How to Cross Train for Dance

As a teenager growing up dancing in the 90s and early 2000s in a small city in New Zealand, I don’t think the words ‘cross training’ ever passed my ears. Now, many years later, cross training has become an important of my regular training.

So what is cross training?

Cross training is training in other styles of movement that will assist and improve your dance. Things like yoga or pilates may spring to mind straight away, but cross training is about more than that.

Why should I cross train?

A regular dance class is a fantastic way to build your dance knowledge and prepare your body – for dance. But if we only train our bodies in one way, then we’re only working one set of muscles. Those of you who have done ballet will know that you almost never work in parallel. Ballet makes your turn out muscles strong but neglects the muscles that strengthen your turn in – and both are important.

Cross training can not only strengthen other groups of muscles, it is also a great way to build your cardiovascular fitness. Since regular dance classes do not sufficiently elevate your heart rate to increase cardiovascular stamina, cross training can help you increase your stamina so that you’ll last longer when you are dancing and have more power and energy to draw on in those big virtuoso movements. Research has shown that cross training can also reduce muscle fatigue, lowering your chance of injury. If you are on a break from dancing over the summer it can also be a great way to stay in shape while your classes are on holiday.

How do I cross train?

There are lots of different ways to cross train and you need to consider a couple of things. Firstly, what types of physical activity do you enjoy doing? And secondly, what weaknesses do you want to address?  Here are a few options that you might like to consider:

Pilates

Pilates is a great way for dancers to cross train, and one of my favourites. With its focus on core strength it is a great way to strengthen the body and increase the stability and strength of your core – something that is super important for all dancers. Many dance studios provide mat based pilates classes that are customised for dancers, but don’t be afraid to visit a regular pilates studio. Many pilates instructors have experience working with dancers and working one on one with an instructor can be a great way to get targeted feedback – it can be expensive though. For those on a tighter budget, most libraries have a range of pilates books and DVDs which can provide a great introduction.

Yoga

Yoga is another great way to condition your body. I particularly like the focus on breath, as this is such a core part of movement that is often neglected in dance teaching. Yoga not only lengthens and strengthens your muscles, but the focus on the intrinsic muscles in your feet is great for developing stability and balance when on pointe or demipointe.

Swimming

Swimming is probably one of the most effective ways to cross train. Being in the water removes the effects of gravity on your joints, lessening the impact of movement, actually it’s zero-impact. This makes it an ideal form of movement for those recovering from injury.  Not only does it use your whole body, it is also a fantastic cardio workout and great for increasing stamina.

Running

Running has long been a point of contention in the dance world. The main issue is that running turned out is extremely bad for the knees. The constant pounding on the joints can also be damaging for dancers. That said, running can still be beneficial for dancers. Dancers are typically sprinters – the types of movement they are used to are short bursts of intense anaerobic energy, so running can feel quite different. I still personally enjoy the sense of freedom I get from running, but I prefer to keep it to the warm up period of a work out – no more than 10 minutes and usually on a treadmill. If you’re keen on running, go ahead and give it a go it’s a great way to build cardiovascular fitness, just make sure those feet are pointing straight ahead!

Strength Training

Strength training is also known as weight lifting, but that doesn’t mean you should steer clear. Quite the opposite – it’s a great way to build strength. You can do this either using exercises that use your own body weight – think plank, push ups etc. or using free weights or gym machines. Lifting a heavier weight for a smaller number of repetitions will help build strength without adding muscle bulk. Plus it’s a great way to target specific muscle groups. I’ve found this particularly useful for building my upper body strength for contemporary.

Aerobics/Gymnastics

Aerobics or gymnastics are also great supplements to dance training. Aerobics will help build core strength and cardiovascular stamina, while gymnastics helps to increase flexibility and upper body and core strength.

A few important things to remember:

Listen to your body – if something doesn’t feel right, or you’re feeling more muscle fatigue than usual, stop and seek professional advice.

Wear the right gear – supportive shoes for running or going to the gym are really important as they protect your feet and reduce impact. If you are going to be doing these activities regularly it is worth shelling out the money for a good pair of running shoes.

Fuel up – increasing your physical activity will mean you burn more energy – meaning you need to give your body more fuel. Eating a good balance of food and including protein in your diet is really important as is drinking water.

What are your favourite ways to cross train?

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) or Why do I hurt so much more the next day?

We all know the feeling – you feel great after a tough class just a little tired, but then you wake up the next morning stiff and sore. This is known as DOMS or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.

