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Can your diet calm your stage nerves?

Can your diet calm your stage nerves?

By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD.
The Centre for Dance Nutrition.
www.dancernutrition.com.

Being nervous is a natural part of day-to-day life for a dancer. Maybe there is a big audition, a run of shows or even a new choreographer in the studio. There are healthy ways to deal with nerves and food choices can play an important role. 

Before any big show, you want to feel as prepared as possible. Sure there can be last minute changes, but there shouldn’t be last minute changes to your diet on a big day. Preparing your food and snacks ahead of time will help you feel confident and strong. Going for too long without eating leads to one feeling jittery, shaky, tired and grumpy. Eat every three hours, making sure you have healthy, easy to digest, carb-based snacks on hand. 

You need to start a show day with a full tank. In nutrition terms, this means stored glycogen. Glycogen is stored in the muscles and liver, and is the form of energy that the muscles can mobilize quickly. When you go from standing in the wings to dancing full-out in a short amount of time, burning muscle glycogen will keep you feeling strong until the end. 

Make sure your glycogen stores are ready to go on a show day by eating a mix of carbs and protein within one hour after exercise the day prior. The night before, eat carbohydrates for dinner such as low-fat pasta, a sandwich or a bean-and-rice burrito.   

On show day, have easy to digest snacks in your bag. Eat an hour before you dance so you have time to digest. Focus on complex carbs with only a little protein and fat. Fruits, veggies and whole grains will give you sustained energy but won’t sit on your stomach and make you feel bloated or heavy. Save a moderate protein meal/ snack for after you dance. Protein and fat take longer to digest and if you are nervous this might lead to an upset stomach. 

Avoid too much refined sugar. Some people are sensitive too sugar and can get jumpy and overly energetic, but for some it may result in feeling more tired or fatigued. High sugar snacks, especially with refined grains, are considered high on the glycemic index. This means that they get digested and absorbed quickly and give a quick rush of energy that lasts for a limited time. This might be okay if eaten minutes before you step onstage for a short variation or if you are at the final intermission of a long show and you need something quickly absorbed. However, something sugary isn’t a good strategy for getting through a longer show or audition. Better choices would be whole grain crackers with peanut butter, an oat bar or low-sugar granola bar, or a whole grain muffin with raisins, flax seeds and walnuts.  The flax seeds and walnuts have omega-3s, which have been shown to positively affect brain function, mood and attention. 

Hydrate with water but limit caffeine. Dehydration will negatively affect performance, especially under hot stage lights. The first two signs of dehydration are fatigue and poor balance. You will be more calm and confident if you hydrate with water and not with anything containing artificial sweeteners, additives or colours. Good hydration starts long before show day. Plan to drink 2500ml-2800ml (10-12 cups) each of the 3-4 days before and on show day. One protocol is to drink 150-300 ml (5-10 oz) every 20-30 minutes. When nervous, don’t water load with large quantities at one time, but rather sip at regular intervals. 

Caffeine is known to help with alertness and can positively influence performance. One small coffee might be fine, but the amount in an energy drink can backfire by making you jittery and even more nervous. Avoid alcohol because it is known to negatively affect athletic performance for days after a drink. 

Dancers perform their best when calm, confident, and well fueled.  These few tips can help:  

1. Eat a healthy dinner with complex carbs the night before.

2. Plan ahead and bring carb-based meals and snacks with you; and eat every three hours.

3. Avoid refined sugar, artificial sweeteners, colours and additives.

4. Stay hydrated and limit caffeine.

Emily Harrison
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University, USA. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at emily@dancernutrition.com www.dancernutrition.com

Photo (top): © Andriy Bezuglov | Dreamstime.com

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Can I eat fat and look good in tights?

Can I eat fat and look good in tights?

By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD.
www.dancernutrition.com

Dancers tend to be cautious about fat in their diets. This is completely understandable given that we have to look good in tights and fat is a very concentrated source of calories. Fats have nine calories per gram versus four calories per gram from carbs or proteins. But what about all the reported benefits of coconut oil, olive oil and omega-3s? Would a dancer’s bone health be at risk without adequate fat to help absorb and metabolize bone building vitamins D and K, both of which are fat-soluble? Plus, fat makes food more palatable, and helps you feel fuller longer.  Smart choices and moderation are what we need for this misunderstood, but tasty, nutrient.

How Much?

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends getting 25-30% of your total calories from fat. As a dietitian for dancers, I typically recommend getting 25% because it’s necessary, but we don’t want to get too much. It is saturated fat that you want to avoid. Recommendations are to get less than 10% of total calories from saturated fat. We all should entirely avoid trans fats. Trans fats undergo hydrogenation, which makes them more shelf stable. Baked goods, doughnuts, fried foods and chips are sources of this heart-damaging fat. As athletes, our cardiovascular system is a big part of what makes us perform well and it makes sense to eat foods that support the one muscle that never stops working. Most teenagers and adults can eat between 35 to 60 grams of total fat per day, but choose your sources of fat wisely, picking plants such as nuts, seeds, avocados and small amounts of unsaturated oils. Portions matter! All foods naturally contain some fat. Even green beans and other veggies have a little.  

What does 25% of total calories really mean?

