Endurance Training for Dancers Part 2

Cross-Training Part 2: Endurance Training with Julie Ferrell-Olson

Written by
Julie Ferrell
Tuesday 28, 2020

Cross-Training Part 2: Endurance Training

with Julie Ferrell-Olson

Summary: In Part 2 of our Cross-Training series, we take a quick look at metabolic (energy) pathways, why aerobic training is important for dancers, and a few ways to increase our aerobic capacity!

A few months ago, we looked at the benefits of resistance training and a few ways to incorporate it into a dancer’s schedule. We’re going to keep going with the Cross-Training series and dive into Endurance Training for dancers!

First, let’s look at some basic physiology. As we exercise, the demands placed on our bodies' energy supply are either anaerobic or aerobic. Anaerobic (without oxygen) exercises are short, maximal bursts of activity that usually last under two minutes. Our body uses stored energy from the muscles in the form of glucose to fuel that quick demand through a process called glycolysis. Glycolysis is not the most efficient metabolic pathway as glucose does not break down to as much energy as it is able to, but it is the fastest way to get energy to the muscles.  We only have a limited supply of glucose stored, and any activity that extends past two minutes starts to use oxygen as an energy source through oxidative phosphorylation- that’s when we hit aerobic activity.

(Adapted from Exercise Physiology, McArdle, Katch and Katch)

Endurance exercise- also called aerobic exercise - is an activity that places a demand on the heart and respiratory rate for an extended amount of time. The easiest example of this is endurance sports such as long-distance running, swimming, or cycling.

Although classes may last 60 to 90 minutes, dance is not a steady-state exercise and may include a lot of rest time. Most of class is spent learning, with short combinations and phrase work interspersed, performed at a submaximal state (not at your highest heart rate range). Classwork may place occasional demands on the aerobic energy pathways, but is usually not enough to add stress and physiological improvements to the aerobic capacity of a dancer.

In contrary, the demands of performing on stage are usually much higher than what is seen in the studio. Studies found that class and rehearsal do not prepare dancers for the physiological demands of performance. While a full dance piece may be very demanding, the rehearsal process can be a lot of stop and wait time while a choreographer is creating and a dancer is learning. Dancers often jump into performance seasons under conditioned but may exhibit an improved aerobic capacity at the end of a run of shows. Being underprepared for a performance will impede a dancer’s ability to perform to their best ability as fatigue sets in, leaving them more susceptible to injuries.

To help dancers meet the aerobic demands of a long performance, the work done in class needs to be altered. Consider trying to keep activity continuous, at least to a point that the heart rate stays elevated through more of class. This may be reducing “down time” between combinations, or one long, set warm-up—just keep in mind that the principals of overloading still apply, and exercises may need to increase in length or difficulty to keep the body from totally adapting and plateauing, rather than continuing to improve in fitness. 

Dancers may also consider supplemental work outside of the studio. Incorporate your own endurance training into your schedule around 3 times a week for 30-45 minutes. If you’re new to endurance training, start out with less—even just 10 minutes—and slowly increase your time over a few weeks. This can be any steady-state activity that elevates your heart rate, but does not have to work at your maximum. To help prevent overtraining, keep track of how you’re feeling after a workout and the day after—the may be something physical you can track like heart rate, or just monitor fatigue levels and recovery based on how you feel (Fitness trackers—although not the most reliable on tracking heart rate—are a good, accessible, and affordable piece of equipment to track data such as heart rate and work load).

Running, cycling, swimming, and rowing are all great endurance activities, but there are a couple myths about what is and isn’t safe for dancers. There is a fear within the dance community that certain forms of endurance will decrease your performance, bulk up your thighs, and cause too much stress on the knees. First: we need to dispel the idea that there is just one “dancer’s body” Although different techniques hold up certain ideal proportions as being “the best”, it is so unrealistic for everyone to try to attain that look. The dance world needs to shift its perspective from “thin” to STRONG. Strong, fit dancers will have longer careers with less injuries and have the energy availability to perform long, arduous pieces. Additionally, endurance training alone will not build bulky muscles unless you already have a naturally muscular body type. If anything, physiologically, the body will naturally slim down with increased endurance work so it can move more efficiently.

With running especially, there is an idea that striking the ground over and over again will put too much stress on our knees. Every single time we land a jump or place any type of force into the ground, our body experiences a ground reaction force. Basically, the amount of force we place into the earth while landing is the same amount of force that is felt through the body (every action has an equal, opposite reaction). Landing a grand jeté, dancers can experience a ground reaction force as high as 4.38 times their body weight. In comparison, running ground reaction forces are usually around 2.5 times a person’s body weight. Although running is repetitive, there should not be an increased risk of injury with proper running shoes and form unless you are already susceptible to injury in the lower extremity. If you have a history of injuries, especially in the knees, please talk to a clinician before you start a running or cycling program.

Running is the most accessible form of endurance exercise—all you need are running shoes*. Non-traction Apolla Shocks are also a fantastic addition to support the foot without impeding movement! If you are still worried about placing too much stress on the joints, swimming laps is a great alternative that can also support upper body strength and mobility.

With several studios still shut down under COVID-19 restrictions, this can be a really good opportunity to undertake endurance training and improve your aerobic capacity!

Daily Dancer Takeaway: Teachers, consider altering class to challenge dancer’s aerobic pathways. Dancers, now can be a great time to start improving your own aerobic capacity by adding endurance training to your weekly schedule!

*Running shoes can make a huge impact on gait and running economy. If you are able to, I highly suggest getting fitted for shoes at a running store.


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