Complaints of fatigue and aches are common among dancers, who often pack muscle rollers, bands, yoga blocks, and similar items in their bags to help with recovery. While these items are helpful to relieve pain after-the-fact, how can dancers prevent overuse injuries, inflammation, and other general aches that last well after dancing and teaching?
Appropriate Warm Ups, Stretching, and Conditioning
One size does not fit all; many dancers, especially school-aged students, are cross training. Soccer, track, and many other running sports are said to be counter-productive to dance in some ways (e.g. tightening the hamstring muscles), but tend to assist dance in others (building strength and endurance).
Most dancers get their warm up and stretching in class (usually 15-20 minutes in a one hour class, and hopefully more for longer classes). While many of these classes include some form of abdominal or core work, ensuring a full hour of conditioning class on a weekly basis is crucial to the professional and recreational dancer alike.
All forms of professional athletes have a conditioning regimen to enhance their performance, and dancers need the same. Specialized conditioning will help dancers in all disciplines, just as weight training and other activities help other athletes. There are many free online resources, such as Pilates or yoga classes for dancers on Instagram and YouTube. Train like a Ballerina on Instagram has a lot of great conditioning resources, as well.
Of course, a dancer can do all the right things when it comes to warming up, stretching, and conditioning, and still injure themselves because they aren’t giving themselves enough rest. It’s not uncommon for individuals to work themselves so hard that when they finally do rest, they create scarring in their muscles through micro tears. Dancing five hours a day or longer is linked to an increase in these types of injuries. One to two days off after high-intensity activity is recommended for optimal performance and recovery.
Almost every measure of performance decreases with as little as a 2% drop in hydration. Endurance, strength, speed, and power are incredibly important and staying hydrated will ensure proper muscle function, blood pressure, and circulation while training and performing. If muscles aren’t properly hydrated, muscle fatigue sets in much earlier, increasing the risk for injury and aches. The daily recommended water intake for athletes (like dancers) is about one ounce of water per pound of body weight. This is also expressed as a percentage of water weight lost (2%). This means a 100 pound athlete should lose no more than two pounds during a workout. While this is hard to measure each day, a good rule of thumb is to take four to six large gulps of water for every 15 minutes of exercise, and heavily hydrate afterward. Sports drinks are not recommended for hydration as they have a high sugar content, but electrolytes are important for replenishing, therefore proper snacks or drinks are important.
There’s a strong correlation between what we eat and our athletic performance and recovery. A whole foods plant based (WFPB) diet is the answer for many, with little to no processed foods, meats, dairy, and oils. It is low in saturated fat, free of cholesterol, and helps blood flow, which allows more oxygen to reach muscles. This not only improves athletic performance, but prevents fatigue, aches, and pains dancers can experience during and after exertion.
One of the most profound examples of increased athletic performance can be found in the WFPB documentary, Game Changers. This documentary depicts the recovery of an award-winning mixed martial artist, James Wilks, who had badly injured his knee in a fight and undergone surgery. Soon after, he adopted this WFPB diet. Not only was he able to return to his original pre-surgery stamina, he was able to obliterate prior personal records in his gym. Prior to this new diet, Wilks topped out at eight minutes on an exercise called battle ropes. Two months after he adopted this diet, he was able to continue this exercise for over sixty minutes.
Do dancers need to give up meat to prevent aches? Absolutely not. However, incorporating the right foods into one’s diet on a daily basis is known to significantly improve quality of life for the average person, let alone athlete. For more information, consider consuming a serving of each of Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen seen below, which can also be tracked on a phone app. Each of these foods are considered part of the WFPB diet.
Dancers can use exercise bands, muscle rollers, compression gear, and more to ease aches and pains after exertion, but optimal performance and function can be achieved through prevention. Consider adding a conditioning class to your weekly routine, or adding one to your studio schedule, ensure regular hydration even prior to exercise, and consider adding as many of the “Daily Dozen” items to your diet as you can. A sprinkling of flax seeds, nuts, or fruit in cereal hits quite a few areas in one meal. Happy dancing!