I am on summer break right now, and I am worried about losing some of the strength that I gained last year. Do you know of anything I can do during my time off to maintain my leg, back, core and arm strength? Is swimming good for strength training?
Encouraging students to stay active during vacation will help them smoothly return to dance in the fall.
Running keeps Ailey’s Alicia Graf Mack strong during off-season.
The leggy and lean Alicia Graf Mack needs to keep herself in top form when Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has time off. When she returns to rehearsal in the fall, her body must be prepared for a jam-packed season that lasts nearly seven months. “Ailey is an extremely athletic company,” she says. “I have been jogging for over 10 years, and it definitely keeps my stamina strong.”
It’s tempting for dancers to cut all physical activity out of their summer break plans. But while students don’t necessarily have to continue taking regular classes, they should consider taking up activities that will keep them in shape. If stamina and muscle strength aren’t maintained during these months off, it may be physically difficult—and dangerous—to jump into a full dance schedule in the fall. Working out during the summer helps dancers safely transition back into class, while giving them the opportunity to get out of the studio.
Jogging is a simple and free way to burn calories and build stamina, but dancers have to be careful. Running puts pressure on the hips, knees and ankles—joints already overworked in dance training. Because of this, Los Angeles Ballet physical therapist Susanne Thom advises against running until bone structures have matured (typically between ages 17 and 19). She also cautions those who are extremely hypermobile or have a history of stress fractures, knee pain or eating disorders, because they are more susceptible to recurring injuries and stress fractures.
Wearing shoes specifically for running and running on a track will help absorb some of the impact. “Dancers should never run on concrete,” says Thom. The hard surface often slopes slightly, throwing off correct running form. Regardless of surface, dancers should watch that they’re running in parallel position, not turned out, and end all jogs with stretches for the quadriceps and calves. Ultimately, a dancer should listen to her body as intently as she does in the studio. “If my knee is hurting or my hip is tight, I will walk,” says Graf Mack. “I will still get the same benefits.”
Although it may not always burn as many calories, biking has many of the same cardiovascular benefits as running, but it “puts less stress on the ankles, feet and knees,” says Thom. Her clients use indoor training bikes so they can adjust the machine’s measurements to their bodies. But Julie O’Connell, director of Performing Arts Medicine at Athletico Physical Therapy in Chicago, prefers outdoor bikes for dancers. She finds that stationary bikers are tempted to set the resistance level unnecessarily high, which leads to bulky thighs. Working on a regular bike removes this temptation and gives dancers a chance to exercise outdoors. Finding a bike suited for the dancer’s body will allow her to exercise safely—good fit means the knee isn’t hyperextended when the pedal is in its lowest position. And like with running, the quadriceps should be stretched out afterward to avoid overbuilt muscles.
O’Connell strongly recommends swimming to her dancing patients. Unlike running and biking, which mostly work the lower body, swimming activates all of the major muscle groups, including the arms, legs and core. It also puts little weight on the joints, which makes it especially safe for dancers coming back from injury or those who have musculoskeletal problems, says Thom. To promote healthy bone density, it should be paired with exercise that does put some weight on the joints, such as yoga, Gyrotonic and Pilates. And as with most sports, dancers should be aware of their alignment, since swimming movements are very repetitive. Thom advises taking a lesson with a coach to learn correct technique. DT
Tess Jones is a freelance writer and certified yoga instructor in Seattle.
Safe Summer Training
DON'T EXERCISE EVERY DAY: The body needs a break from physical activity. “There should be at least one day of rest per week,” says Julie O’Connell of Athletico Physical Therapy. “They need time to let their bodies recover.”
STAY HYDRATED: Summer heat and sun will increase water loss. O’Connell recommends drinking 15–20 ounces of water 2–3 hours before exercise, and 8–10 ounces every 15 minutes of aerobic activity.
LEARN WHAT YOUR BODY CAN HANDLE: One of the biggest mistakes Los Angeles Ballet physical therapist Susanne Thom sees is overtraining. Pay attention to what your body can take in terms of mileage, time and intensity, and listen intently.
STRENGTHEN AND STRETCH: Alternate cardio with targeted, low-impact activities like Pilates, Gyrotonic or yoga, which promote lean muscle by using the body’s own weight and stretching throughout. Some studios offer outdoor yoga or stand-up paddleboard yoga (yoga on a paddleboard in water) as a fun summertime activity.