dance students and professionals, and the response is mixed. Dan Baines, from Rambert, has a lengthy cool-down routine; he uses his cycle ride home as the cool-down for his heart, then he takes a hot shower and rolls and stretches out his muscles afterwards. He advises that tired legs will also benefit from being up against the wall for a while to ‘drain them out’. We like the sound of this trick, Dan, and we’re going to give it a go!
Chris Cumming (30), who is a musical theatre director in London, says that he always does a cool-down and stretches after any class, performance or workout. However, most dance students that we spoke to admitted that they don’t always bother to cool-down, though they always pay the price the next day.
What if I've got another class?
If you've got another class then you actually want your body to stay warmed-up. Your body will remain in a warmed-up state for up to 30 minutes after class, so a short break between classes is fine and you needn't bother doing a full cool-down, though a little bit of massage wouldn't go amiss if you're feeling sore or tight. However, if you've got a break longer than 30 minutes then you'll need to do a proper cool-down after class and then a full warm-up again before your next class.
So, the final message...
A proper cool-down is the perfect partner for your proper warm-up. It's the best way to stay fit and healthy and keep you dancing your best. For the full shebang you need to give over an extra 25 minutes or so of your time at the end of class, or if you're really in a rush then at least allow yourself 5 minutes ... can you really find any good excuse not to?
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