Summary: This month we take a brief look at the risks of overtraining and burnout and some simple steps we as teachers and dancers can take to make sure we are optimizing recovery.
December always seems to be the month filled with the most stress. Especially as dancers, we find ourselves in the middle of studio showcases, Nutcracker performances, or even just trying to squeeze in as many rehearsals as possible before the holidays hit. Then, we might get a couple of days off before jumping into a winter intensive or straight back into more rehearsal.
“I’m fine! My one day off totally restored all my energy and helped my muscles recover!” said no one ever. Rest and recovery are not words that are thrown around the in the dance world—if anything, we find the opposite. Taking time away from dance is viewed as a negative, indicating a dancer might not be dedicated. Plot twist: that’s not true at all. In fact, a dancer that knows when to take a step back and prioritize recovery time may be better off in the long run.
The high intensity of a dancer’s schedule has a high chance of leading to overtraining and burnout; both syndromes carry the symptoms of reduced ability to perform and prolonged fatigue, and burnout includes a lack of motivation and a reduced sense of accomplishment. Although these two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, it’s easiest to understand overtraining as what happens to the body, and burnout as what happens to the mind after intense bouts of training over a period of time. Not every athlete will experience these syndromes, but it is important for teachers and dancers to understand the risks and causes.
Overtraining can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic), but is caused when there is an imbalance between exercise and recovery time for an extended period of time—or when you do too much too soon for too long. Acute overtraining mostly leads to short-term muscle damage, while chronic overtraining may result in chronic fatigue, increased risk of upper-respiratory infections, and menstrual irregularities. Both acute and chronic overtraining can lead to an increased risk of injuries. To combat the risk of overtraining, several sports build recovery and rest into their training schedules, and allow time for the athletes to slowly build up strength and conditioning pre-season. Although this is not a common practice in the dance world, some conservatoires have adjusted their annual schedule to allow time to taper and rest before performances; preliminary results have not yet been published on the injury levels or overtraining symptoms.
Burnout gets a little bit more complicated than overtraining, as it gets into the mental health of the dancer. A dancer’s risk of burnout is not only affected by the training level but also the psychological and social environment they are in. There is a theory (the Self-Determination Theory) that if a dancer’s basic psychological needs are compromised—competence at the activity, relatedness to peers and teachers, and autonomy—they may be at a greater risk for burnout.
Some research suggests there is a decrease in basic psychological needs fulfillment throughout the dance year, but this decrease was unrelated to an increase in physical exhaustion (overtraining). While burnout-risk is even more individual than overtraining, teachers can help support dancers by being cognizant of the basic psychological needs and allowing dancers space and time to take care of their mental wellbeing.
As we conclude this high-intensity season and wrap up our dance training for 2019, it pays to go into the next decade with a fresh perspective on what it means to take care of our minds and bodies in dance. To optimize rest and recovery and combat the risk of overtraining and burnout, allow yourself the time off without guilt. Taking one to two weeks off without training will allow your muscles time to rebuild and recover, and help your body fight off inflammation—personally, when I was training in undergrad I found my dancing actually improved after two weeks off compared to when I was rundown at the end of a semester. As we move into 2020, make it a goal to incorporate increased rest into your schedule and not maintain the same intensity every single day.
Additionally, sleep can do amazing things in the recovery process—generally, athletes that obtain the optimal eight hours of quality sleep saw a significant reduction in injuries. Teachers, try to spend the first two weeks or so back in class reconditioning the bodies before increasing the intensity of classes and rehearsals. Additionally, start to cultivate a supportive community that encourages your dancers to explore and take risks on their own without judgment and grow in their confidence as dancers.
Daily Dancer Takeaway: Allow yourself time off—especially around the holidays—to rest and recharge without guilt, knowing it will benefit you in the long run to combat the risk of overtraining and burnout.
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