Dance of all types, from ballroom to ballet, are highly energy demanding - this means that dancers spend a lot of energy as any other athletes do and therefore, their energy requirements are higher than the average population. Eating the right food at the right time before, during and after your classes/rehearsal or performance is crucial to improve recovery and assist muscle growth and soft tissue repair. Finding your ideal nutrient balance can enhance your energy levels, focus and concentration, as well as avoid early fatigue and injury.
In general, whether you are exercising or not, try to eat every 3-4 hours as this will keep your energy levels high throughout the day. However, I know that on a busy dance schedule it might be hard to figure out what to eat before, and after, your classes. Therefore, my first advice is to plan ahead your meals and snacks for the whole week (this could be done on Sunday for example).
Below an example of how your weekday schedule could look like:
7.30 am Breakfast
10.30 am Morning snack
1.30 pm Lunch
4.30 pm Pre-workout Snack
8.00 pm Dinner
Planning your week ahead and doing a little food preparation over the weekend, is a practical way to avoid skipping meals or snacks - this often happens simply because of time - and avoid feeling with no energy. Try to eat at least 3 principal meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and 1-2 snacks to top up your energy levels.
What nutrients does your body need?
To optimise your performance your body needs a mix of nutrients that should be combined together at each meal or snack. These 3 macronutrients are:
Complex carbohydrates: Carbs are the main source of energy for a dancer’s body and brain - your muscles need carbohydrates to help you to go through your ballet class. Complex carbohydrates can be found in whole grains (such as oat, quinoa, barley, freekeh, bulgur brown rice). These options are higher in fibre than the white version and, therefore, provide a steady level of energy. However, simple carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta and wrap, potatoes and rice, can still be part of a ballerina’s diet - in particular, they are optimal for pre-workout snacks as they provide a quick boost of energy.
Protein: Proteins are made of amino acids, which are the building blocks of our muscles and, therefore, are needed for muscles building and repairing. You can choose between animal-based protein (fish, chicken, eggs, lean meat, dairy products) or plant-based protein (legumes, soy, quinoa, buckwheat, beans, nuts and seeds). Protein powder can be added to your recovery meals post-training to help improve muscle gains, however, do not replace food with supplements. Food should always be your first choice.
Unsaturated fats: They are the healthier options and they play a crucial role in a dancer's performance as unsaturated fats lower the natural inflammation that occurs from intense activity. Sources of unsaturated fat are olive oil, avocado, canola oil, fatty fish (salmon and tuna), nuts and nut butter.
What to eat before class, rehearsal or performances?
If your dance class is first thing in the morning you might not have time to eat or you might not stomach anything because it is too early. However, your body has fasted overnight and breakfast is the first meal of the day to nourish your body. Therefore, I have 3 recommendations for you:
Eat at least a small carbohydrates rich snack before your dance class, such as a banana paired with a handful of nuts and some chocolate, a cereal bar paired with some dried fruits.
Have a carbohydrate-rich meal the night before: this means that the majority of your plate should be cover by carbohydrates (pasta, rice, potatoes, barley, couscous, freekeh, etc.) with a small protein amount (legumes, eggs, fish, chicken, etc.) and vegetables. This way you will top-up your glycogen stores for the day ahead - more energy to your muscles and body.
If you skip breakfast or eat just a small snack, remember to have a balanced rich meal after your workout. It should contain carbohydrates, protein and little fat. I’ll leave you some suggestion:
Berries fruit smoothie with cinnamon + toasted wholegrain bread with ricotta cease and honey
Pancakes made with banana, flour, soy or dairy milk, served with maple syrup or apple puree
Toasted bread + eggs + avocado
Grapefruit juice + toasted bread + smoked salmon
If you train later in the day what you eat will depend on the time available - the general advice is to eat a meal at least 2-4 hours before training as this will allow your body to properly digest food. There are lots of options to choose from, but below you can find my top 5:
Porridge with apple, cinnamon and milk of choice, plus some greek yoghurt and peanut butter
Courgette/Zucchini omelette with avocado and wholegrain bread
Baked sweet or with potatoes with grated cheese or beans or tinned tuna, plus fresh baby spinach and tomatoes salad
Bowl of pasta with lentils and mushrooms bolognese
Chicken sandwich with salad and avocado
What to eat between classes?
It is fundamental to top up your glycogen stores, and therefore your energy levels while dancing as this will allow you to go through your long choreography. When you need a quick refuel, you must opt for snacks that can be easily digested - we all want to avoid those unpleasant stomach discomfort when dancing. Try to mix the food below to create your perfect snack:
Nuts: any kind you like. My suggestion is to mix plain nuts to salty snacks as they will replenish the sodium lost through sweating.
Seeds: a great way to boost your snack with protein, iron, magnesium, vitamins and minerals.
Dried fruits: they provide readily available energy and this will help you fuel your workouts.
Dark chocolate and pretzel can be added to your snacks for more flavour and energy
What to eat after class/rehearsal or performance?
What you eat after intense training sessions is as important as what you eat before. Your body needs carbohydrates, to replace muscle glycogen and maximize recovery between classes, protein, to enhance muscle protein synthesis, and fluids to replenish the fluids lost through sweating. Try to eat within 30-40 minutes after classes as this is when your body is at its peak for nutrients absorption.
Below you can find some example of post-workout meals and snacks:
Recovery smoothie: full-fat yoghurt, seeds, fresh/frozen fruits or veggies, avocado or cacao
Greek yoghurt, granola and fresh berries
Eggs or tuna on toast
Legume pasta with tomatoes sauce and bread
Quinoa salad with kale, corn, almonds, avocado and lentils or tuna
Finally, remember to stay hydrated. Water plays many roles in the body, including keeping blood volume and regulating body temperature. Here are a few tips to avoid dehydration and develop your hydration plan:
Start exercising well hydrated. You can check your urine colour - aim for yellow pale-straw colour.
During classes/rehearsal/performances keep a bottle of water or any other drink of at least 500ml with you - this could be either close to your barre or behind the scene.
Avoid drinking excessively as this could result in diluting sodium concentration.
As a professional ballet dancer, Francesca has had to monitor her nutritional intake for over 18 years and uses this unique insight to provide clients practical, insightful and lifestyle-driven nutritional advice in both Italian and English. She is a registered associate nutritionist with the AfN. If you are a dancer and would like nutritional support please contact Francesca for more information.
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Beelen, M., Burke, L.M., Gibala, M.J., and van Loon, L. J.C. (2010). Nutritional strategies to promote postexercise recovery. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2010;20(6):515-32.
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