How to safely incorporate running as a cross-training activity—and reap the benefits
When Amanda Lea LaVergne was performing eight shows a week in the adult ensemble of Broadway’s Annie, rehearsals, performances and press obligations took up most of her time. But when she wasn’t backstage or onstage in full hair and makeup, she was in spandex and sneakers, pursuing another goal: training for the New York City Marathon.
LaVergne is one of many dancers today embracing a growing trend: running. For years, dancers have been told not to run because it would rob them of their flexibility, make their hips tight or bulk up their quads. When done correctly, though, running can complement dancing. “Since my career involves singing while dancing, my stamina and strength are better, and that’s because I’m a runner,” says LaVergne.
You don’t need to train for a marathon to experience the health benefits of running. But if your dancers are thinking about adding running to their cross-training regimens, here’s what they need to know before hitting the road.
Before you even think about becoming friends with the gym treadmill, getting the proper footwear is crucial. “Go to a running specialty store and get fitted,” says Daphnie Yang, personal trainer and running coach, graduate of Tisch-NYU’s Collaborate Arts Project 21 (CAP21) and former member of Balasole Dance Company. “The shoe experts will be able to analyze your stride, gait and foot strike and can make sure you’re running in shoes that fit you and your body.” Young dancers may be tempted to pick the cutest pair in the brightest colors, but it’s more important to wear shoes that will support your body as you run, or that can help correct any imbalances, such as pronation (rolling your foot inward as you step on it) or supination (rolling the foot outward).
“A warm-up, just like in dance class, is critical,” says Yang. Before you begin running, do a few gentle exercises to bring oxygen and blood to your muscles and joints. Yang suggests doing a few jumping jacks and then jogging very slowly before you increase your pace.
Start Slow—Really Slow
A common mistake new runners make is doing too much too soon—either wanting to run too many miles right away, or wanting to run really fast right out of the gate. “As strong as your dancing self can be, running is a different beast,” says Holly Mendoza-Hendricks, professional dancer with Vissi Dance Theater and Amy Marshall Dance Company. “You want to make sure you’re working up to it.”
Yang adds, “Start slow, then gradually increase your pace as you warm up. The first five minutes of your run should be the slowest. Then work your way up to 10 minutes, then 15, then 20, then 30. Run at a pace where it feels like you’re loosening up the legs versus pushing the speed. You should feel slightly sweaty, a little out of breath and like your legs are gently striking the ground.”
Watch Your Form
“Don’t strike with your heels, keep your shoulders relaxed and keep your core engaged,” Yang says. “If you’re running correctly, you should feel like you’re floating.” Engage your hamstrings, glutes and core as much as you can. A tip for making sure your upper body stays relaxed: Shake it out. “Drop your arms and shake them out once in a while, and give your neck a good roll,” says dancer, fitness model and spin instructor Jessalyn Gliebe. “It’s amazing how tight you can get, because you’re not always thinking about your upper body when you run.”
Don’t stop your run abruptly. Spend the last three to five minutes backing off the pace until you’re walking. “A cooldown flushes out lactic acid and helps prevent soreness,” says Yang.
Stretch, Stretch, Stretch…and Foam Roll
The easiest way to combat added tightness from running is by making stretching a “non-negotiable,” according to Yang. On top of running up to 10 miles a day when training, Gliebe also adds hot vinyasa yoga to her fitness regimen to aid her stretching and help with core strength. LaVergne carries a lacrosse ball with her at all times—“It’s perfect for rolling out my feet and getting into those tight little spots”—and she devotes ample time to easing into lunges and figure-four stretches (where you cross the ankle at the knee seated or lying down and pull legs toward torso or torso toward legs) to keep her hips open.
Reap the Benefits
There’s plenty of muscle to be gained from running. “I was always a graceful dancer,” says Gliebe. “Running gave me all that strength in my legs, though, which made me a powerful jumper.” Plus, dance can be a largely anaerobic activity, where you are extremely active in brief intervals. Going for a run gets the heart rate up and keeps it there for an extended period of time. “Running gave me the cardiovascular endurance of a beast,” says Yang.
For touring dancers, there’s convenience in being able to exercise anywhere, even if there’s no gym or studio nearby. All you need is a pair of sneakers to take a run outside. “It’s the most consistent way to stay in shape when I’m traveling,” says LaVergne. Plus, it gives her the opportunity to see the world beyond the auditorium. “Running is the best way to see the cities I’m traveling through.” DT
Alison Feller is a dancer-turned-runner and former editor in chief of Dance Spirit. She has completed three marathons and was training for her fourth at press time.
Photo by Coty Tarr, courtesy of Jessalyn Gliebe; courtesy of Holly Mendoza-Hendricks