It’s different for everyone, but for approximately 2,000 calories per day, 500 of those can be from fat. This amounts to up to 55 grams per day. A pat of butter, 1/3 hamburger patty or 2 tablespoons of avocado all contain about 5-8 grams of fat, but the different kinds of fats in these foods can have profoundly different effects on the body.  

The importance of fats

Fats provide critical biological functions in the body. Phospholipids are components of cell membranes, and glycolipids are components of brain tissue. Fat can also be an important fuel source during a long show. Fats are essential for the absorption of vitamins A, E, D and K. 

Different types of fat

You want to replace saturated fats with unsaturated sources. When you hear of saturated or unsaturated fats (both poly and monounsaturated), those terms are referring to the structure or the chemical bonds. The structure can influence how it is metabolized by the body and then how it is used by cells. Different types of fat can also have different effects on athletic performance. Coconut oil is popular now. While it is very saturated and should be eaten in moderation, it has the type of fat that can be absorbed rapidly and can be a quick fuel source before dancing.

Below are some examples of fat sources. These are all naturally a mixture of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, but this gives a general idea of which fat sources are healthier options.

Saturated Fat (usually solid at room temperature) includes:

  • Meats, cheeses, butter, chocolate, coconut oil, palm oil, shortening, hydrogenated oils/ trans fats. 
    Linked to heart disease, hardening of the arteries, higher cholesterol, cancer, liver disease and poorer athletic performance.

Poly and Monounsaturated fats (usually liquid at room temperature) includes: 

  • Oils from flax, safflower, canola, olive, sesame. All seeds such as chia, flax, hemp, and sunflower. All nuts such as walnuts, almonds, peanuts.
    Linked to decreased cholesterol, better heart health, lower risk for cancer.

Omega-3s/ fish oils (Unsaturated and considered “essential” because the body can’t make them):

  • Flax and chia seeds, walnuts, cold water fish, canola oil, soy, wheat germ.
    Linked to decreased inflammation, lower risk for depression, improved brain function and better heart health.

Making good choices when dancing

Because fat slows stomach emptying and digestion, choose a high carbohydrate meal that is moderate in protein and low in fat one hour or more before a show or rehearsal. Nerves can affect digestion as we all know. Options could be a low fat meal of pasta with light marinara sauce (easy on the oil) or rice, veggies and edamame or a veggie burger on bread with a side of carrots. During long class or rehearsal days, try trail mix with nuts and seeds with a carb like pretzels or crackers. Add flax or chia seeds to your oatmeal in the mornings.

Anyone who is watching their weight and wants better performance doesn’t need to fear fat, they just need to be smart about not eating too much and getting their fat sources from plants.

Emily Harrison
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University, USA. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at emily@dancernutrition.com www.dancernutrition.com

 

Photo (top): © Alen Dobric | Dreamstime.com

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Don’t Fear Carbs

Don’t Fear Carbs

Why Carbs Can be a Dancer’s Best Friend

By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD.
www.dancernutrition.com

Want better jump height, more endurance, improved brain function and better fat burning? Then carbohydrates can be your best friend.

Should I eat a high protein, low carb diet?

There always seems to be yet another new bestselling, yet unscientific diet trend that touts low carb, high protein eating. These diets are not good for anyone, but this is especially so for the type of activity that dancers do. Certainly adequate protein is important, but the body would prefer to spare it for important physiologic functions, not burn it as fuel. Carbs provide the type of fuel that the muscles need for dance. High protein diets can lead to lower bone mineral density and increased risk for long-term diseases. Plus, such diets have not consistently shown to help with weight management over the long term 1,2,3.

Carbs can be found in wholegrain pasta, bread, rice, quinoa, barley, dairy, all vegetables and all fruits. Of course, you should avoid simple sugars in sweets, juices, soda, refined grains and baked goods. Sugar won’t give you enough energy to get through barre, but have a simple sandwich or pasta with veggies, and you’ll dance strong all the way through grande allegro. You won’t get that same level of sustained energy from a protein shake, or a big piece of meat before class.

Weight management and carbohydrates

The main reason people believe the hype about low-carb diets like Atkins, South Beach and Paleo diets is that they do aid in weight loss…. at first. For most people, much of the weight is gained back often with a few extra pounds to spare1. Yo- yo dieting is not what dancers need, especially when it is at the expense of their health or performance. Quick weight loss, a hallmark of low-carb diets, can lead to loss of lean mass (muscle). Going on any very low-calorie diet and losing muscle means losing the most metabolically active tissue the body has. In addition to lowering the metabolic rate, the body adjusts to the restricted calories, setting one up for an endless cycle of gaining and losing. A better strategy would be to limit simple sugars and eat smaller more frequent meals and snacks with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes as the foundation.

Carbohydrates and performance

There is no better fuel for athletic performance and brain function than carbohydrates. Complex carbs in whole grains, vegetables and fruits give the muscles a prolonged source of energy. It has been found that giving athletes carb-based snack bars between meals results in better energy output and anaerobic power, while keeping weight the same and lowering body fat4.

In one study carbohydrate intake prior to exercise was shown to be as effective in improving repeated jump height as the supplement creatine 5. The carb group didn’t gain weight but the creatine group did5. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that athletes get 55-60% of their total calories from carbohydrates, and whole grains are also important sources of fiber, B-vitamins, iron and folate.

How much, and when?

