Category : Fitness and Conditioning

irish dance_ready to feis_why you need sleep to be successful
Fitness and Conditioning
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Why you need sleep to be successful

In the lather, rinse, repeat cycle of homework, school, and classes, there could be one crucial element that is being overlooked, and it could be affecting your performance. Sleep. Not only is sleep important for muscle recovery, but overall physical and mental health. Our experts have given us the scoop on why sleep is so important to a dancer, so you can make the necessary changes and sleep your way to the podium!

According to Suzanne Cox, TCRG and Accredited Exercise Physiologist (ESSA) with the Australian Institute of Fitness, “Sleep and recovery is often referred to as one of the forgotten factors of peak performance, with increasingly busy schedules and over-stimulated days and nights.” Irish dance fitness coach and personal trainer Frances Dunne, of Fitness Formula Irish Dance, adds, “Sleep is imperative, especially if you’re putting your body under duress throughout the day. When we sleep, our bodies switch into our rest and repair nervous system. This has importance in brain function, hormone function, and muscle function. Without it, the inside of our bodies won’t work optimally, and we’ll actually decline in our performance. We will feel weak, lethargic, and have no energy. We’ll also struggle to concentrate and take in information!”

Cox tells us, “One of the biggest mistakes that is often made is focusing on allowing the body to get the rest it needs a week out from a major Feis. The reality is that in order for you to perform at your best and be in peak condition when you hit the stage, rest and recovery should be as much a part of your weekly schedule as your dance classes and extra practice sessions.

“When we exercise or dance we actually damage our muscles, not in a bad way like an injury, but in a way that allows our muscles to grow and repair the injury through natural processes, and in turn cause it to be a stronger muscle. A tough dance class that causes muscle soreness creates tiny little tears in the microfibres of our muscles, and the healing process takes time. If we allow these small tears time to heal, the muscle fibres will heal the tears and become stronger – but if we get back into things too soon we risk injury and a decline in performance.

“It’s not just our muscles that need time to recover though; there are many systems in our body that get disrupted from practice. Our hormonal system, nervous system, as well as our musculoskeletal system, need time to recover – and in some cases can take up to 7-14 days to fully recover! That doesn’t mean we need to take 7 days off between practice sessions, but we do need to consider the volume and load that our bodies are under. Generally speaking the harder the session, the longer our bodies need. It’s also important to remember that the amount of time you need to recover will depend on the stage of competition you are at. If it is just prior to the World Championships then you could be practising a couple of times a day, 6 days a week – which is great because you have built your strength and fitness up to this. If you have just come back from summer break, then what you are capable of will be very different. Always allow yourself at least one full rest day per week. Listen to your body – if things are hurting that normally wouldn’t be, give your body the rest it needs. Our cardiovascular system (the heart and lungs which affect your breathing) builds up much more quickly than our musculoskeletal system – so while you may be feeling fitter, your muscles, tendons and ligaments may not have quite caught up yet.”

So what’s the correlation between sleep and how quickly we recover? Cox tells us, “How well we recover is hugely determined by how much sleep we get. This is when we recover both physically and mentally, and while there is mixed research about exactly how many hours we need, we know that somewhere between 7-10 hours is the ideal. It’s not just the hours that are important though – the quality of the sleep is important. In order for us to get the best recovery time, we need to hit the deepest stage of sleep, or ‘dream sleep.’ It is in these deep stages of sleep that the body strengthens its immune system, builds muscles and bones, and repairs tissues of the body.”

So how do you best get to these deep stages of sleep that you need? Cox has some great advice:

– Go to bed and wake up at the same or similar time each day to set your body’s natural sleep clock

– Avoid using devices that filter unnatural light late at night, like computers, ipads and phones. Research tells us that these lights affect our body’s ability to fall asleep, and also its ability to hit the deep sleep stages effectively

– Exercise late at night can affect the body’s ability to fall asleep, so create a bedtime ritual for after class – like reading a book, or taking a bath, to signal to the body it is time for rest

One final thought from Dunne to consider as you’re having another late night, “Tiredness is your body’s way of telling you it needs rest; you should listen to it.”

Do you have a good sleep routine? Share below in the comments.

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What to eat before and after dance class
Fitness and Conditioning
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What to eat before and after dance class

Going to class is so much more than just going to class. If you’re serious about your dancing, then there’s more preparation involved than just grabbing your shoes and filling a water bottle before you head out the door. Making sure your body is fuelled before class is the key to getting the most out of every lesson, and getting the proper nourishment after class means your body will heal and repair quickly and to the best of its ability. To that end, we spoke to the experts about using food as fuel to get the most out of your dance classes.

First things first – what is the best thing to consume before dance class for energy? According to Maggie Wilcox, an open championship Irish dancer and dietetic intern who holds a Bachelor of Science in Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise, it’s water. “By far, the most important thing before dance class is to make sure that you’re drinking water. It’s recommended that athletes (and I do call dancers athletes) drink 2 cups of water 2-3 hours before class and 1 cup 15 minutes before class. Beginning class in a well-hydrated state can do wonders to your energy. And remember, sipping water throughout class can help maintain that hydrated state.”