 

DOMS is the gradually increasing feeling of muscle soreness that occurs between 24 and 48 hours after exercise, but don’t worry it’s not uncommon. As dancers we’re typically pretty fit, and flexible, so what it takes to make us sore is generally a lot more intense than your average person. That said we’ve all had the grueling class that pushes us to our limits, and it’s when we hit these limits that we typically experience DOMS. In fact for students studying at vocational (pre-professional) level, it can be a regular part of life.

 

DOMS typically occurs when muscles are worked harder than they usually are day to day, and is particularly common after a break of holiday from dance or when increasing the frequency or intensity of your dancing increases. It is part of your body’s natural response and adaptation process to working harder. The good news is that it leads to increased stamina and strength as your build up muscle.

 

It’s important to realise that gradual soreness of DOMS is different to the tiredness and fatigue that can happen during exercise or the sharp, sudden pain of a muscle strain which often causes swelling and bruising. Doctors believe that DOMS is the result of microscopic tearing of the muscle fibers. The amount of tearing and soreness you feel depends on how hard you exercise. Although any movements can lead to DOMS, eccentric muscle contractions such as push ups, plies and squats seem to cause the most soreness.

 

So, what can you do to help with DOMS?

Unfortunately, there is no one solution, however the following things may help alleviate some of the soreness:

  • Drink lots of water
  • Try yoga or gentle stretching
  • Make sure you are eating enough protein so that your body can repair muscle
  • Listen to your body – rest if that’s what your muscles are telling you
  • Elevate your legs – lying with your legs up a wall can help reduce soreness
  • Ice any parts that are particularly sore, alternating with heat
  • Wear a compression sleeve, or compression or tight clothing
  • Foam roll or use a tennis ball to gentle massage muscles and increase blood flow
  • Make sure you warm up properly before your next session

 

References:

American College of Sports Medicine. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.

Dance Spirit Magazine. Your Aches and Pains Addressed: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.

Sports Medicine. About.com Muscle Pain and Soreness After Exercise.

Fitness and Exercise. Webmd.com Coping with Soreness After Exercise.

Safe Stretching

This post is part two of a series on stretching. Check out the first part A Beginner’s Guide to Stretching here, if you missed it.

What is safe stretching?

  • Safe stretching is stretching in a way that is as safe as possible for you and your body.

Why is it so important?

  • It helps to reduce the chance of injury.
  • It can actually help improve your flexibility
  • It places limits to stop you from overdoing it.

How to stretch safely:

  1. Warm up properly first with 10 – 20mins of cardio. This could include briskly walking, running, skipping or other movement that get your heart beating faster. From an anatomical point of view, cardio increases your body temperature, thus warming up your muscles and making them more flexible. Cold muscles don’t like to stretch!
  2. Start gently. Don’t throw yourself into splits straight away, do some hip-opening stretches or hamstring stretches to engage the muscles first. Whatever your planning to work on in your stretching session, start slowly as your muscles are still warming up.
  3. Know your limits and don’t force it. If you are sore from a class earlier in the week, then keep that in mind and work to your limits. Similarly if you are recovering from an injury don’t push yourself too hard.
  4. Be realistic. Change (unfortunately) doesn’t happen overnight however much we want to! Progress happens day by day and I know from experience that you do yourself no favours by having unrealistic expectations.
  5. Don’t overstretch. Overstretching is when you stretch for longer or further than your body can realistically handle. This could be sitting in splits for 10+ minutes while watching TV or stretching for long periods of time more than once a day. Either way it’s not good and it dramatically increases your chance of injury. Did you know that 60% of dance injuries occur as a result of overuse (DANZ, 2006)?
  6. Monitor your energy level. If you are already exhausted your more likely to injure yourself. 90% of dance injuries occur when a dancer is fatigued (DANZ, 2006). If you’re shattered after a tough class or a long day, skip the stretching and relax. You’ll be doing your body a favour.
  7. Stretching shouldn’t be painful. A stretch? Yes. Not comfortable? Definitely. Sore Afterwards? Possibly. Actually painful? No! Pain means you’re pushing yourself too hard and increasing the risk of injury. If you do injure yourself apply the dancer’s first aid strategy PRICED immediately.
  8. Feed yourself. So important. Using your muscles takes energy from your body and muscles and you need to replace it help them stay strong, so make sure you eat something within 40 minutes of stretching. It doesn’t have to be much, but something with protein and carbohydrates is perfect.