Here are a few real-life examples:   

Everyone is different, but if 2000 calories are needed then 55-60% should come from carbs. That is about 275-300 grams because carbs have 4 calories per gram. Carb needs can also be calculated based on grams per kilogram of body weight. In general, recommendations are 5-8 g/kg depending on intensity of activity. So a 120lb (54.5kg) female dancer would need at least 272 grams per day.

Examples:
1 piece of bread: 12-17 grams
1 apple: 25-30 grams
1 cup quinoa or brown rice: 39-45 grams
1 cup green beans 8 grams

Long, busy class and rehearsal days

Plan ahead so that carbs and protein are eaten within one hour post exercise the day before.  Carbs should be eaten in the range of 30-60 grams per hour during the rehearsal day.

Show or audition day

If a dancer is feeling nervous and doesn’t want food sitting on their stomach, then they should be well-fueled 3-4 hours prior to the show/ audition. Then an hour or so before, opt for easy to digest carbs like pretzels, crackers or a sports beverage. High-fat and high protein foods take a bit longer to digest, so eat these in moderation if you’re nervous. Re-fuel as needed if it is a long show.

Rest day

On well-deserved days off, a dancer still needs carbs but not in the same amount as a workday.  Cut back just a little bit, and eat lots of fruits and veggies.

The subject of carbohydrate intake is big, and can’t be covered in one article. Check out my earlier Dance Informa article on glycaemic index for additional information.

Emily Harrison
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University, USA. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at emily@dancernutrition.com www.dancernutrition.com

Sources:

  1. Four-Year Follow-up after Two-Year Dietary Interventions N Engl J Med 2012; 367:1373-1374. October 4, 2012.
  2. Campbell TC, Campbell TM. The China Study. 2006. Benbella Books
  3. Rohrman S, et al. Meat consumption and mortality – results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. BMC Medicine, 2013.
  4. Benardot D, et al. Between Meal Energy Intake Effects on Body Composition, Performance, and Total Caloric consumption in athletes. Medicine & Sci in Sports and Exercise V37. 2005.
  5. Koenig C, Benardot D, Cody M, Thompson W. Comparison of creatine monohydrate and carbohydrate supplementation on repeated jump height performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2008;22
Photo (top): © Phinizrl, Dreamstime.com

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Fitness Beyond the Studio

Fitness Beyond the Studio

By Emily Yewell Volin.

Technique classes and rehearsals are a dancer’s job and a common misconception is that this training schedule provides enough exercise and conditioning to make a dancer performance ready. Not so. Dance Informa spoke with Nehemiah Kish (Principal Dancer, The Royal Ballet), Alice Hinde (Australia’s Dancenorth) and Glenn Allen Sims (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater) to learn how they augment their workout regimes to achieve top fitness, stamina and sculpted physiques.

What type of fitness activities do you do in addition to your technique classes and why?

Nehemiah Kish – The Royal Ballet, UK
In addition to our daily ballet class, we are very fortunate at The Royal Ballet to have two sports scientists on staff as well as Pilates and Gyrotonics instructors. This season I have been working with our sports scientists. They test our strengths and weaknesses and give exercises accordingly. When I want to improve a certain area of my dancing or build a specific group of muscles they tailor the exercises to my needs. How much I do is based on my performance schedule, because some of the exercises leave me sore or fatigued. I like to take advantage of the days when I have fewer rehearsals and use those days to work on strengthening the areas I want to improve.

Alice Hinde, Dancenorth, Queensland Australia

Dancenorth Company Dancer Alice Hinde. Photo by Bottlebrush Studios.

Alice Hinde – Dancenorth, Australia
In addition to ballet and contemporary technique classes, I cycle, do yoga and skip. I have these activities on rotation so that my body is subject to different kinds of movement patterns. I enjoy doing all of these activities because they are also a rest for the mind. I aim to reduce the noise of a busy mind and just enjoy focusing on my breath in yoga or even the scenery while riding. Cross-training is great for the body, it helps improve stamina and strength and overall shape and performance.

Glenn Allen Sims – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, USA
I am always working out, especially at the gym, when I am not in my technique classes. While at the gym my main concern is free weights, basically sculpting my upper body and breaking down muscles groups into days of the week (ie. Monday- abs and shoulders, Tuesday- back, Wednesday- abs and cardio, Thursday- chest, and Friday- abs and arms). This schedule can be altered depending on what I am dancing that evening, if there is a performance or the free time I may have during a rehearsal period. I also take Pilates classes that are generally on a private basis with a Master Trainer. I feel that a man should look like a man from the stage, not to say that someone that is slighter than I doesn’t look like a man, but it is my prerogative. As an Ailey man, it is part of the history and legacy that the men always looked great, sexy and fit. I am just trying to live up to this standard as best as possible with all the knowledge that I know about fitness. Working out really plays a huge role on how good you feel about yourself, and when you are feeling great in your skin it really shows!

What is your strategy for staying fit and conditioned during your off-contract time?

