Fuelling a Dancer

To perform at their best, dancers need to be well fuelled for classes, rehearsals, and performances. It is so vital to obtain the correct amount of energy needed for dance training and the right balance of carbohydrate, fat, protein, micronutrients, and fluids.

One important challenge facing many dancers is ingesting the right amounts of food in the correct ratio to meet the energy demands of dance. The first step in planning a high performance meal plan is to be sure that the dancer is obtaining adequate calories. A low calorie intake will not only compromise energy availability, it can also lead to an under-ingestion of many micronutrients that could affect performance, growth and health. After calculating the number of calories needed, the next step is to estimate the necessary amount of carbohydrate, fat, and protein, the building blocks of the diets. One of our dieticians can assists the dancer with this.

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Carbohydrates are important as a major energy source in muscles. Dancers are required to ensure a sufficient intake of carbohydrates. An intake below recommendations may compromise their ability to train because of low muscle glycogen levels. They may feel more fatigued during classes and rehearsals.

Fat from the diet provides structure for all cell membranes, comprises the insulating layer around nerves, forms the base of many hormones, is needed for the absorption of fat soluble vitamins, and is an important fuel for muscles. A diet too low in fat can have serious health consequences and ultimately can impair performance.

Adequate protein ingestion is essential for all dancers who are training. For those dancers who are not building muscle, protein is needed to repair the breakdown of muscle fibres that are stressed by constant use. Protein is also used as an auxiliary fuel, and it is important for producing the many enzymes necessary for metabolism.

Vitamins and minerals comprise the micronutrients in the diet. The B vitamins play important roles in energy production. Deficiency of these vitamins can impair performance. Vitamins A, C, and E function as antioxidants that are necessary for the repair of over-stressed muscles and are needed to help muscles recover from strenuous classes and rehearsals. Vitamin D is important in bone formation.  Calcium is important in bone formation. It is essential to ingest adequate calcium during the bone growth years. Low bone mass and low calcium intake are also associated with increased risk of stress fractures. The richest source of calcium is dairy products.  Iron is a trace mineral needed to carry oxygen in the blood. Iron rich foods should be included daily. Adjusting the diet so that it is rich in micronutrients is the recommended means of obtaining necessary micronutrients. To obtain all important micronutrients, dancers should increase the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, dairy products, and lean red meat. Because not all vitamins or minerals occur in all foods, dancers should ingest a wide variety of foods. A calorie restricted or monotonous diet could lead to a deficiency in some of these vitamins and could impair the ability to train strenuously and recover.

Exercise increases heat production by muscles. Cooling the body depends on evaporation of sweat from the skin. Fluid loss results in dehydration that can impair performance and mental functioning, such as the ability to quickly pick up complicated choreographic combinations and execute them effectively. Water is the fluid of choice and it is recommended to avoid carbonated drinks and fruit juices.  A simple way to monitor hydration is to check urine colour: clear to light yellow is hydrated; yellow to dark yellow means dehydrated.

All dancers need to ingest sufficient energy to meet the rigours of hard training. Consuming the right amounts and types of food and fluid will provide the body with “high performance fuel” necessary to achieve optimal training benefits and peak performance.

Written by Jasmine Challis, RD, and Adrienne Stevens, EdD, with Margaret Wilson, PhD, under the auspices of the IADMS Education Committee.

This paper may be reproduced for educational purposes, provided acknowledgement is given to the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science, May 2016. www.iadms.org

Copyright © 2016 International Association for Dance Medicine & Science (IADMS)