A few months ago, an intense class full of lunges left my leg throbbing. The next day, I was still sore, but feeling stir-crazy, I went for a walk. The activity seemed to loosen up my muscles, and I was able to return to my normal routine in the studio later that afternoon. So when my calves were sore later, I tried the same thing. But after walking, the muscles hurt even more, and I ended up sidelined for two more days before I was able to dance again.
I was baffled. I wondered: Am I misreading the sore signs? How do you know when sore is too sore to continue your regular routine? Dancers are accustomed to pushing themselves, even when they're in pain. But it's essential to understand the difference between soreness that allows you to “keep calm and carry on" and soreness that needs to be nursed—as well as distinguished from injury! “Without adequate recovery time from soreness, the body won't be as efficient as possible," explains Jenna M. Calo, a physical therapist at Body Dynamics, Inc., in Virginia. “This can lead to compensations, which then lead to overuse injuries, fatigue and decreased performance ability."
“Soreness is one of nature's defense mechanisms," adds Susan Kinney, physical therapist and owner of on-site clinics at Boston Ballet School and other conservatories. “It's a signal that you need to rest or slow down."
Turns out, my confusion between the two situations was understandable: Not only are there different types of soreness, but the subject is still developing as new research rolls in.
In my case, the culprit of my intense calf pain was delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This happens after you've performed strenuous exercise the body isn't used to, such as a more difficult class or new choreography. It typically sets in 24 hours after the activity and peaks between 24 and 48 hours.
There are a variety of theories about what causes DOMS, and it continues to be researched. “However," says Calo, “the general theory is that of microscopic muscle damage, and the delay in pain has to do with the repair process and the body's response to it."
Alternatively, acute muscle soreness is what you might regularly feel during your normal hard work in class. “It occurs during exercise and is caused by a lack of blood flow and oxygen and a temporary build-up of metabolites in the muscle," explains Calo. “This leads to the burning and fatigue sensation, which ends quickly after the movement ends."
What is Normal?
During and after a challenging class or rehearsal, it's perfectly healthy for muscles to feel stiff and tender for up to 72 hours, and experience an increase in soreness when you're actively using those muscles. If you're experiencing acute muscle soreness or moderate DOMS, you may be able to alleviate the pain by massaging the area with a tennis ball or roller, gently stretching, going for a walk or taking contrast baths. It's safe to dance—just be honest with yourself if you need to pull back in class and modify some movements.
If you're still aching after 72 hours, or you're experiencing muscle weakness (you're fatiguing far faster than normal), you may have overtrained. “Overtraining is when the volume and intensity of dance exceeds recovery capacity," explains Calo. That means you've worked your muscles so hard that they stop making progress—and might even begin to get weaker. Remember: Your muscles gain strength when they recover, repairing the micro-tears caused by exercise. If you work so hard that your muscles don't have time for adequate recovery, they won't be able to grow stronger. “Typically the biggest sign of overtraining is chronic fatigue and not being able to get through the normal workload," says Calo. “There are many factors that can influence this, including nutrition." If you overtrained, take a step back from your regular dance schedule to let your muscles repair. Don't try anything more strenuous than low intensity activities, such as gentle stretching or using the elliptical.
You also need to rest if you're experiencing traumatic strain, an injury which shouldn't be confused with soreness. “Traumatic strain means something acutely occurred, like a fall, a twist of an ankle or a collision, as opposed to soreness that just came on gradually over time," says Calo. If there was a specific moment you can pinpoint when something went wrong, consult your doctor.
Also, pay attention to the location of the soreness. “True muscular soreness will be in the muscle belly or where the muscle meets the tendon," says Calo. If the pain is in the tendon, where the muscle attaches to the bone, you may need to have it checked out by a physical therapist.
Dancing After You Overdid It
Of course, dancers are eager to get back in the studio. But if you've overtrained or strained a muscle, returning to class needs to be gradual as your muscles repair. Start with a warm-up, and then check in with your body: If you're still in pain, pushing further could lead to injury. Jennifer Janowski, a physical therapist for Athletico Physical Therapy who works with the Joffrey Ballet, says, “Anytime your body gives you significant pain signals, you must stop and rest."
Even if you get through warm-up, she recommends trying just half the non-jumping combinations in class your first time back in the studio. “If your body can handle that, gradually add more repetitions and add in jumping," she says. “As long as you're not getting more sore or find yourself compensating, you can slowly add more activity."
Strengthen to Avoid Overtraining
By strengthening your body, you can increase muscular performance during an important rehearsal period. The best way to do that? Incorporate eccentric and plyometric training exercises into your conditioning program.
Eccentric Activity: This works the muscle while it's lengthened—and is when the muscle is most challenged. For example, when you're coming down from élevé, the calf muscles lengthen while simultaneously contracting to control the descent.
Try this: Push-ups, squats and calf raises, where you move slowly on the descent.
Plyometric Exercises: Also called “jump training," these drills, where the muscles suddenly exert maximum force, increase power and neuromuscular control by quickly contracting and lengthening the muscles.
Try this: Jumping up to knee-height level (see example at right).
Tip: If you're in the middle of an intense season, Jenna M. Calo, a physical therapist at Body Dynamics, Inc., in Virginia recommends wearing compression sleeves on your calves during breaks. This will counteract soft-tissue inflammation and allow for faster recovery between performances.
Top photo by Thinkstock. Exercises of Ballet Academy East's Petra Love shot by Taylor-Ferne Morris. Tip photo courtesy Zensah.