Glenn Allen Sims
I try to make sure that I am at the gym on a daily basis. When I am on off-contract time I make sure to really focus on as much cardio as possible – it’s the only way I can come back to work with the same amount of stamina that I left with. I love taking a spin class or just simply running on the treadmill. The best cardio workout that I am head over heels for is aqua aerobics! You tone and work all the muscle groups without the impact on your joints, which is a huge plus for me as a dancer. In terms of my eating habits, I eat the same for the most part. I food combine what I’m going to eat, meaning that I don’t mix proteins and carbohydrates in a meal. This really aids the digestive system in processing the food I am taking in. I’m big on eating whole foods and loads of greens (especially green juices), and making sure that what I am eating is of quality – no junk foods. I try to stay away from desserts.

Alice Hinde
During the summer holiday, I try to allow ten days to two weeks for rest. In that time I might do some gentle stretching. Swimming and biking are two of my favorite ways to keeping my body moving while I’m on holiday.

The Royal Ballet's Nehemiah Kish and Zenaida Yanowsky

The Royal Ballet’s Nehemiah Kish and Zenaida Yanowsky in Raymonda Act III, photo by Tristram Kenton, courtesy ROH

Nehemiah Kish
Maintaining the same level of fitness and conditioning I have on contract is very difficult when I’m off contract. It basically comes down to time allocation – how can you give at least 5 hours a day to training as you would if you were working? So, I generally lead an active lifestyle which helps maintain some level of fitness, including regularly hiking, swimming and diving. As I am constantly on the move between cities and even countries, attending regular classes becomes difficult. To remedy this I always pack a skipping rope. It is lightweight and it’s easy enough to find a space large enough to skip in. Skipping also gets your heart rate up rapidly. I set my iPod to my favourite up-beat tracks and I can skip happily for 15-20 minutes.

How do you augment your exercise regimen while touring?

Alice Hinde
Touring doesn’t affect my routine that much. I don’t use a lot of machines or props when working out. Most of my exercises are based on using my own body weight.

Glenn Allen Sims and Linda Celeste Sims, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Glenn Allen Sims and Linda Celeste Sims in Jirí Kylián’s Petite Mort. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Glenn Allen Sims
I carry a range of travel equipment with me. I have Spree resistance straps that help tone the body, the Perfect Push-Up and a Multi-toner, which is like the Pilates magic circle, but this was designed by DLFit and is a complete body workout. Of course, there’s only so much you can do in the hotel gym so most of my workout augmentation happens either in the hotel room or at the theater, unless there is a gym nearby.

Nehemiah Kish
I aim to tailor any fitness activities to things that can be done in a hotel room such as skipping and yoga. I find stretching extremely beneficial when on tour because of the increased workload when performing a show. Cardio and strength are usually taken care of by actually performing! A spa or bath also works wonders in decreasing lactic acid levels and keeping the body supple.

Top photo: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Glenn Allen Sims and Antonio Douthit in Alvin Ailey’s Opus McShann. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

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Happy Valentine’s Day: Five red foods that are good for your heart

Happy Valentine’s Day: Five red foods that are good for your heart

By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD
www.dancernutrition.com

Dance Informa is celebrating heart health this Valentine’s Day by highlighting five red foods that are good for the one muscle in your body that never gets a rest. These foods are also great for recovering from a tough rehearsal, for keeping a healthy body weight and for preventing cancer and heart disease – but most importantly, they taste good!

Heart disease is a leading cause of death for both men and women1. Being physically active, maintaining a healthy body weight, and eating more colourful fruits and veggies can reduce your risk.

Strawberries
At only 43 calories per cup, berries contain vitamin C, folate and potassium, in addition to cancer-fighting flavonoids, such as anthocyanins. Flavonoids are antioxidants that combat oxidative stress on the body and protect against free radicals that cause cell damage. This is good news for dancers who push their bodies to the extreme and is especially helpful in urban areas where city pollution can be a source of oxidative stress. The Nurse’s Health Study II reported that people who ate berries more frequently (more than once a month) were 32 percent less likely to have a heart attack than people who ate berries infrequently. Berries also protect the heart with their anti-inflammatory properties. Be sure to choose organic berries as often as possible. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) lists these on their “Dirty Dozen” list of fruits and vegetables that are typically high in pesticides2.

Capsicum
Sweet or hot, raw or cooked, there is no doubt that these are super healthy foods. Sweet red capsicums contain vitamins C and A, but they are also a good source of vitamin B6, which aids in protein metabolism. Because red capsicums have been left on the plant to mature longer than green ones, they are better sources of antioxidants. They are great sliced and dipped in hummus or on top of a pizza. These are also on EWG’s Dirty Dozen list so it’s worth the money to buy organic.

Tomatoes
These are a great source of vitamins C and K. They also contain vitamin A and the carotenoids lutein, and lycopene. These are antioxidants, powerful cancer fighters and are very heart protective. Research has shown that cooked tomatoes, like in sauces and stews, can have additional benefits. So enjoy them raw and cooked. Eat the skins as well, as the skins contain many health-promoting phytonutrients. This is another food on EWG’s Dirty Dozen list, so once again we recommend that you buy organic.

Red Beans
A fantastic source of plant based protein and fibre, red or ‘kidney’ beans also contain folate, iron, manganese, copper, potassium and several other minerals. Current recommendations from a variety of health organisations tell us to get protein from more plant-based sources in general. Beans are a cheap source of organic protein, which with the fibre will help you feel fuller longer and can keep blood sugar more stable. I would strongly recommend avoiding canned beans because canned products are lined with a plastic coating that contains BPA, which is a known neuroendocrine disruptor. It’s so easy to throw some beans in a slow cooker in the morning and they are ready when you get home. During cooking, don’t add salt or something acidic like tomatoes. Wait until the beans are softened to add these. If you soak beans overnight and then give them a good rinse before cooking or eating you can reduce the substance that gives them their reputation for being gas-producing.

