What I Learned About Fueling My Dancing from Cross-Training
Author: Stevie Oakes on behalf of the IADMS Dance Educators’ Committee
Preparing myself nutritionally for a long dance day has always been a little tricky. As a contemporary modern dancer, rehearsals alternately require endurance or short bursts of power (usually both, in my experience, throughout the course of the process); the “right” combination of preparing with solid meals before hand with adequate and healthy snack options while not feeling too full seemed elusive. And while my education and interest in wellbeing – plus lots of resources and publications from the IADMS team - gave me a starting off point for balanced meals, energetic needs, and nutritional considerations, I found out the most from tuning in to sensation. Challenging myself physically and meeting those needs with good eating habits. And, by knowing what good fueling for me FELT like after applying the evidence-based information I was able to continue to commit to a viable and sustainable balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) for energy along with good hydration and a plethora of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). No surprise that I might learn bigger lessons from listening to my body, but I’m so glad that I did! Good fueling feels good.
I started running over the summer – I had dabbled before, cautious to avoid pushing too hard, but decided that I could prove to myself that a step-wise, science-based training protocol could prepare me for a half marathon. While various organizations that facilitate races have a variety of resources and tools like the Nike + Run Club App certainly helped me track my training, a reliable resource like Runner’s World can help anyone pick the right training program. (I’m sure I should also acknowledge that Western concert dance professionals often demonstrate an interest in more extreme athletic feats…a need to which I am not immune.) I planned my approach around a calendar that also overlapped mindfully with the beginning of my semester – I would be returning back to dancing, teaching and rehearsing while continuing to train. The challenge was not – as I’d anticipated – the time management, or even the additional musculoskeletal impact (actually, I couldn’t have imagined the kind of power and strength increases I noticed in my dancing…but that’s for another day). Nope. What really required my full attention was my FUELING. In order to maintain even the beginnings of my training regimen, I had to learn much more about macronutrient intake for energy balance, the timing of my eating, and better hydration strategies. The IADMS Nutrition Resource Paper was a perfect place for me to start!
The energy demands of this aerobic training were all new – as a dancer, most of my physical activity takes place in shorter bursts and so my body may rely on anaerobic pathways – think intervals, which require a different kind of energy production in the muscle cells – with muscular endurance rather than full-bodied, increased heart rate, sweaty, long lasting workouts. I’ve enjoyed reading the newly published book Dancer Wellness, by Wilmerding, Krasnow, and the IADMS team to refresh and revise my understanding of overall healthy dance practice. The challenges were foreign with respect to the elements of Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type (FITT Principle). For more details on how changing up your exercise plan with these factors in mind, be sure to check out the IADMS Dance Fitness Resource Paper and a few other references at the end of this post! Not only did I need more overall calories to fuel the increased energy expenditure, but I immediately discovered that the kind of calories really mattered in order to FEEL my best. I knew that. At least from a textbook, studied perspective. But, I am ultimately a kinesthetic learner…an experiential learner. I understand the world most by feeling and sensing in my own body. And so I quickly noticed that the integration of a revised balance of carbohydrates and fats to support the running made the increasing mileage possible. Whole wheat pasta dinners topped with a mix of brightly colored vegetables and a bit of mozzarella cheese made for an awesome night-before meal.
Fruit smoothies laced with spinach and a touch of almond butter were life-saving morning rituals to prepare me for longer runs. For more ideas and meal-planning brainstorms, I often consulted Livestrong. Without these foods – these combinations of nutrient dense, minimally processed fuels – my body simply didn’t feel fully capable of continuing through my run and the rest of my active day. The easily accessed sugars in fruits and veggies gave me energy quickly to start (and maintain my blood sugar); then my body could rely on the complex carbohydrates (CHO) found in the almond butter to hang tough for availability throughout the workout, stored away efficiently in my muscles and liver. Predominantly unsaturated fat, - again, from almond butter in the shakes or avocado on my toast - added a healthy energy source that allows access to aerobic pathways and fat-burning in the body for additional fuel. Protein sources were also crucial. While the CHO and fatty acids predominantly supported my aerobic energetic needs, I was also building and repairing muscle (despite my belief that my legs were already maximally mighty and sculpted from dance, running gave me a new kind of power!). I had to be sure that my proteins were high quality – chalk full of each of the essential amino acids (the ones the human body cannot self-produce) while also serving as an energy resource as I continued to train with higher mileage. The notion of a balanced plate was tricky to master each time, but critical to my success.
