The clock strikes 8:03 a.m., but the bubbly fitness instructor doesn't look like she's making her way to dim the lights or soften the music anytime soon. Instead, she chirps, "We've got one more song!"—tacking on at least another five minutes to a class that's already running over time.
No matter how invigorating a workout is, life goes on outside the gym, and who can afford to be late to work? So what to do: Grin and bear it and hope that strolling into a 9 a.m. meeting without showering goes unnoticed, or silently slip out of class before the cool down and stretch?
If you decide a shower is non-negotiable and that ducking out of class early is the only option, you could be missing what some argue is the most important aspect of the workout: Stretching and bringing your heart rate back down to a normal level.
But despite what your trainer might say, not everyone accepts the final stretch as a crucial component of exercise. There are so many myths floating out in the ether about stretching, and the real impacts of this confusing aspect of sports conditioning are constantly under examination from researchers and athletes alike.
Currently, the consensus on dynamic and static stretching is that it needs to happen roughly twice a week for about 15 minutes. But that doesn't mean it needs to be done before, or even directly after, a workout.
Stretching before a workout won't allay muscle soreness and it won't keep injuries at bay. In fact, you're better off saving that runners' lunge for later. Instead of sliding into the splits before taking off on a morning jog, it's better to gently warm up the muscles with smaller movements like walking lunges, butt kicks, or even a light jog.
As for stretching immediately after a workout, it's not necessary for muscle repair, but it is a great time to get loose, since muscles and tendons will already be warm and limber. This makes it easier to sink deeper into stretches without getting hurt.
Stretching won't technically make muscles longer or "less bulky", but it can increase range of motion and in turn help tight muscles release. Greater range of motion can mean lots of movements will become easier for athletes, from lifting heavy weights overhead to sprinting down the track—which could mean better athletic performance in general.
So if leaving a class before the stretch is tempting, go for it. Just make sure to get in two 15-minute stretch sessions during the week.
What about that heart rate thing? When you step out of a high intensity class, chances are your heart is working pretty hard and needs a bit of time to settle and recover. If you can walk for a few minutes, either to the subway or to the car, do. A short cool down walk will naturally and safely bring the heart rate down to a normal pace.
Pretty much the worst thing to do after you peace out early from a workout class is sit in the car for longer than five minutes—sitting stagnant tightens up the back, hips, and glutes, all of which can turn into injury or chronic pain. So if a long commute follows a sweat session, try to squeeze in the three-minute cool down at the end of class. Your body will thank you in the long run!
When push comes to shove, leaving class early to make it to work or an appointment on time isn't the worst thing in the world, but you'll get the most out of stretching, and a smoother recovery, if you stick it out through the end of the workout.
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