For many dancers, the end-of-year performances are a critical time to be seen and demonstrate what you have achieved, but it’s also a time to enjoy all that hard work and get out there and shine. It’s hard to shine when you are exhausted and fatigued, so this is all about how to use food and hydration to feel and perform your best in those final weeks.
#1. Start your hydration routine long before the actual day of shows.
In the week preceding the concert, gradually increase your water intake by taking in about 450-600 ml (16-18oz) at regular intervals throughout the day. For example, invest in a sturdy 1 litre water bottle and aim to finish it every three hours (more if you’re exercising heavily), then refill and repeat. After exercise, it’s critical to rehydrate. Finish your water bottle off if you haven’t already, and then add an additional 250-450 ml. Continue to drink fluids or have a fluid-heavy meal (like soup, veggies and fruit) when you get home.
#2. Glycogen stores are your best friend.
Glycogen is the storage form of energy in your muscles and liver. It’s what dancers access quickly when they jump into a variation after standing in the wings. Making sure that your glycogen storage “tanks” start off full each day is key to having that extra energy to get through the last push of big jumps in the show.
Help your body maintain glycogen stores by first not restricting carbohydrates when you are dancing. So fuel up with oats, rice, veggies, beans, potatoes and whole grains pre-dance. After dance, you have a window in which your body makes an enzyme that boosts glycogen storage for the next day. So eat a carbohydrate source within 30 minutes after dance. If you don’t have time right then to sit down to a nice lentil and rice salad or bowl of pasta and broccoli, that’s okay; at least drink a sports beverage with carbohydrates or fruit, nut and soy milk smoothie. Many of my dancers just sip on a stay-fresh boxed chocolate soy milk as they are leaving the studio. Yummy and easy. Don’t skip dinner on late nights. Make sure a post-show refuel is part of your routine.
#3. Protein to rebuild.
There are way too many myths about protein out there. It’s really quite simple. All protein sources are chains of amino acids that get broken down in digestion and then rebuilt by the body in new combinations to repair muscles and function in the many other biological processes that use amino acids. However, different protein sources can have different effects on the body because of other compounds in the food.
To lower inflammation during show week, choose proteins like beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains and soy that don’t have the same inflammatory response that bacon, hot dogs and processed meats do. For example, black beans are actually dark purple, and that color is made from phytonutrients that fight inflammation and are cancer protective. Beans have other important nutrients like carbohydrate, zinc and iron that also help with recovery. Plus, they’re way cheaper than red meat. Even eggs or fish would be better choices for recovery protein than meat from a cow or a pig. Aim for 15-22 grams for a post-dance meal.
#4. Anti-inflammatory power foods.
Try to include a few of these phytonutrient-rich, inflammation-lowering foods in your pre-show week or even on show day: pineapple, beets and beetroot juice shots, tart cherry juice shots or smoothies, blueberries, turmeric tea or turmeric capsules. Mushroom teas and mushroom extracts are the hot thing in nutrition today. Try adding a cordycepts mushroom extract powder into your smoothie or in a tea or coffee. Several companies like Four Sigmatic sell these internationally and have good quality standards. Don’t go overboard on caffeine, but a little is okay.
#5. Your body needs fuel and sleep.
The most important thing you can do during concert week is to fuel your body well. Too many dancers fall into an energy-sapping trap of trying to lose weight “right before the show”. The week of the concert is not the time to try to lose weight by restricting energy from food. Sure, maybe it’s not the best time for sweets, soda or ice cream, but that doesn’t mean you crash diet with the mistaken idea that somehow you are going to look better in your costume. Take a multivitamin with vitamin D3 if you can. Plan ahead, pack your snacks to bring with you, and make sure you have a good dinner when you get home in the evening. Even a simple can or box of minestrone soup with a peanut butter sandwich is preferable to not eating at night. You don’t have to be a chef to eat well during show week. Open a can of beans and make a couple of tacos. Don’t forget how critical sleep is. Show weekends are not the time to stay up and read the entire internet. Get some rest.
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. 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