Happy stretching!

A Beginner’s Guide to Stretching

Stretching.

We all know it’s important but there is so much mis-information out there about it, that’s can be really hard to know where to start.

The tips below are perfect for beginners new to stretching, and a great reminder for the rest of us too!

Stretching is an important part of any dancers' training, but it's important it's done carefully.

Stretching is an important part of any dancers’ training, but it’s important it’s done carefully.

So you want to become more flexible? Well there are few important things you need to know:

  • Improving your flexibility is a journey not a destination. While it’s easy to focus on the end result (for example middle splits), we can often end up overlooking how much progress we’ve made as we work towards our goal. One way to see how you are progressing is to take photos every week or two so you can see the change.
  • Choose one goal at a time. It’s tempting to list everything you want to improve, but it doesn’t make it any easier! Choose one thing to work on, focus on that, and when you feel like you’ve made progress on that move on to the next goal.
  • Usual visual cues to help you achieve your goal. This might be a picture of what you’d like to be able to to do, or a post it note on your mirror. Use it as a reminder of what you’re aiming for and also a reminder to stretch.
  • Celebrate your successes. When you achieve a goal, doing something small to celebrate it and be proud that you’ve managed to work hard to achieve it!
  • Be patient, change takes time. Forcing your self to do something your body isn’t ready to do puts you at risk for an injury. Injuries aren’t fun and they can set you back in progress to achieve your goal, so don’t risk it.
  • Practice safe stretching. This means warming up properly, and not overstretching. If you’re a beginner consider taking a stretch or conditioning class for dancers until you feel confident.

What are your top tips for stretching?

Watch out for part two of our stretching series coming soon – Safe Stretching.

Students who have Injuries – the Role of the Teacher

Lately I’ve come across a fair bit of discussion in the online dance world – mostly via twitter, about the role of a dance teacher in dealing with students who have injuries, and it’s got me thinking.

As Lauren Warnecke writes in her Dance Advantage article on the topic, the diagnosis of injuries and treatment is definitely not up to me as a teacher. Grier Cooper adds that there are many places to go to when looking at treatment options. All of this is of course completely true, but it leaves us asking the question, well, what is our role as teachers when dealing with injured students?

As a dance teacher in a middle school I see my dance students often – usually several times a week, more if those students are in my class or syndicate, and I’m often present when the are taking part in other physical activity and education during the course of the day, so I have a pretty good idea of the physical demands my dancers face and in a busy middle school like ours, they’re not small. I also teach an age where students face the some of the biggest physical changes as they encounter adolescence. They’re also desperate to try new things and test out their limits (particularly their flexibility). Put all these things together and you’ve definitely upped the risk of injury.

 

So what can I do? Well, for me it’s twofold – prevention and awareness.

 

Prevention

In the dance classroom, I aim to do all that I can to prevent injuries by taking time to warm up with 5 -10 minutes of aerobic activity and 5 minutes of dynamic moving stretches – usually focused on waking up the muscles in the legs, hips and shoulders. We also talk a lot about why we warm up and the effect this on the body, so that my students understand the benefits. I try to keep the warm ups fairly easy and straight forward, starting with large gross movements and then moving to more intricate movements as they get warmer. I usually follow a fairly systematic pattern, and repeat this with the occasional change for a month or two. The benefit of this is that my students have learnt the pattern, and are now running the warm ups themselves, building not only their leadership skills but also their ownership of the warm up process. They can also take this warm up and easily warm themselves up when at performance venues when I’m not able to take them through it as a group.

The second thing that comes under prevention is reminding my students, and discussing with them why it is important to eat after physical activity to replace energy used and help maintain a healthy body – especially important when they all seem to being going through growth spurts.

 

Awareness

Awareness for me is really important and it goes both ways. I need to be aware of safe dance practice as a teacher, but also away of the physical changes my students are experiencing and the temporary limitations this can have on their bodies – there’s not much I can do about it, but I need to be aware.

Likewise I encourage my students to let me know if they have injuries, but my response is usually the same – do what you can even if it’s only watching or doing the arms ( I actually had a student audition for a hip hop crew sitting in a chair as she was on crutches – successfully too I might add). I encourage my students to take responsibility for managing their own injuries as this helps to build their self-awareness.