Beetroot
These bright red root veggies are hot in the sports nutrition field right now because they are a great source of naturally occurring nitrates. Naturally occurring nitrates in foods like beets, rocket, spinach and rhubarb have been shown to significantly improve athletic performance with better power output, more endurance and speed. Dancers might see benefits by eating more of these veggies or drinking beetroot juice. Nitrate supplementation from pills has not shown the same benefits as consuming the actual vegetable. It’s important to note that cured or processed meats contain nitrates too, but interestingly these have a completely different effect on the body and cause cell damage instead. Cook beets in water until soft and then add them to salads.

There are plenty of other great red foods out there so don’t forget to also include these in your daily food choices – cherries, watermelon, red cabbage, raspberries, cranberries, ruby red grapefruit, pomegranate, apples and many others. Enjoy!

Emily Harrison
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University, USA. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at emily@dancernutrition.com www.dancernutrition.com

 

Sources:
1. Centers for Disease Control USA: www.CDC.gov

2. Environmental Working Group: www.ewg.org

Photo: © Svetlana Kolpakova | Dreamstime.com. 

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Stretching Truths

Stretching Truths

By Rain Francis.

Do you stretch extensively before class? Do you often sit in a stretch for a few minutes or more? Do you stretch every single day?
As dancers, most of us would probably answer “yes” to at least one of the above questions – which would mean that we might have been practicing unsafely, and could be doing our bodies more harm than good. It’s time to get wise about the correct, safe and effective way to stretch.

Flexibility is important for injury prevention, physical fitness and mental and physical relaxation. Since all bodies are different, there is little point in comparing your flexibility to another dancers; flexibility is determined by genetics. However, stretching, when practiced correctly, can increase your flexibility and improve your performance.

When to Stretch
The most crucial factor in regards to stretching is to always warm up first. As much as we may be used to it, this means not sitting in stretches before barre! A proper warm-up should start with some light aerobic activity (such as a gentle jog around the studio) to increase your core temperature. When you produce a light sweat, it’s time to engage in some dynamic stretches. Dynamic stretching should start slowly and gradually increase in the speed and power of the movement. (See below for an explanation on the different types of stretching). Many Pilates exercises incorporate dynamic stretching, so before class is a good time to do your Pilates routine.

At the end of your cool down after class – when the activity that requires you to be strong and stable has ceased – is a good time to do your static stretches. Believe it or not, stretching to your end-range before class actually reduces strength and stability, as well as increases your risk of injury, so it should be avoided at all costs.

What to Stretch
It may feel good to practice the stretches that are comfortable for you, but it’s important to stretch the muscles that need to be stretched, not just the ones that are already flexible. Stretch both sides of a joint, in order to not develop an imbalance that could lead to injury. Practice stretches that only target the muscles you are trying to lengthen. Isolating a muscle group gives you greater control and means you are able to vary the intensity of the stretch.

How to Increase Flexibility
In order to maintain your range of motion, a weekly stretch session is sufficient. However, if your goal is to increase your flexibility, you need to stretch three to five times per week, and you need to be consistent. It may take several months for certain stretches to become comfortable, but perseverance is key (just make sure you are not pushing yourself to the point of pain.)

As it takes time for your muscles to adapt and adjust, you must give them time to heal, rest and repair themselves. This means mixing up your stretching programme by alternating light days, heavy days and rest days. Any gym bunny knows the importance of working and resting different muscle groups on different days, and making gains in flexibility follows the same principles.

Though it may be tempting, over-stretching increases the risk of injury and can just push your goals even further away.

Stretches should be slow and gentle, and should never create a sharp or painful feeling. Use your breath to assist you, and do not bounce!

How Long to Hold Stretches
Hold your static stretch (but not your breath) for 30 seconds, then relax. After a brief rest, repeat the stretch two or three times. The changes in your flexibility from stretching in this way will only last less than an hour. However, when performed consistently, as explained above, flexibility gains can be maintained. If you are a child or young adult whose bones are still growing keep stretches to 10 seconds or less.

Contrary to what you may believe, prolonged stretching should only be used by medical professionals and is not appropriate for dancers. Rather than simply stretching muscles and their connective tissues, stretching for extended periods of time can elongate joints and ligaments, which are there to keep your joints stable. You may think that lying in second while watching TV is doing you good, but this can actually lead to loss of stability and serious injury, whether in the short-term or further down the track.

The Importance of Breath
There is a reason why yoga and Pilates place so much emphasis on the incorporation of the breath. Correct breath control is essential to getting the most out of your flexibility training. It helps relax the body, improve muscular elasticity, increase blood flow and remove lactic acid, which reduces muscle soreness and the risk of injury.

When stretching during your cool-down, keep your breath fluid, not forced. Use slow, relaxed breathing, with an emphasis on exhalation through the mouth or nose. Inhale through the nose, which will filter and warm the air you inhale and allow more oxygen into your lungs (just ask any yogi!)

Types of Stretching
There are several different techniques for stretching muscles, each with advantages and disadvantages. You should consult an experienced teacher or health care professional to find the best technique for your physique.

