5 Strategies to Help Reduce Injury Risk in Your Studio

Learn how to reduce injury-risk in your studio!

Every studio seems to hit that point in the year where it feels like every dancer is injured. Maybe it’s the middle of competition season, just before recital, or right around when the schedule gets a little bit more hectic. The truth is, dancers experience an astoundingly high injury rate; as high as 82% of dancers experience a time-loss injury in any given year, most often cited as being from overuse and fatigue. The good news is, there is something we can do about it.

Strategy #1: Warm up

Warming up is vital to every athlete, no matter the activity! A good warm up should raise the dancer’s body temperature and heart rate, without leading to exhaustion or increasing fatigue. The increase in heat and blood flow allows the muscles to have a faster exchange of energy (more oxygen moving through the body), and heat allows muscle fibers to be more elastic, so they can stretch and rebound safer than a cold muscle. Athletes that start with a warm up are more efficient with their breathing, and have a correlated decrease in injury-rate compared to athletes that didn’t warm up.

What does a good warm up look like? The easiest way to frame it is looking at the RAMP protocol:

Raise heart rate and body temperature
Activate the large muscles
Mobilize the joints
Potentiate by preparing for specific movements.

(Noticed that we said nothing about stretching? More on that further down…)

First and foremost, get your heart rate up! This could be an easy jog or jumping jacks or incorporate it into your commute by biking to class. While you want to be sweaty, you shouldn’t be so out of breath that you can’t talk.

To activate the large muscle groups, move through easy bodyweight squats for the glutes, planks for the core, and pushups for the arms and back. Keep everything nice and easy—you’re still trying to wake up the muscles, not wear them out!

To mobilize the joints, think of adding fluidity to your movement. Again, keep it simple and do what feels good. Now is the time to start circling wrists, ankles, shoulders, hips, and incorporate some easy leg swings.

Finally, we’re at potentiate – here’s where you finally get to shift towards more dance-specific work. This may involve dynamic stretching, or moving into more pliés and tendués so you can transition into the rest of class.

Encourage dancers to show up for class early, or schedule the first five minutes of class to be dedicated to warming up.

Strategy #2: Look at your footwear.

Our feet hold 25% percent of our bones, but have to support 100% of our body mass; any shoe we put under the surface of our foot can greatly impact gait, alignment, and performance. As dancers, we push our feet to their extremes—either by using the full extent of our range of motion or as the first point of contact when landing from a jump. Some shoes are made to help with these demands, such as a pointe shoe that provides a platform for us to stand en pointe.

However, most dance footwear is not evolving to meet the needs of dancers.

Dance footwear is largely designed for aesthetics instead of performance, comfort, and safety. There is a growing body of research on dance footwear, with some dancewear companies starting to integrate synthetic material found in tennis shoes into pointe shoes. However, none of these companies have published validated studies on whether or not these shoes actually decrease injury-risk or improve performance parameters.
There is evidence that compression socks can help reduce inflammation in the feet, and a reduction in inflammation can help reduce injury-risk. Incorporating a compression sock or leg warmer with our current dance shoes can help reduce the chance of injury, whether you are a dancer or a teacher. I strongly recommend Apolla Shocks as they are the only dance compression socks that I know of that are researched and validated to redistribute pressure through the foot, and were designed with dancers and injury-reduction in mind.

Strategy #3: Don’t overstretch.

Dancers need a high level of flexibility to meet the aesthetics of the art form, but there can be too much of a good thing. Most stretching we see is either static or dynamic. Static stretching is holding a maximum range of motion in one spot for a period of time, while dynamic stretching involves moving through your range of motion without pushing anything to discomfort or holding anything for more than a few seconds

There is such an emphasis on flexibility in dance that dancers often prepare for class solely by stretching, or think they have to sit in the splits while watching TV to improve. However, there is evidence that prolonged static stretching can be detrimental to muscles and performance, seen in reduced strength, jump height, and agility.

One incredible example of avoiding excessive stretching is the Australian Ballet. After the physiotherapy team for the company asked the dancers to stop stretching their calves before, during, and after rehearsal and to instead focus on strengthening their calf endurance, they saw a significant decrease in foot and ankle injuries. The company now applies that principal to all the muscles: strengthening instead of stretching.

The best time to try to gain flexibility and stretch is after class or a workout, when all your joints are warm and pliable. Hold static stretches for 30 seconds each for maximum flexibility gains; anything longer than a minute may be detrimental to muscular performance. Be cognizant of discomfort in the muscle you are stretching. While being warm is a good time to push the muscle into a little bit of discomfort, you do not want to damage the muscle fibers by pushing too far too fast. Stretching when you are cold is pointless; any range of motion gains will be temporary, and you increase your risk of injury (no more watching TV in the splits, please!).

Strategy #4: Take a break.

Growing up, I was taught that taking a couple days off from ballet would lead to a decline in my performance and technique. Imagine my amazement when I learned that taking time off actually benefits a dancer in the long run!

The intensity of a dancer’s schedule has a high chance of leading to overtraining. 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. 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 overtraining, athletes have periods of rest and tapering built into their training schedule. In dance, this is a little tricky since we don’t have an “on” and “off” season schedule, but rather go at full intensity all year round. What we can do is allow breaks to actually be breaks, encouraging our dancers to rest and take time off from activity so their bodies can heal and return to dance energized. Additionally, instead of increasing rehearsals and intensity right before a performance, ease up on activity time so that the dancers can perform at their maximum potential—otherwise they are going into a competition or show weekend already drained, and fatigue increases the chance of injury.

Strategy #5: Keep that heart rate up!

Dance largely trains our anaerobic capacity–our ability to do short, intense bursts of activity—but largely neglects our aerobic, or endurance, capacity. Endurance training is anything that sustains the heart rate at an elevated state for an extended period of time, such as long-distance running. Despite the length of our classes, dance is not steady state as it involves frequent stops for learning combinations or hearing corrections. The detriment of this comes at performance time. 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 combat this, 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 combination—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. Or, incorporate endurance training into your studio’s schedule by offering a conditioning class. Ideally, endurance training should happen 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). I would also back off a couple weeks before a show, so the dancers have time to fully recover and perform at their maximum (this is best explained by the theory of periodization and super compensation, which I dive into here).

At the end of the day, we have to remember dancers are athletes and should be treated and trained as such. By incorporating principles of athletic training into a dancer’s regiment, we can help reduce injuries and prolong a dancer’s career!

This post was contributed by Julie Ferrell-Olson, MSc.

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