The second part of awareness is encouraging a dialogue where my students can talk about how their bodies are feeling. Often it is just the usual feeling a bit stiff  or tired that comes up, but sometimes my students will talk about feeling a sore muscle or ache or pain for a several days or even a couple of weeks. At this point I usually ask the question – ‘have you talked to your parent about this?’. To give them the credit they deserve, my students are great at doing this, but sometimes they haven’t and it’s then that I will gently suggest that they might like to talk to their parent about seeing a doctor or physio about it.

It’s not my place to tell them what’s wrong, or tell them what to do. But as a teacher it is my job to guide them to the necessary resources they need to solve problems, and sometimes they just need to have their awareness raised – to realise that there are easy things they can do – like seeing a qualified professional –  to help them feel better.

 

Are there specific things that you do to support students with injuries or help them build awareness?

 

Dancer First Aid

Disclaimer: I’m a dancer not a doctor. These are remedies that I have used during my years dancing and have learnt via the dance teacher training I’m currently completing. If something is persistent, painful or acute then these remedies are not going to be enough and you need to see a health care professional. The content in this post is curated from a previous blog entry I have written for another blog.

Here’s the thing. I’m a dancer, which means that I am used to aches and pains. Very used to them in fact. Mostly it’s just been the usual overworked muscles, tired feet from pointe shoes and slightly overenthusiastic stretching the day before, but sometimes it’s more serious. I was brought up using natural remedies and they are still always my first port of call for aches, pains, strains or sprains. I know that when I have children these will be the first things I go to when they get injured. Here are some of my top remedies:

PRICED
You may have heard of RICE (Rest Ice Compression Elevation) for muscular injuries but PRICED is that dancer version and I like that it’s just that bit more specific. This is my starting point for all injuries and muscle strains.
Protection – remove additional danger/risk from the injured area – i.e. stop whatever caused the injury/move away from anything that might make it worse
Rest – stop moving the injured area – common sense really!
Ice – apply an ice pack to the injured area for 20 minutes. You can repeat this every two hours for the first 24 – 48 hours after the injury. Don’t leave it for longer the 20 minutes as this is bad for the skin – I really can’t recommend this one enough! The cold narrows the blood vessels which helps to manage the blood flow to the injured area thus reducing swelling.
Compression – apply an elastic bandage to the area  – this again helps manage the swelling while providing support to the injured area.
Elevation – elevate the injured area – if possible to above heart level. This helps to manage the blood flow and swelling and should provide some relief from pain.
Diagnosis – have the injury evaluate by a health care professional – this isn’t always necessary, I only tend to do this if the pain is severe or continues for more than a couple of days but each person and each case is different.
Arnica
Arnica is great for sore, overworked or overuse muscles. It’s also very good at promoting healing of bruised or damaged tissue. Arnica is a homeopathic medicine which can be taken in a number of ways. I use it both externally as a cream and internally in tablet or liquid form to assist healing.
You can buy cream that is specifically just Arnica from most Chemists, or you can buy it in a combination sports rub cream. I prefer straight Arnica because I don’t like the peppermint that it’s usually combined with in sports rubs. I usually massage this into the sore area and then (depending on where on my body or how sore the injured area is) strap it up with an elastic bandage. This gives the injured area some much need support and also prevents the cream from making a mess on my clothes or the floor. I generally support this with homeopathic liquid Arnica to assist healing and repair of strained muscles from the inside out.

Comfrey
This is a new one I’ve recently discovered. I had a more serious injury last year that landed me on crutches for a while and I found that Arnica on its own wasn’t enough, so I tried comfrey cream. Not only is it an anti-inflamatory it’s also great for pain relief and is all natural.

Heat
As an injury or strain starts to heal I stop using cold packs and start using heated wheat/rice packs on the injured area. The heat helps the muscles to relax and soothes the pain naturally. This is also a great idea for when you’ve got tired muscles from a long day or an enthusiastic exercise session. Not recommended for acute injuries though as heat promotes blood flow.

Massage
You have to be a bit careful with this one. If an injury is acute, painful or recent don’t go there – I repeat don’t go there! Massage promotes blood flow and if you have swelling – that’s the last thing you want to do. However if you just have sore or achy muscles then massage can be a really good way to soothe them. As a dancer this is a common occurrence, particularly in my achilles tendons and plantar fascia after a tough pointe class. I like to use a wooden massage ball, a tennis ball or a foam roller to roll on my muscles to help them relax but hands work just as well too.
Of course this list is by no means exhaustive – it’s just what works well for me.
Now it’s your turn.
What remedies work well for you?