There are two main types of stretching: static and dynamic.

Static stretching is a stretch that is held in a particular position. For example, lying on your back with one leg raised in the air and gently easing the leg in toward the chest to stretch the hamstrings. Static stretching is more effective than dynamic stretching for producing long-term flexibility, but should only be practiced when the body is fully prepared.

Dynamic stretching is a stretch that is an active movement as a result of muscle contraction. For example, circling the ankle or shoulders, or controlled leg and arm swings. This type of stretching takes you to the limits of your range of motion, with no bouncing or jerking. A good dynamic stretch is one that reproduces the movement patterns required for the exercise you are about to undertake. For dance, an example is a controlled développé to the front or side, which dynamically stretches the hamstrings. Dynamic stretching should be performed only after a proper warm-up.

When researching for this article the author consulted the following resources:

Stretching – a vital part of dancers training and practice, by Tania Huddart for DANZ ©. www.danz.org.nz/Magazines/DQ/April2012/stretching.php

Stretching for dancers, by Brenda Critchfield, MS, ATC, under the auspices of the Education and Media Committees of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science. www.iadms.org/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=353

Stretching rules for dancers
, by Ausdance. www.ausdance.org.au/articles/details/stretching-rules-for-dancers

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Chocolate….Is it all bad?

Chocolate….Is it all bad?

By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD

The holidays are nearly upon us. With them comes an abundance of delicious high calorie foods like chocolate. Usually thought of as the classic high calorie junk food, you’ll be happy to hear that chocolate actually has some health benefits.

Can dancers enjoy chocolate and still look great in tights?
Certainly! Chocolate can be a part of an overall healthy diet.  Here’s how and why:

Chocolate, like many plant based foods, is packed with health promoting flavonoids1. The cocoa beans come from the pod of a cacao tree (Theobroma Cacao). They are harvested from the pods, fermented, dried, and then sold for processing into the many yummy products we have come to love.  It takes over 400 beans to make only one pound of chocolate. Given the high global demand, you can imagine what a difference it can make to buy sustainably sourced and fair traded chocolate2.

The flavonols in dark chocolate have real science to back up the health claims.  A review article that analyzed data from 1297 participants found that cocoa improved insulin resistance, improved the flow rate of blood in the cardiovascular system, and showed a beneficial effect on LDL cholesterol3 (the bad kind).  Another review reported that multiple studies showed lowered blood pressure and improved cholesterol in spite of the fact that chocolate contains fat and sugar 4.  The studies that showed health promoting results were consistently completed with participants eating high quality cocoa or dark chocolate, not milk chocolate or a low quality chocolate flavoring that is mostly sugar or worse – corn syrup. So your source of chocolate matters!

Since chocolate can be a significant source of fat and sugar, how can it be a part of a healthy dancers diet?
According to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, women who were in a trial to lose weight who included a dark chocolate snack in their meal plan still lost weight and showed improvements in body composition5.  The researchers suggested that having a small amount of chocolate was associated with better satisfaction and thus the participants were able to stick to their dietary plans5.

Many dancers don’t need to lose weight, but just maintain their instrument. Occasionally eating quality chocolate, in moderation, isn’t going to cause significant weight change.  Certainly dancers want to watch their sources of sugar, and be mindful of where extra calories come from, but you still can get positive health effects from just moderate consumption of chocolate.  Since dancers need to choose their calories wisely, they will be happy to know that the benefits to the cardiovascular system were demonstrated regardless of dose3. Which means that a little bit of good quality chocolate eaten semi-regularly can still give health benefits.  If you love chocolate and can’t even think about giving it up just to look great on stage, that’s fine! The body can handle small amounts of extra treat calories if eaten between meals and if dancers make smart choices about where the other daily calories come from.  If you allow yourself to eat just a little chocolate on occasion, you are much less likely to binge later.

While some studies have shown heart health benefits, chocolate like other holiday favourites, should still be enjoyed in moderation. Flavonoids can also be found in foods like grapes, apples and blueberries – there are plenty of other great sources of these health promoting polyphenols.  If most of the time you eat a wide variety of colorful fruits and veggies, then a little dark chocolate can be a part of your Nutcracker survival plan.

Wishing you healthy holidays from Emily at the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles, Atlanta USA.
Emily Harrison
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University, USA. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at emily@dancernutrition.com www.dancernutrition.com

Sources:

1. Bauer S, et al. Cocoa consumption, cocoa flavonoids, and effects on cardiovascular risk factors: an evidence-based review. Current Cardiovas Risk Reports. 2011;5:120-127.

2. The Rainforest Alliance. http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/

3. Hooper LKay CAbdelhamid AKroon PACohn JSRimm EBCassidy A. Effects of chocolate, cocoa, and flavan-3-ols on cardiovascular health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials.   Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Mar;95(3):740-51. Epub 2012 Feb 1.

4. Tokede OAGaziano JMDjoussé L.   Effects of cocoa products/dark chocolate on serum lipids: a meta-analysis.  Eur J Clin Nutr. 2011.  Aug;65(8):879-86. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2011.64.

5. Piehowski KE, et al. A reduced calorie dietary pattern including a daily sweet snack promotes body weight reduction and body composition improvements in premenopausal women who are overweight or obese: a pilot study. J Am Diet Assoc. 2011;111:1198-1203.

