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Dance talk: Tips for dealing with fatigue

Dance talk: Tips for dealing with fatigue

It's hard enough battling with the physical fatigue that comes hand in hand with strenuous dance training (let alone the frequent sore toes and miscellaneous bruises), so the last thing any dancer needs is to be feeling constantly tired and low on energy as well.  Feeling exhausted all the time isn't only detrimental to performance, it also puts your body at greater risk of injury,  and takes a serious toll on your motivation levels. When you're suffering from exhaustion you're more likely to get sick, feel emotional, make mistakes and not be your usually productive, happy self.

If any of the above symptoms sound familiar, well, you're not alone - it would seem we're currently facing an 'exhaustion epidemic' in recent times, with women in particular reporting fatigue and general exhaustion to be one of their main health concerns. However, whilst the causes for fatigue vary from person to person there are some helpful things you can do to reduce the likelihood of hitting that energy slump on a day-to-day basis. So don't worry, we've got some tips that should have you back to rising-and-shining in no time!

1. First step: Input = output.

The day's just begun and your eyelids are already drooping, so naturally you reach for a cup of coffee (or maybe tea) to help wake you up and give you a vital energy boost. Perfect  strategy, right? ...right?! Unfortunately things get a little bit tricky where caffeine is involved,  and coffee might not actually be the brilliant saviour we'd like to believe. For some people, coffee can actually increase the feelings of fatigue and leave you feeling drowsier than ever (genetic factors also contribute to this - thanks mum and dad!). Plus, both the sugar and caffeine that are found in coffee can cause your blood sugar levels to fluctuate dramatically, ending with a significant lull in energy. So whilst the immediate effects of a latte might be a small boost, ultimately too much caffeine can leave you even more tired than before. And we've all heard the rule about not drinking coffee within three hours of going to bed (unless you enjoy staying awake all night that is!), but even if you are one of those people who is less affected by caffeine and can still fall asleep the affects of caffeine can still cause you to have a more 'broken' sleep, making you restless, easily disturbed and unable to fall into the most beneficial 'deep sleep' state.  

There's no need to despair if you are a coffee lover like me though, you don't have to quit your caffeine beverage cold-turkey to ditch the drowsiness, just try changing your outlook instead: rather than using caffeine as a daily life-saver, see it as a treat to be enjoyed every now and then. This way not only will you savour the experience more, but smaller doses of caffeine are much more likely to have that positive, energising effect on the body that you were craving in the first place! Our favourite philosophy towards health and nutrition is 'everything in moderation',  and despite what your tastebuds might tell you your body will do it's job just perfectly, it's pretty good at summoning up the energy you need for the day without relying on extra stimulants. So let it do what it does best and keep the caffeine for the odd indulgence. You might just find yourself feeling 110% better. 

- Clever dancers should also keep in mind that caffeine is a diuretic substance (which means that it causes the body to withhold less water, making the heart pump harder in order to transport the denser blood around your body - and causing dehydration, making you extra lethargic). So be sure to take an extra bottle of H2O to class on days when you're treating yourself.

Treat yourself (but not three times a day)! ;)

Treat yourself (but not three times a day)! ;)

2. Say no to quick fixes!

Alright then, what about something like a Mars bar - yes it's a little unhealthy, obviously we all know that it's not the world's most nutritionally - erm - wholesome snack... and yet we still often get fooled into thinking that when your willpower occasionally fails you that at the very least a chocolate bar would be a decent energy boost, surely.  Well, sorry to burst the tasty bubble, but that's just not so. The problem with most junk food is that the levels of fat and/or grease that they contain require considerably greater work to be broken down by the body, so a lot of your energy source is burned trying to just break down these foods (and taking precious oxygen away from other important areas, like the brain) rather than fuelling your muscles. This (surprise surprise) leaves you feeling lethargic and not at all re-invigorated by your quick-fix meal. Take-away and junk foods also often contain a lot of sugar or simple carbohydrates which (like caffeine) can cause a short energy 'buzz' followed by a pretty big crash due to blood sugar levels changing. Sugary-rich foods can also put enormous stress on hormones as your adrenal glands try to compensate for this crash by releasing cortisol, the steroid-like substance that contributes to feelings of excitement and stress. And here's the catch - new studies have shown that our brains actually interpret these foods as more rewarding and pleasurable when we are sleepy. So now you've been fore-warned, next time you're feeling sleepy, resist the burger and fries, it's just your brain playing tricks on you... think about that super yummy chicken salad wrap instead,  or if it's the sweetness you're pining for then why not whip up a batch of Ballerina Bites' sinfully healthy sweet treats to keep your tastebuds super happy ...and voila, being healthy never tasted so good! :)

Left - Oat Balls, Centre, centre: a delicious green fruit smoothie, right - naughty vegan chocolate cake - all by @ballerina_bites

3. Not just what you eat but when:

So no stuffing ourselves full of coffee and doughnuts - got it, but did you also think about when you're fuelling up? As dancers we don't need to be told twice that timing is e-v-e-r-y-thing. Yet the repercussions of eating late somehow don't seem quite as bad as getting behind the music in class (oh the horror!) but your body might disagree.  By midday, your metabolism is reaching it's peak, so that's the perfect time to get in your fuel for the day. As a dancer (or just someone who is very active!) it can be hard to eat a filling meal when you're going straight into classes or rehearsal afterwards, but it's imperative that you don't skip out on food when your body needs it most, lunchtime is the best window to top up on some healthy sources of proteins and complex carbohydrates (complex carbs release their sugars gradually as they are broken down, keeping your blood sugar levels much more stable than simple carbs, ie. all your sugary foods). Focus on including wholegrains, brown rice, bananas and other fruit (especially the seeds and skins) nutrient-rich vegetables like broccoli, spinach, carrots, cucumber and peas, or other snack-able things like almonds, walnuts, boiled eggs, quinoa or greek yoghurt, which are excellent sources of protein and carbohydrates. Fibre rich foods are also great for helping regulate energy levels if you often suffer from afternoon slumps (think avocados, berries, beans and nuts). Aim to make breakfast and lunch your larger meals of the day, as when daylight begins to wane, the body clock decreases the secretion of active hormones and the metabolism naturally slows down.

