During times of injury, a healthy, nutritious diet can speed recovery, aid rehabilitation and get a dancer back in the studio as quickly as possible.
It is no secret that life as a dancer entails a high risk of injury, and that through the pursuit of technical and artistic excellence, one becomes blindingly aware of any existing physical vulnerabilities, recurring difficulties and personal challenges. It is essential to learn how to work with such limitations and to listen attentively to the messages your body is trying to convey.
Diet is a Common Cause of Injury
Although not widely recognised, diet is a principle cause of injury. Poor eating and drinking habits can lead to fatigue, impaired immunity and a compromised capacity for cognitive functions such as focus and concentration, all of which can impinge on technique and increase the risk of having an accident. Additionally, an inadequate or unbalanced diet increases the risk of osteoporosis and stress fractures, and speeds up the wear and tear of the joints. The body is simply unable to thrive without the correct nutrition.
According to Dance UK’s most recent surveys, carried out as part of their Healthier Dancer initiative, 80% of dancers reported incurring injury in the last 12 months. Over two-thirds sought physical therapy, but only a tiny minority supported their treatment with nutritional intervention. However, even if a trip to a qualified nutritional therapist is not possible, there are plenty of recovery-enhancing dietary strategies that a dancer can put into practice themselves.
Get Enough Protein for a Speedy Recovery
Protein provides the building blocks for all the cells in the body, including those in the muscles, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, skin and joints. It is the second most abundant substance in the body after water.
During periods of recovery from injury adequate protein is essential for the formation of new tissue. Animal products such as meat, poultry, fish and eggs are known as high quality proteins, because they provide the complete spectrum of essential amino acids, but other excellent sources include beans, pulses, nuts, seeds, quinoa, tofu and soya products.
To meet daily protein requirements:
for two of the day’s main meals make sure that one-third of your plate is covered with a protein-rich food (as listed above)
include two to three portions of dairy foods (or protein-rich non-dairy alternatives such as soya milk) per day
Remember to remove the visible fat from meat, choose lean cuts over minced meat and opt for low-fat dairy products to limit your intake of saturated fat, which is detrimental to heart health and may increase inflammation in the body.
Minerals Essential for Growth and Repair
Iron and zinc are two of the most common nutrient deficiencies and both of these minerals are vital for rapid healing. Because taking supplements of either of these on their own (i.e. not as part of a good quality multivitamin and mineral supplement) can have deleterious effects, for example iron supplements can cause constipation and excess zinc can lead to nausea and impaired immunity, it is essential to get enough of them in the diet.
Dietary Sources of Iron and Zinc
Sources of iron include red meat, liver, fortified breakfast cereals, wholegrain cereals, pulses and green leafy vegetables. Iron from plant sources is less well absorbed, but its uptake is enhanced in the presence of vitamin C. Zinc can be found in meat, eggs, wholegrain cereals, milk and dairy products.
Try some of the following light meal ideas to boost your intake of these minerals:
Egg and wilted spinach on wholegrain toast
Oatcakes and hummus with raw sugar snap peas
Wholegrain pasta, pesto and chicken
Jacket potato with cottage cheese and sweetcorn
Stir-fried beef, mixed peppers and noodles (flavour with 1 tbsp soy sauce)
Prawns, crème fraiche and watercress on toasted wholemeal muffins with a squeeze of lemon
Vitamin C Helps to Repair Tissue
Often looked towards for immune support, vitamin C is also essential for the healthy formation of collagen and therefore the speedy repair of all soft tissues.
To make sure you are getting enough vitamin C eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables each day. A medium glass of orange juice provides well over 100% of the recommended daily amount, so make this part of a healthy breakfast to give yourself a head start.
Due to its antioxidant properties vitamin C can also help to reduce post-exercise muscle soreness. Consider incorporating a handful of cherry tomatoes, some dried berries or some tinned citrus segments into your post-rehearsal snack.
Maintaining a Healthy Weight
One of the most common concerns during times of Injury is the difficulty avoiding unwanted weight gain when physical training is limited. During periods of reduced activity it is necessary to make adjustments to dietary intake to maintain a healthy weight, but even after adjusting the diet, some changes in shape and body composition should be expected, depending on capabilities for ongoing exercise.
Dietary adjustments should be small and not leave you feeling unsatisfied, deprived or punished. Slight modifications such as reducing daytime snacking or having smaller starchy carbohydrate portions at mealtimes may be all that is needed to prevent unwanted weight gain during the recovery period, and drink plenty of water to flush out accumulated toxins and maintain a healthy metabolism.