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Five Super Foods for Dancers

Five Super Foods for Dancers

By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD
www.dancernutrition.com

It’s no accident that all five of these top foods are fruits and vegetables. The more colourful your dietary choices the better you will look, feel, and dance. Fruits and veggies are a storehouse of vitamins, minerals and compounds called phytonutrients that all work synergistically to promote health and aid in sports recovery. You can’t get the same effect from a pill. As a dietitian who works with elite level dancers, I could simplify my recommendations with two statements: Don’t ever skip breakfast and eat more fruits and vegetables. Below I have highlighted five super foods that all dancers need to try.

Kale

Kale has earned its name as a super food because of its high amounts of lutein, beta-carotene, vitamin K, calcium, iron, folate and vitamin C. It’s packed with cancer fighting phytonutrients. Enjoy this versatile green in salads and soups, or simply sautéed with veggie broth and garlic. Impress your friends by baking it in the oven for tasty kale chips that everyone will love. Take washed kale, strip off the stems and combine with peaches, olive oil, lemon juice, honey, salt and pepper. Massage the dressing into the kale and peaches for an amazing salad that looks and tastes great.

Apples

Everyone knows that this delicious and portable fruit makes an easy and healthy snack. Apples are low in calories (about 60-80) but high in fibre, vitamin C, and antioxidants that can help prevent cancer and protect against heart disease. The dark red skins of apples and grapes contain polyphenols that have been shown to have a protective effect against oxidative stress. Dancers and other athletes who push their bodies hard for hours at a time create more oxidative stress on the body. This can affect recovery, which can affect performance the next day. The more anti-oxidants you eat from colourful fruits and veggies, the better you will recover during a long week of shows or rehearsals.

Broccoli

This veggie favorite is easy to lightly steam on weeknights when you don’t have much time to make dinner. Or throw some in a wrap for a big lunch time nutrient boost. Broccoli is considered a super food because of its high levels of vitamins, minerals, and sulfur-containing phytonutrients. Did you know that the stems are rich in calcium, and some research suggests that if you chop broccoli and let it sit for a few minutes before cooking, you can enhance an enzyme that converts the healthy compounds to their more active form?

Carrots

All orange and yellow veggies and fruits are packed with beta-carotene, a type of vitamin A. They’re good for your skin and eyes. People who get plenty of vitamin A have been shown to have fewer infections and stronger immune systems. Dancers can’t afford a sick day, so eating foods rich in vitamin A and C can help keep illness at bay. Taking high supplemental doses of either of those vitamins can be detrimental. But nature provides just the right amount in real foods. Carrots are the perfect addition to lunches because this root veggie can stay fresh longer.

Blueberries

Blueberries are packed with cancer fighting, immune boosting anthocyanins (a type of flavonoid). That’s just a fancy word for what gives them their rich dark color. The more colourful your plate the better! Having trouble remembering that ballet you learned last year? Flavonoid-rich foods like blueberries have been shown to enhance spatial memory. Another study linked blueberries to faster rates of learning. Fresh or frozen, they taste great in a smoothie or over breakfast cereal.

Dancers should aim for at least 4 servings of vegetables a day and 2-3 servings of fruit. Try to eat a rainbow of fruits and veggies each day, and don’t be afraid to bring something new home from the store that you have never tried before.

Emily Harrison
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University, USA. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at emily@dancernutrition.com www.dancernutrition.com

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Eating Right on a Dancer’s Budget

Eating Right on a Dancer’s Budget

By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD

I don’t know any dancers who have money to throw away.  Here are a few tips to help stretch those hard earned dollars.

Get your protein from more plant based sources

Protein from beans, peas, nuts, whole grains, seeds and soy is so much cheaper than animal based protein. Think about how much more a steak costs verses some beans and rice. If you buy the dried beans from bulk bins you will save even more.  Most beans are sources of protein, iron, potassium, folate and fibre. In general, plant based meals are lower in fat and calories but high in nutrients.

You can make totally organic (and delicious) homemade soup and rice and even add kale for about $2.00 per serving.  It’s easy to throw everything in a slow cooker or make something ahead of time for an easy meal after a long day of rehearsals.  Quinoa is a wonderful high protein grain that you can get for less than $0.50 per serving, and it cooks faster than rice for a quick week night meal.

Soy is a versatile and cheap source of protein. Add some tofu or endamames to a veggie stir fry.  Eat more plants in place of meat and dairy – you’ll be fighting off cancer and reducing your impact on the environment while saving money!

Think critically about your grocery store

Food companies are businesses, and their ads are designed to get you to buy food and more of it. The system is designed for higher and higher profits, but that’s not always what’s best for our waist line, wallets, or our health. The word “natural” is now used on everything from chips to cookies and ice cream.  “Natural” has no legal definition in the U.S. so it gets overused.  It can lure people into believing that chips are somehow good for you just because the word natural is on the package.

