Dance Competitions/Conventions, Long rehearsals/performances: Fuel for the Dancers body
Jennifer Rogers, M.S., RD, LD, RDN
“To Eat is a necessity but to eat intelligently is an art.”- Francois de La Rochefoucald
Dance convention/competition season is upon us. For those of you who have children who participate in these events you know that this essentially means to begin planning a well-orchestrated event, while living the rest of our work/home lives, just to get the kids packed up with all of the needed dance gear, travel essentials and not to mention the dreaded thought of pre-planning what we will do to fuel our dancers and for that matter ourselves during these long weekends of dance.
We have all been there, I would imagine in some way, a long day of travel whether it be by auto, train or plane, weary travelers who make it to the dance destination, often tired before the schedule even begins, but now we are tired and in unfamiliar territory often and we are all HUNGRY and this is all too often leads to emotional outbursts. You tell me, am I talking about outbursts from the parent or child? All kidding aside, eating healthfully and to prepare for best performance may seem a daunting task.
I cannot stress enough how important (and emotionally protective) I have found giving even just a bit of forethought to the nutrition needs that these types of weekends or even long days of rehearsal and performance in the case of the non-competition dancer entail. I hope that some of the tips contained in this post will get many of you started so that you don’t have to give as much attention to this difficult task. To eat intelligently can be an art but it really doesn’t have to be as difficult as it feels sometimes.
As overheard at a convention/competition. Do some of the following quotes from parents and their dancers sound familiar?:
- A 15 y.o. well known dancer who works commercially almost melting down mid-day after appearances and dancing saying “I just need something to eat” in a voice much younger than her chronological age. (recognition of the importance of nutrition is a key component to a dancer learning what fuels the mind and body for good performance and overall health)
- A parent saying “All of a sudden I realized it was 7p.m. and she hadn’t really eaten all day, no wonder she was sad and angry after performing.” (small frequent meals are the best for mental acuity and performance, not to mention general well-being)
- “Fruities (gummy fruit snacks) are a good, quick boost.” (they have almost no nutritional value unlike a complex carbohydrate such as a whole grain or whole fruits)
- “It’s ok that she doesn’t each much during the day while she dances because she drinks juice during the day.” (100% fruit juice up to 6 oz. per day for a 1-6 year old is the recommendation and up to 12 oz. per day for 7 year olds and older, juice lacks the fiber that whole fruits provide)
When I hear and see these kinds of things, I know that people just need some suggestions in the right direction to prevent some of these types of “melt-downs” that can so easily occur with long hours of dance.
I would like to share with you some of my recent dance convention weekends that my daughter participated in to give you some hands on advice to help with your dancer’s nutrition and well-being.
Good nutrition for dancers is as important, if not more, than all of the training they are getting during the week. A positive relationship with food and how it affects their body, “their tool” is one of the best things we can give to our young dancers to make them even more successful in their craft and for their general well-being.
Does a sign like this one look familiar to any of you? Many venues where dance competitions/conventions are held only allow the food that their catering departments have available. I strongly suggest that if you feel that this type of limitation enforced by the venue limits your ability to help your child eat healthfully during these weekends that you talk with the event planners and the venues because it is the only way that we will begin to enforce the importance of good nutrition for our children in these settings.
We then end up seeing mounds of “junk food garbage” just outside the venue doors. At this particular convention, the only food being offered that day within the dance area for lunch, which is generally only an hour or less, was a hot dog or fried chicken strips.
How well do you know the feeling of being stuck in a convention center where no reasonable food choices are available even within walking distance? If your child is like mine they do not like to eat a lot during the lunch meal in order to not feel overly full when they get back to dancing and neither of those foods that were offered will do much to appropriately fuel the dancer for the number hours that they are dancing and performing.
While some of these “fast food choices” may not have been void of nutrition, my daughter and I found some alternatives, first by prepacking some things in our bags and second by visiting the adjacent hotel prior to the lunch hour to see what food choices were available.
Here is what we found for lunch:
A combination of veggies, meats, and some monounsaturated fats with olives (adds extra sodium to replace some losses from sweating, more on that later!) Too much fiber may be hard to digest quickly especially in younger kids and if you have a child who won’t eat lettuce this choice may be out. My daughter ate mostly the meat, eggs, olives and cheese and while she likes the veggies she chose to only eat some of those before going back to dancing.
