Taking the time to cool down after a great exercise session, game or other activity is important for recovery and allows time to discuss accomplishments, provide feedback, set future goals and assign homework that youth can do on their own.
During the cool-down period, isometric or light ballistic stretching begins to lower the heart rate, improves flexibility and will speed up recovery from the workout. However, stretching is probably the least favorite activity for kids. It takes time, it’s uncomfortable and requires patience Yet we can’t discount the importance of this fitness component. Instead, we must find ways to make the cool-down stretches for kids more enjoyable by using props, counting, adding in discussion and asking questions.
Adding a mix of isometric and light ballistic stretches is great for variety. Isometric stretches are held in place with no movement, such as a calf or butterfly stretch. Light ballistic stretches are performed through a small range of motion to lengthen the muscles for a two- to three-second hold and then release and repeat, such as a sit-and-reach for the hamstrings or trunk twist for the lower back.It’s best to perform more isometric stretches after a functional training workout and more ballistic stretches at the start of a workout (after warming up first). However, due to the often-shortened attention span of youth during the cool-down period, you can add a few of them together at the end.
Some key reminders during stretching are to breathe normally and to feel a gentle pull but not pain through each movement. Each stretch should be repeated two to three times and held for at least 15 seconds. Light ballistic stretches can be held for a count of two to three seconds and repeated 10 times total. Giving kids the responsibility to count during each stretch keeps them focused and allows them to keep pace. Have them take turns with two in the middle to lead the stretches and the rest in a circle to follow along.
Use this time to recap and provide feedback to the kids about the workout and their accomplishments. Discuss future goals and homework to do afterward for a faster recovery, such as drinking water, eating a healthy snack or meal within the hour after the workout, and doing some light activity the next day to help get rid of sore and stiff muscles.
Pick five to six different stretches after each workout and add in new stretches often to keep it fresh. Once they get into a routine of cool-down stretches, it will become a healthy habit they maintain after every workout.
Here is an example of a typical cool-down stretching routine. I use a Theraband prop for one of the stretches to add variety and assistance.
1. Seated hamstring stretch with Theraband: Isometric stretch for the hamstrings and calves
2. Sit-and-reach: Light ballistic stretch for the hamstrings and calves
3. Standing quadriceps stretch: Isometric stretch for the quadriceps and hip flexor
4. One leg up push-up: Light ballistic stretch for the hip flexors and glutes
5. Lying trunk twist: Light ballistic stretch for the lower back
6. Seated figure 4: Isometric stretch for the hips and glutes
Seated hamstring stretch with Theraband: Sit on the floor with the torso tall and legs fully extended in front of the body. Wrap the Theraband around the middle of both feet and hold and end of the band in each hand. Pull the body closer to the feet by pulling the Theraband and bringing the chest closer to the knees and the hands closer to the feet. Hold this position for 15 seconds, release and repeat two to three more times.
Sit and reach: Sit on the floor with the torso tall and legs fully extended in front of the body. Reach for the toes with your fingers by stretching forward and keeping your back as straight as possible. Hold the deepest stretch position for one to two seconds and then release and come back to the starting position. Repeat this movement and reach for the toes again and hold. Repeat this stretch and release combination for 10 to 15 repetitions.
Standing quadriceps stretch: Standing up tall, use a wall or partner for balance. Grab your left foot with your left hand behind the body and bring your left heel up toward your glutes. Keep your left knee close and in line with your right knee as much as possible and hold for 15 seconds. Switch to your right leg and repeat the same stretch. Alternate between legs for two to three sets.
One leg up push-ups: Begin in a push-up position. Bring your left foot even to the outside of your left hand. Use both hands to support your weight and gently bend the elbows to mimic a short push-up, allowing the hips to drop slightly closer to the floor during each push-up lowering. Repeat 10 to 15 mini push-ups while keeping the right leg long and straight to lengthen the hip flexors, glutes and hamstrings. Switch sides by bringing the left foot back to the starting position and the right foot even to the outside of the right hand.
Lying trunk twist: Lie on your back and bring both knees to a 90-degree bend off the floor. Keep the low back pressed to the floor and the abdominals contracted. Slowly lower both knees to the right and let them rest on the floor for two to three seconds, then lift both legs across the body to the left and rest for two to three seconds. Continue to rotate the knees left and right for 10 to 15 repetitions.
Seated figure 4: Begin in a seated position on the floor. Use the hands to support the body by placing them behind the shoulders on the ground. Bend your right knee and place your right foot flat on the floor. Place your left ankle across your right knee while rotating your left knee open to the sky. Try to keep an upright, yet slightly leaned back posture to feel the stretch in the left hip. Hold for 15 seconds and repeat on the right hip. Alternate back and forth from right to left for two to three sets.
Have fun learning these stretches and feel the benefits of your cool-down period!