During my pre-running dancing days, I had not yet encountered this kind of consistent endurance challenge. I ate well enough – I’d read and studied and practiced healthy eating – but truly FEELING this need for more energy was something new, and GIVING my body what it needed also felt more magical than I could have expected! In addition to noting the need for consistently thoughtful food choices, I had to keep up with my eating. While historically I may have been a bit more lax about attending to every meal and snack – now it wasn’t an option. I felt the effects of a big gap in fueling. I believed – I’d read – that replenishing my body with carbohydrates to build muscle glycogen (energy stores) as essential and could be maximized if I ate within a three-hour window after my workout. For more information on nutrient timing for optimal recovery, this article aimed at runners is totally user-friendly. I also understood, scientifically, why the immediate availability of some carbohydrates in my system to jumpstart my workout was just as critical as ensuring digestion time so that blood flow could be directed appropriately and I didn’t have to navigate an overly ‘full’ sensation. But now, I felt the difference in my training and subsequently my dancing when I made sure to spread out my eating throughout the day. I noticed that a quinoa salad with roasted sweet potatoes and kale was a perfect replenishing lunch.
Or avocado toast with some honey and feta cheese could provide an ideal pick-me-up after any activity – a yoga class, a rehearsal, or teaching a technique class. Trail mix was a staple in my bag at all times for quick bites of nuts and dried fruit (and maybe even a dark chocolate morsel or two).
Another key element of my fueling and care-taking: hydration. I thought I would simply develop more thirst as I needed it…and I would drink enough water to match.
But I learned to be mindful of the sensations before I got behind. The National Association for Athletic Trainers has a great position paper that discusses the scientifically supported do’s and don’t’s of hydration for athletes. Water to start my day (along with a cup of coffee, because I just love it) and spread carefully throughout my workouts, no longer tied to how sweaty and slippery I felt. BUT, I also noted the difference in how I felt – more energized, clear-headed, and ready – when I kept drinking fluids into the rest of my day to help regulate my metabolism and rehydration. While this could, in itself, be a whole discussion, I also noticed what worked best for me varied a bit from day to day. I had to check in. To keep track of how I was feeling and assess whether hydration status might be playing an important role in continuing on with my daily plan and my training.
What is most exciting about this sort of nutritious and energizing personal revolution, however, is that as I move in and out of running as a cross-training mechanism, I am able to continue to FEEL what my body needs. And, while I often still refer to the IADMS Nutrition Resource Paper for reminders, I now have the memories of satiation and power that came from balanced, well-timed eating habits and I am able to return to that healthy motivation to fuel my daily activities in dance and in teaching. It isn’t always perfect, and I am aware of the micro-adjustments I need to remain in dynamic alignment with my energy and nutrient requirements. But, to be able to return to a physical sensation as a mover, grounded in my body’s knowledge, I’m happy to know that the science can also be experienced, felt.
Stevie Oakes is an Assistant Professor of Dance at the College at Brockport, SUNY near Rochester, New York. With an MFA in Dance from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Stevie continues to perform professionally for a variety of New York-based choreographers. As a member of the team at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, Stevie had the distinct privilege of honing her expertise in dance science. She blends these two passions of art and science in her teaching, paying specific attention to the application of research in the dance studio.
A few additional resources and links
FITT Principle in Training:
Cross-training design help:
More Meal-Planning Brainstorms: