Hydration, blood volume, and muscle cramping are a beautifully balanced dance between electrolytes, hormones, enzymes, and the amount of fluid dancers ingest. Staying hydrated is one of the most influential action steps a dancer can take to improve performance and reduce muscle cramping.
Why does hydration matter to your muscles?
Well-trained muscles can be up to 73 percent water. Numerous biochemical and physiological functions throughout the body depend on being properly hydrated. Water aids in digestion and is important in eliminating waste products created from working muscles. Consuming fluids often is critical, as well as eating high-water content foods like fruits, vegetables, soups, and smoothies. Once a dancer notices the thirst sensation, he/she can expect to already be experiencing fatigue and poor balance as a result of dehydration in addition to possible headache and lightheadedness.
The main electrolytes needed by the body are sodium, potassium, and chloride with calcium and magnesium playing key supporting roles. These function to help neuromuscular activity, such as when the muscles contract and release, which is why adequate consumption is critical in preventing muscle cramping. They also function to maintain fluid and acid-base balance. Potassium is also important when building new muscle tissue.
Most dancers get adequate sodium through diet alone or from a rehydration drink, but they might want to be mindful of consuming sources of the other electrolytes regularly throughout the day, especially if muscle cramping is a problem.
Sources of potassium: avocados, bananas, oranges, cantaloupe, most vegetables and beans.
Sources of calcium: almonds, almond milk, soy products, broccoli, leafy greens, beans and chia seeds. Dairy contains calcium but may be allergenic or problematic for many dancers who should be aware that calcium is in many different foods besides dairy.
Sources of magnesium: whole grains, soy, nuts, green vegetables, beans/legumes, meat and chocolate.
Working muscles need fuel.
It’s not just water and electrolytes that are helpful. Carbs are your muscles’ best source of fuel and energy. We know that providing a carbohydrate source to working muscles immediately before or even during exercise is clearly performance enhancing. This is why most sports beverages provide a rapidly absorbable source of carbohydrates like sucrose, which is a disaccharide composed of simple sugars glucose and fructose. Many sports beverages also provide dextrose, which is a simple sugar (a monosaccharide), that is easily used by working muscles and brain. Often, dancers are cautious about sugar, and that’s a good thing when we are talking about soft drinks, candy or junk food, but giving your muscles a small amount of simple carbs like sugar, honey or fruit juice in a strategic rehydration drink during exercise is not the same thing as overeating junk food.
Expert advice for working muscles.
Mandy Blackmon PT, DPT, OCS, CMTPT is one of the physical therapists for Motion Stability and keeps the Atlanta Ballet dancers at their peak. As a former dancer herself, she knows that pain can be a part of life for a dancers, but she says that they need to pay attention to muscle pain and not always ignore it. “When pain is not normal or if it is a new pain, get it looked at sooner rather than later to prevent a domino effect,” says Blackmon. Even worse, ignoring pain long-term could lead to overuse syndrome or injury down the road.
If a muscle is overworking or put into an energy crisis, it can lead to fatigue, and that puts dancers at higher risk for injury. Pay attention to muscle fatigue, suggests Blackmon. Overwork can lead to a charley horse later in the night. Inadequate nutrition, particularly the electrolytes, can lead to muscle cramping at night as well.
Blackmon also recommends proper foam rolling. “Make sure that muscles stay pliable using foam rolling in addition to healthy stretching.”
We dancers tend to push ourselves past our limits. Don’t discount the benefits of mental practice. “Know your body well enough to know signs of fatigue,” Blackmon says. “Know when to pull back a little and conserve energy and use mental practice instead of doing everything full out all the time.”
Caffeine and alcohol are both dehydrating. Even one alcoholic drink per day has been shown to affect muscle performance the next day. Regular alcohol intake can increase the excretion of calcium and magnesium, both of which can affect muscle cramping.
Make your own rehydration drink.
There are some good sports beverages on the market. However, if you’re sensitive to food coloring, preservatives or other additives in your rehydration drink, then it’s fun to make your own and adjust to your personal preferences. Keep in the refrigerator.
3 cups water
1 cup natural fruit juice of your choice (orange, pineapple, etc.)
2-3 Tbs organic cane sugar or honey
¼ tsp salt
(Bonus points for adding beetroot juice which has been shown to be performance enhancing.)
By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD of Nutrition for Great Performances.
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University, USA. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org