When Water Isn’t Enough
Choosing the right drink to boost performance
Sports drinks are designed to provide electrolyte replacement and energy for athletes. When dancers are working hard, these drinks—as well as natural alternatives like coconut water and fruit juice—can offer a boost. But each beverage is formulated differently, and the endless options can leave a dancer scratching her head by a vending machine. DT spoke to nutrition experts to learn how sports drinks can help dancers and what ingredients they should look for when choosing one to meet their needs.
When dancers sweat, their bodies lose water and electrolytes: primarily sodium and potassium. Electrolytes aid muscle and nerve function and maintain the water balance inside and outside of cells, and the blood’s pH balance. Basically, your body won’t function correctly without them.
Because dance is mostly non-aerobic—meaning you exert yourself in short bursts and then rest—dancers don’t tend to sweat as intensely as marathon runners. But if students are working hard in the studio for more than an hour without stopping, Karyn Baiorunos, nutritionist at the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC, says they may want to replace electrolytes. She suggests sipping a drink that contains potassium and roughly 100 mg per 8 oz serving of sodium. Traditional sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade work well.
Young students who move into a more intensive level may have trouble getting through class. Baiorunos says this is often because their muscles aren’t quite developed for the increased amount of work. In these cases, the right drink can give them a boost.
The energy promised by most sports drinks comes from sugar. Baiorunos recommends a drink with no more than 14 grams per serving—the magic number for increased energy. “That’s the ideal absorption,” she says. “If you go higher than that amount of sugar, the body can’t absorb it, and you end up with a stomach ache.” Skip the diet or sugar-free sports drinks that offer increased energy. Some contain caffeine, which Baiorunos does not recommend.
Sharon Wehner, principal dancer with Colorado Ballet, prefers the natural option of coconut water, which she usually mixes with water to reduce her sugar intake. Fruit juice is another natural source of sugar, and it can be diluted with water.
Whatever a student chooses, they should sip it rather than guzzle it down. “It’s giving your body a steady flow of some sugar so you can continue with class,” Baiorunos says.
A Healthy Balance
Sports drinks, even natural options like juice or coconut water, shouldn’t be a dancer’s go-to beverage during the day, Baiorunos warns, since too much of one electrolyte can put the others out of balance. “Whatever drink you choose, don’t do it all day long, unless it’s just plain water,” she says. Peggy Swistak, nutrition consultant to Pacific Northwest Ballet, notes that there are sometimes multiple servings in a bottle. Just one serving over the course of a class should be plenty to reap the benefits.
In Wehner’s 18 years dancing with Colorado Ballet, she has learned to resist passing fads and to make her own decisions about what is best for her body. “If I drink this, what am I getting?” she says. “Why am I putting this in my body, other than because my friend drinks it?”
Ultimately, the most important thing is for dancers to be hydrated. “The rule of thumb is a half a cup of fluid for every 15 minutes of dancing,” Baiorunos says. She suggests encouraging students to sip on a water bottle before, during and after class. Swistak points out that while sports drinks aren’t going to hurt you, they don’t have any magic in them either. “Some of it’s the placebo effect,” she says. “If it doesn’t hurt you and you think it’s helping, then go ahead.” DT
Kathleen McGuire is a former dancer living in Pittsburgh.