Mmm, tasty!

Mmm, tasty!

IF however, you do get stuck eating late (we all end up midnight snacking at least once every now and then...) make it another serving of nutrient-packed carbs that will help you relax and detoxify while you sleep. A final food-related titbit to keep in mind is to keep a tab on your iron levels if you're feeling run down. Without a sufficient supply of iron the body can't adequately transport oxygen to the working muscles, which can have a big impact on athletes in particular. Spinach, red meats and kidney beans are a great way to boost your iron levels.

4. Sleep smarter

...and finally for the most obvious fatigue-fighting factor: make sure you're getting a really good sleep each night to allow your body and mind time to recharge. Studies suggest that well-rested people are typically 20 percent quicker at performing physical tasks than those who lack adequate rest, which means it's time to start prioritising your beauty sleep. When it comes to getting some rest, two main factors are going to influence how well-slept you are when you wake up the next morning, the first being how much time you give yourself (be kind here, do you really need to watch that eleven o'clock show, or check your facebook again?), and how easily you fall asleep. You might think  the second factor is pretty much uncontrollable and that there's nothing you can do to help yourself drift off sooner, but actually there's quite a lot. So if you are one of those people who tosses and turns for half an hour, keep reading!

Firstly, lay off the lights (I know I know, performers thrive under lights right, but let's save that for on-stage, capiche?) This doesn't just mean the light that comes from your light bulbs either. All of those things that are brightening up your house are tricking your brain into thinking it's still daytime and stopping you from falling asleep. TV screens, phones, iPads, iPods, computers, and even strong streetlights shining in your window are keeping you up. Light suppresses the production of melatonin, a hormone secreted at sunset that tells the brain that it's nighttime, and because of this your brain keeps buzzing long into the night. Other things that can make you restless are too much sensory stimulation, loud noises, being too hot or too cold and visual stimulants like watching the TV or YouTube. So a few hours before you plan on sleeping, dim as many of the light sources in your house as you can, close your curtains, switch off unnecessary lights, try not to use the computer (but if you have to, dim the screen) engage in something relaxing, like reading a book, listening to some music or taking a warm (but not hot!) bath.  If it's worry that's keeping you up, remind yourself of this kick-ass quote, write the things that are bothering you down to get it out of your system,  even put it in a 'To do list' for the next day if that helps you get your zen back - stop fretting, take some deep breathes, and relax.

Strategy two: get your sweat on. Believe it or not some exercise is good for helping you sleep . Not that any exercise is actually bad for sleep, but due to the energising effects exercise can have on our bodies and brains many experts recommend we don't exercise too close to when we're planning on going to bed.  The good news for all you athletic insomniacs out there is that whilst scientists don't yet understand why, aerobic exercise has been proved to "help you fall asleep faster at bedtime, spend more hours in deep sleep, and wake up less often throughout the night" (Komaroff). Make sure it is aerobic exercise though, as vigorous exercise is still considered a stimulant and will do anything but make you sleepy (this makes it a great morning wake up though)!

As a side note, studies have found that runners who listened to music whilst they were working out on the treadmill ran faster than those who were running in silence, regardless of the style or volume of the music (See the journal of Ergonomics). So there you go, if you're feeling too tired to motivate yourself, let your iPod help you out :)

If you've followed the steps above and you're still exhausted and struggling to motivate yourself either at dance or during a workout then there are a few little things you can do to get the edge back. First off, we know it's tempting when you're having a bit of a 'blah' day to put on your comfiest, most daggy clothes and embrace your inner couch potato. But if you reinforce the 'I feel terrible' vibes that you're feeling, by projecting that image on the outside as well - you can actually make yourself feel worse. So whilst putting on your favourite outfit, or your awesome new workout gear might not be quite what you feel like doing as you struggle to keep your eyes open that morning, it can actually help. Looking better, more positive, new and refreshed can make you feel that way too. If, on the other hand, you're telling yourself how rotten you feel, and then you mistake your own reflection at the gym for a vagrant zombie... well, it's not going to make you feel too great. So even if you're feeling super sluggish, try and keep positive and wear something that makes you happy, or do something fun with your hair and see how much it can help. Last but not least, if you're being sensible and doing everything right but you still feel incredibly low on energy, listen to your body and have a rest. Physical fatigue often has a tendency to transition into mental fatigue as well if you ignore the symptoms. There is such a thing as working too hard, and sometimes all you need is a day to yourself to recuperate, rest your muscles and break the routine. Be kind to your body and give yourself the best possible chance to succeed, whatever your goals may be.

So there you go, now you've got some helpful strategies to keep a spring in your step every day of the week.

Happy dancing!

 

Sources and further reading:

The Benefits of Complex Carbohydrates

Fatigue in Endurance Athletes

Preventing Burnout

Recovery Nutrition

Article by Elly Ford.

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