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By Kathleen McGuire
How to use rest to strengthen your body––without losing technique
When Elizabeth Hansen was offered an apprenticeship at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, she immediately kicked her training into high gear. Dancing six to eight hours a day at least six days a week had earned her a contract. So she signed up for a major competition, figuring that logging extra time in the studio over the summer would help prepare her for her first professional job. But a few weeks into the season that fall, she was diagnosed with a stress reaction in her right foot. “It wasn’t hard to connect the dots,” says Hansen, now at Joffrey Ballet. “It was a huge blow to have finally gotten what I’d worked so hard for, and then a couple of weeks in I had to stop.”
When it comes to training, more is not always better. Rest is so vital to performance that other professional athletes, like football, basketball and soccer players, have recovery periods built into their annual schedules to protect their bodies from the kind of injury Hansen experienced. Their system, called periodization, uses progressive degrees of training over the course of the year to achieve peak physical fitness when they need it most.
Justin Tatman, a certified athletic trainer who has worked with the Miami Dolphins and top-level college endurance athletes, explains that the sports world breaks up the year into four stages: During the post-season athletes take time for recovery; in the off-season they focus on building general muscle mass and strength; and in the pre-season strength-building becomes specific to their sport. This all prepares them for in-season, where they are competing at a high level and any training they do simply maintains the strength they’ve built.
Tailoring this program to a dancer’s schedule can increase your strength, boost your energy and help protect your body from the daily toll of dancing. Although athletes typically have at least two weeks for each stage, dancers can shorten the timetable to fit the post-season, off-season and pre-season sections into their summer layoff. Leigh Heflin, from the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, recommends this abbreviated schedule for a typical three-week layoff.
Take the first week of your break to completely rest: no dancing and no cross-training. Instead, use the time for body work, such as massage, icing and Epsom salt baths, says Heflin. And get as much sleep as your body craves—studies show that logging extra hours increases speed and coordination.
It may seem counterintuitive, but this time off will strengthen your body. Heflin explains that exercise creates micro-tears in our muscle fibers, and when we rest, our bodies are able to use the proteins we absorb through food to repair the torn muscles, making them stronger in the process. If micro-tears don’t recover, they can become macro-tears, leaving the body highly susceptible to overuse injuries like tendonitis, muscle strains or stress fractures.
If you’re worried that a week off is going to set you back, think again. Heflin says that it takes about two weeks without exercise to lose cardiovascular fitness, and as long as two months to lose muscular strength.
For the second week, experts suggest “active rest,” cross-training six days a week. The type of workouts you do depend on your personal goals: Heflin suggests yoga or Pilates for core stability; running, cycling or swimming for endurance; or weight-training for muscular strength. If you can, find a clinician to assess your fitness with a full body screening and design a personalized program to address your weaknesses. However, Heflin points out that almost all dancers need cardio training: Although most center phrases in a dance class are under three minutes, performances often call for much longer periods of sustained effort. “If you’re never training your body aerobically,” she explains, “you won’t be able to cope with the demands that performance is asking of you.”
During the week before your season starts, slowly make your way back to the studio with two or three classes. Start to decrease your cross-training, avoiding exercises that stress the same muscles as dance does on the days that you take class. Allow yourself to return to dance progressively, respecting your body’s limits—attempting too much too soon could lead to injury, undoing all the benefits you’ve gained from resting.
Back in Season:
As your dance demands ramp up, decrease your cross-training even further so that you don’t overload the body. Any workouts outside of the studio should focus on maintaining the strength you built during your layoff, or balancing out dance’s demands on the body with corrective exercises (see “Out of Whack?” on page 36). Avoid the gym completely during the week before performance: Rest as much as your rehearsal schedule allows, so that your body can replenish its depleted glycogen stores for optimum energy once you step onstage.
What Do You Do With Your Layoff?
”I take a few days off completely after a big performance, then a week or two away from dance, but going for yoga, swimming, Pilates, the elliptical or the bike. I try to strengthen whatever my weaknesses were while I was dancing. When I was younger I didn’t cross-train because I’m naturally muscle-bound, so I thought it was going to make my quads or my arms too big. But that’s just not the case.”
Braverman photo by Evan Guston, Courtesy Parsons.
Pacific Northwest Ballet
“If we have four weeks off over the summer, I take two and a half completely off from dance. Then I slowly come back into it, maybe taking a Monday, Wednesday, Friday class at first. My husband’s funny because I’ll say I have three weeks off, and he’ll be like, ‘How much time do you really have off?’ He’s gotten used to the routine. Once, we were in Hawaii for 10 days right up until the company came back. My husband took pictures of me doing a barre in our rented condo. I made sure I did some yoga on the beach or I swam. We walked around and hiked a lot, but there’s nothing like being in ballet shape.”
Imler in Jirí Kylián’s Forgotten Land. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.