Health claims are also a big part of the advertising market. Some companies will put random vitamins and “functional” ingredients into all kinds of foods and beverages touting health claims that might be flimsy at best or even dangerous. One example is mega doses of vitamins in beverages. No one needs 1000mg of vitamin B or C in a juice. The body wasn’t meant to absorb nutrients in this way and it can cause problems.  Our bodies absorb nutrients best through real food.  Stick to the outside aisles of a grocery store where you will find fewer boxes and bags and more fresh ingredients.  We all like convenience, but we pay for it.  Chocolate bars are right at eye level at the checkout counter and high fat foods are placed at high traffic areas for a reason.  Bargains aren’t bargains if they are full of sugar, fat, or refined flour.

Is it really a bargain?

Buying in bulk might not always be a good thing. No one really needs a gallon container of cheese puffs.  Big box retailers of wholesale food items might be selling you much bigger portions of unhealthy packaged foods. Is a 20 pack of croissants really a deal when each one packs up to 400 calories?  Use care and read food labels if you shop at the big wholesale stores.

Some terms on packages are legally defined and can help when deciding what to buy. The term “organic” has strict guidelines, and while the system isn’t perfect, it is better to buy organic. But keep in mind that organic cookies are still cookies – enjoy them in moderation.  It’s better to buy organic fruits and veggies, even though they usually cost more.

“Low fat” means that the food item must have 3 grams or less of fat per 100 grams, or no more than 30% of calories from fat.  This can be helpful when looking at food labels. But one trick to be aware of is that “low-fat” baked goods often have way more sugar content than regular to make them taste better.  So those low-fat treats might still have close to the same number of calories.

Prepare food at home and avoid packaged foods

Less packaging = less cost. Planning ahead can save you lots of money. Having fruit and veggies ready to go at home make it easy to grab them while you are racing out the door to class. You are much more likely to eat well on a budget if you don’t have to pick something up from a deli or restaurant.  Have grapes washed and ready to eat in your fridge, peel and cut carrots yourself and put them into your own reusable containers. Keep a box of low calorie muesli bars in your car. When snacks are easy to grab, you are less likely to eat junk food which will cost you more money and many more calories.

Eat in season and reduce portions

Off season tomatoes shipped from miles away not only taste terrible, but are much more expensive. Shop local, support your farmers markets, and buy in season. You will get better quality food, with higher nutrients and your hard earned food dollars will stay in your local economy.

One of the main reasons for weight struggles are out of control portions.  Make smaller portions and serve food on smaller plates.  When eating out, split a main meal with a friend, or order an entrée size. You’ll save money, and won’t overload on calories.

You CAN eat well on a tight budget: plan ahead, make your own food, shop local, and eat more plants.

Emily Harrison
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University, USA. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at emily@dancernutrition.com www.dancernutrition.com

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Hydration for Dancers

Hydration for Dancers

By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD.

Even mild dehydration can affect performance.  Staying hydrated is extremely important to a dancer’s performance because the first signs of dehydration are fatigue and poor balance.  Thirst actually only kicks in after the body has lost 1-2 litres of water. If you are thirsty then you are already dehydrated.

The science

Water makes up approximately 60% of body weight and is the largest component of the human body.  The muscles we work so hard to develop as dancers (skeletal muscles) are about 73% water, your blood is about 93% water and even bones and teeth contain some water. Water is critical for maintaining homeostasis within the body and important in the thousands of biochemical and physiological functions our bodies go through every day. Water aids in digestion and is important in the transport and elimination systems of the body.

Overheating and performance

It’s important for dancers to know that being properly hydrated helps keep the body from overheating. Helping the body promote heat loss when dancing full out will improve athletic performance and aid in recovery. This is especially important for dancers wearing hot costumes and performing under stage lights. Sweat losses during performance can be significantly more than during rehearsal of the same piece. This is why drinking regularly (even small, regular sips) is an important habit during a show.

How much is really needed? Can a dancer get fluids from other things besides water?

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that athletes (we all know that dancers are athletes) start their exercise already hydrated with about 500ml of beverage taken before you begin. Then drink 150-300ml every 20 minutes or so. This means that your reusable water bottle should be your constant companion in the studio or backstage.  Every dancer is a little different but pre-professional and professional level dancers should aim for about 2800-3500ml of fluids every day.  That’s about 12 – 15 cups.  About 20-25% will come from foods like fruits and veggies, but about 80% comes from what you drink.  Aim to get most of your fluids through water, but juices, sports drinks, and even tea and coffee can be counted toward that goal. Some dancers find that mixing 50% sports drink with 50% water in their reusable bottles helps them get through long rehearsals or classes. This is because sports beverages contain a source of readily available energy (calories) and electrolytes that are lost in sweat.

But I want something besides just water…..

Prevent dehydration by eating lots of fruits and veggies.  Consider melon, squash, oranges, apples, pears, grapes, leafy greens and salads in addition to beverages like tea, whole fruit ice-blocks, sports drinks, smoothies, soy milk, almond milk, and yoghurts.

What about caffeine?

Caffeine makes us more awake and is known to enhance athletic performance. But there can be too much of a “good” thing.  Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant, not a source of energy.  Yes, caffeine can also promote water loss and dancers should limit caffeine, but those beverages can still count toward your daily intake. I always recommend limiting or avoiding soft drinks. They are empty calorie bombs and can make bones weaker.  One cup of coffee is fine, but being overly jittery doesn’t help your dancing.

So be good to your body and good to the earth by taking your reusable water bottle with you everywhere and refilling it often!

Emily Harrison
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University, USA. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at emily@dancernutrition.com www.dancernutrition.com

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