REST OR TRAIN?
Irish dance attracts highly motivated young dance athletes who are very competitive in a physically demanding and highly skilled art-form. Perfectionism is a common trait in Irish dancers, with many hours of training both in the studio and gym required to achieve the technique and skill mastery to reach the top level at competitions.
In pursuit of perfection the expression or motto ‘no pain, no gain’ is frequently used amongst Irish dancers, who are notorious for forcing themselves to keep dancing, no matter what. Quite often dancers will encounter aches and pains, viewing them as just a small price to pay.
Without a doubt, reaching the top level in any sport or skill is built on sacrifice, self-discipline, and many hours of hard training. However we must be cautious, especially with young dance athletes, to use common sense when they experience pain, otherwise an injury may occur. Instead of championing ‘no pain no gain’ we should encourage dancers to have the problem assessed by a professional if it persists — continuing without treatment may just be making the injury worse. This will also have a positive psychological effect going forward. Equally as important is advising dancers to take rest days so the body can reset, recover and ultimately avoid long-term injuries.
FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO INJURIES/PAIN IN DANCERS.
Pain/Injuries can be complex and may be attributed to several factors. There are EXTRINSIC factors (Dancer’s environment) and INTRINSIC factors (Dancer’s body).
1. Footwear – dance shoes must fit properly and footwear outside of dance class must fit properly too.
2. Studio – proper sprung flooring and marley laid down correctly with no bumps or holes in the floor. Well sprung flooring at home to practice on. Temperature in the studio when warming up and during practice.
3. Learning Proper Technique – you can have a perfect training/rehab program, but if the technique is not properly executed pain symptoms will come back.
4. Training Load – duration and frequency of time spent dancing.
5. Safe Practices in Warm-up and Stretching – essential in the prevention of injuries and also crucial in preparation for performance / training
1. Growth spurts and knowing when to take a rest day.
2. Good foundational strength and stability.
3. Individual Anatomical Variations – can affect technique, turnout and range of motion.
4. Range of motion (ROM) / Flexibility – we have dancers who are not very flexible and we have dancers who are hypermobile (have lots of flexibility).
5. Different capabilities, strengths and weaknesses - every dancer is an individual and what fits one dancer might not fit another.
6. Psychological factors – stress, anxiety, fatigue — are they enjoying it?
7. Nutritional intake – adequate nutrition and hydration to support training and recovery.
8. Sleep - adequate sleep and recovery strategies.
WHEN PAIN ISN'T A RED FLAG
Every dancer knows the pain of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Many hours of intense activity including jumps, leaps and dancing on your toes can bring it on. The pain and stiffness that peaks in recovery after 12 to 14 hours is a side effect of the repair process as your body heals micro-tears in the muscles after an intensive dance session.
Similarly a dancer may experience muscle pain after training in the gym. This is the result of overloading the muscle. This should NOT be feared and should not be confused with an injury. The aching feeling, depending on the current conditioning of the dancer usually subsides after 24-48 hours.
To lessen this achy feeling and in order to minimize the risk of DOMS, any changes to your dance or gym training should be increased gradually and carefully to allow muscles time to adapt.
Additionally, nutrition, sleep, and active recovery strategies will help you get the quick recovery after training and lessen the pain from DOMS. Ultimately these strategies will help to speed up the recovery process in between dance / training sessions, which is necessary when training up to 4 and 5 days per week. I will delve more into what are the best recovery strategies for Irish dancers in a follow-up article.
TO REST OR TO STAY ACTIVE? FINDING THE RIGHT BALANCE
In dance, as in all other sports, injuries are prevalent. The research paints a clear picture that injuries to the foot and ankle are most common amongst Irish dancers, which is no surprise due to the high demands of yearly training, non-stop competitions and the high intensity style. According to the latest research by Dr Roisin Cahalan at the University of Limerick, 77% of all Irish dancers get injured at some point in their career, with the foot and ankle most commonly affected. Similarly stress related injuries, from over-use, such as stress fractures are also common.
If you are unfortunate enough to experience a severe injury it will prevent you from executing technique normally. An injury such as an ankle sprain might keep you out for a short period of time (depending on the grade of the injury), but that doesn’t mean you have to completely rest. First and foremost it is important to maintain the mobility of the ankle and the foot, gain strength in the lower limb and work on proprioception and balance as you rehab the injury. Once swelling and bruising has subsided at the site of injury it is then time to work closer to replicate your dance moves, with a return to jumps for example.
Aside from focusing on recovery from injury, injured dancers also need to maintain what they have already worked on throughout the season - core strength, leg strength, upper body/posture and cardiovascular exercise. Injured dancers need to stay fit and healthy. The goal is to preserve as much strength and conditioning as possible during rehab in order to return to dancing safely and in good condition after an injury. This will have a positive psychological effect on the injured dancer.
In cases where it is a less obvious injury and discomfort is initially felt as a tweak or twinge; while you are probably going to test that and see how far you can go, it is not always best practice. You need to be sensible until you get it assessed. The problem arises when dancers don't always stop when they know those tweaks and twinges are getting worse or becoming chronic (lasting longer than a few days). In this scenario pushing through can lead to a chronic injury and longer periods away from your dancing, than if you had initially stopped when you first felt discomfort and sought out professional advice.
If you experience the following types of pain, you should without hesitation seek professional advice to ensure it’s not anything too serious:
- pain that starts at the onset of activity.
- pain that becomes worse during your dance/training session.
- pain that makes you have to compensate your dance movements.
-pain that wakes you up at night.
- the next day after training the pain is worse.
- pain with no mechanism of injury.
WHY REST DAYS ARE ESSENTIAL
Rest days are essential regardless of whether you have an injury or are experiencing pain, to recover and reset, and are even more essential if you're still growing.
For young athletes growth plates are the part of your bones that literally lengthen to make you taller. Growing bodies are undergoing many physiological changes that make them more susceptible to injury. Its crucial to have a day off without the stress of impact from weekly dance classes and training — this allows for normal growth without injuring those growth plates.
Regardless of whether you’re going through a growth spurt, regular days off each month help prevent stress fractures and other overuse injuries. When dance athletes fail to recover properly from training they become progressively fatigued over time and suffer from prolonged under-performance, leading to an increased risk of injury. Other symptoms such as depression, not feeling motivated and stagnation are signs of under-recovering.
And while we know it's hard to take an extra day off, especially when you see other dancers training on social media, if you actually let yourself recover fully, you'll probably find the next time you hit the dance floor, you will have more energy and won't be nearly as sore after as well. This is the time to remember we are all individuals and to not to be influenced by another dancers’ posts on social media.
Each individual responds and copes differently with the same pain. When dancers feel pain they compensate their movement patterns to keep going, which can lead to further pain and injury by overuse.
As dance teachers and coaches it is important to note the influence of the psychological factors, the studio setup/environment, safe practice methods (warm-up and stretching, training load), noticeable growth spurts, correct technique, and other factors in order to prevent the incidence of injuries.
You will always need to push yourself further to reach new levels and continue improving. But a common sense approach to training and practice is needed in order to help each dancer continue dancing as long as possible, in the best conditions possible, and to decrease the incidence of injuries in Irish dance.