In addition, extra carbohydates are good during exercise to help avoid depletion of muscle glycogen (your bodies stored carbohydrates or primary fuel source, like gasoline to a car) and provide fuel for working muscles when glycogen, so consuming some whole grain crackers or bread with this meal and fruit is a great choice, such as this:
During another convention weekend in Dallas I stumbled upon the following fabulously done lobby pantry in the Hyatt Regency hotel, well done!
These are very packable as they do not break easily (no more bags of disintegrated crackers at the bottom of our bags!), available at bigger box stores as well.
Other choices that we could have packed, but if we didn’t have time, how nice it was to see a hotel put more thought into the choices offered not to mention the cute presentation! I guess everything really is bigger in Texas!
How about this? Wow, a whole table dedicated to gluten free snacks, whether you eat gluten free or not, many of these snacks were great choices available for a quick grab. I plan to review available snack/nutrition bars in a future blog post because the vast number of nutrition bars on the market is very confusing!
In general I suggest the following before, during and after a competition or convention or long day of rehearsals/performance:
- Eat regular meals and snacks, going too long without giving the muscles and brain the fuel they need for energy can lead to poor performance.
- Good hydration, not only during exercise but prior to exercise. About 1.5 – 2 hrs. prior to exercise/dance rehearsals or conventions the dancer should consume up to ½ liter of fluid and thereafter should consume about ½ cup of fluids every 10 minutes before and during exercise. Sports drinks with added sodium seem to be very popular among young dancers. Although not necessary they can provide needed carbohydrate and sodium, however they do also have some artificial ingredients in them and may not be necessary if consuming appropriate carbohydrates and sodium in meals and snacks and appropriate amounts of fluid/water.
- A dinner with protein and complex carbohydrates (whole grains/breads, pastas, brown rice) prior the night before a day of competition or convention.
- Per Emily Cook Harrison from the Centre for Dance Nutrition @www.dancernutrition.com Energy Balance as follows based on a 120lb professional dancer taking a 1.5 hr. ballet class and then rehearsal for 4-6 hours before an evening performance, estimated energy needs: 2100-2500 calories: (all specific needs are based on weight, height, age and activity level)
- Breakfast = 350-400 calories
- Snack = : 200-275 calories
- Lunch = 550-650 calories
- Post-rehearsal re-fuel = 200-285 calories
- Dinner before performance = 550-650 calories
- Post-performance re-fuel = 200-350 calories (I will address foods for re-fuel or recovery in a future blog post)
Small healthy items such as pictured here, healthful carbohydrates and protein are integral to performance, items such as pretzels during exercise that contain salt may be a good choice especially if sweating a lot in order to replace some of the lost sodium. Hummus and Almond Butter are good high protein sources and are high in the good type of fat known as monounsaturated fat.
I planned ahead during our Dallas trip and we had enough time prior to the start of the busy weekend schedule so we located the nearest Whole Foods store, took an Uber ride there and purchased what I thought we would need for the 3 days there, we had asked to make sure we would have a refrigerator in the room in advance. For much less than what I would have paid in the hotel or to have food delivered, we were able to eat very healthfully for the entire weekend and we found that we felt much more relaxed not worrying about what we were going to eat!
The dance day started by packing some healthy snacks in my daughters bag (Yes, that is a YPAD Spirit Sway button, cool!) All natural, antibiotic free, no preservatives beef stick and some of the snacks pictured above that she could grab quickly in between dancing to make sure she was fueled.
We have really found that breakfast may be the most important meal for a dancer before a long day of learning choreography and dancing many hours. Pairing lean protein with complex carbohydrates has worked well with my daughter and she swears that on days she may not have the protein/carb combo prior to a full day of learning new choreography that her mental acuity is just not the same. She prides herself in being able to quickly learn new choreography and I do notice that she remains very mentally sharp when she starts the day out with something such as this:
For Breakfast: Prosciutto or a lean lunch meat, cheese and whole grain bread paired with fresh fruit, organic when possible and 100% organic juice. We have found that lean or egg white breakfast sandwiches are also a great start before a day of training.
When the day starts with a carb dense meal paired with protein and the use of some of the snacks as mentioned previously, the lunch can be lighter. The key really is frequent meals and snacks lead to a strong healthy body which is important for any competition.
Similar to before this lunch meal consists of fruits, veggies, monounsaturated fats in the natural olives and carbohydrate with fresh fruit and not pictured more whole grain crackers and pretzels.
Often times dancers are not thought of as athletes. As misguided as this is, I do believe it to be a primary reason that many including dancers themselves don’t value how proper nutrition can affect their body and improve performance, decrease injury and in general heighten their dance experience. I hope you will join us in getting this message out to our young dancers!