Wilcox goes on to add, “Besides a healthy and balanced diet, dancers should focus on carbohydrates before dance class. Carbohydrates are what fuel us and give us energy. By eating carbohydrates throughout the day, you can prepare your body for class. A light carbohydrate snack before dance class, like pretzels, an apple, or whole grain crackers, can give some last minute energy without weighing you down. Experiment with what works best for your body.”

On carbohydrates, James Greenan of fitness and nutrition program theCJway points out that “the GI index of food refers to the sugar content, high GI foods (simple sugars) are absorbed quicker by the body resulting in a faster release in energy whereas low GI foods (complex sugars) take longer to break down which results in a more sustained energy release. This is important to know because if you ingest foods with a low GI level just before dance class, they will not process quick enough, creating stomach discomfort and hindering performance.”

Greenan recommends a “mixture of low to medium GI foods throughout the day leading up to dance practice. Foods such as oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta, fruit and vegetables will build up a good source of energy in the body. Then, an hour or so before activity, eat high GI foods to give yourself that extra pump (cereal bars, bananas or sip on an energy drink).”

What happens after class though? Now is not the time to go home and flop onto the couch. Your body needs to repair after all the high intensity work it just did. Greenan says, “During exercise our bodies experience a high level of stress and damage in the form of microscopic tears to the muscle fibres, which creates pain, soreness and stiffness, so post-activity nutrition is vital to combat this.” Wilcox explains that the hour after class is critical – we need to eat within an hour to:
1) Replace the energy we lost during exercise. During dance, our body uses the sugar (carbohydrates) in our blood for energy. As we keep exercising, the body then starts using the carbohydrate stores (glycogen) in our muscles and liver for energy.
2) Replace the fluids and electrolytes we lost during exercise.
3) Provide our body with protein for muscle repair.

“For roughly one hour after exercise our bodies work on overdrive to replace the energy lost, so specific foods must be ingested immediately after class. The preferred sources are high GI carbohydrates because they are digested the quickest, replacing the used energy and nutrients. I also suggest incorporating that with protein to help with muscle repair. Foods such as raisins, bananas, nuts, sports drinks, protein shakes should all do the trick.” say Greenan. Wilcox adds that we could also try a fruit or yogurt smoothie. Or, excellent news, low-fat milk or chocolate milk is perfect. “That’s what other professional athletes drink after hard workouts!” Sounds good!

Beyond that initial hour, it’s important to really care for your body after a hard class. Wilcox explains that “it can take up to 48 hours for your body to fully recover by replacing glycogen stores in the muscles. For this reason, it’s extremely important to eat well balanced meals, especially if you need to dance again soon. Again, keeping your body hydrated can also increase your body’s ability to recover quickly and get rid of muscle cramps and injuries.”

Do you have a favourite snack for before or after class?

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core strength for irish dance
Fitness and Conditioning
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How to build up your core strength for Irish dance – Part 2

Did you try any of our basic core strength exercises from last week? We have a few more for you from our experts that are more advanced and will definitely get your muscles firing!

Professional dancer and personal trainer Chloey Turner says, “After perfecting (the previous) stabilisation exercises with correct technique for at least a month, you’re ready to move on to some more advanced strengthening exercises. Two exercises use a Stability Ball; as the name suggests this will really test your stabilising muscles, and concentrate on building a solid core.” She adds, “learning to engage your core whilst dancing will keep you strong during every step!”

As with all our advice, please consult a doctor, TCRG, parent, or physiotherapist before starting any new exercises. This is meant as a guide only.

Stability Ball Crunches

Irish dancing ready to feis core strength ball crunches 2Irish dancing ready to feis core strength ball crunches 1

Lie with your lower back on the ball, placing your feet on the floor with knees at 90 degrees. Put your hands just behind the ears with elbows parallel to the ground and look up to the ceiling. Keep your gluteal muscles (bottom) engaged during this exercise to keep you in a neutral position. Slowly and with control, use your abdominal muscles to pull your torso up to the ceiling, then return back to the starting position. Repeat this action 10-15 times.

Stability Ball Leg Raise

Irish dancing ready to feis core strength ball leg raises 1 Irish dancing ready to feis core strength ball leg raises 2

Lie with your back on the floor, draw your belly button to the ground, and keep your hands by your side. Legs are straight with feet either side of the ball. Now press your feet into the ball to keep it sturdy and raise it off the ground until the soles of your feet are in line with the ceiling, then lower it to the start position and repeat this movement 10-15 times. Be sure not to let your back arch or move.

Prone Back Extension

Irish dancing ready to feis core strength prone back extension

Lie with your belly on the floor, place the backs of both hands on your forehead, and straighten your legs with toes pointed down. Lift up from the chest and hold. For some dancers this will be easy, for others it will be more difficult. Aim to hold this for 30 seconds to begin with and progress to 1-2 minutes.

Lower Back Superman

Irish dancing ready to feis core strength superman back extension

Lie with your belly on the floor, put both arms out in front of you, straighten your legs with toes pointed down. Raise your right arm and your left leg slowly at the same time then repeat this with the opposite arm and leg 20 times in total.

Download our handy pdf by clicking here, print it out, and add these core exercises to your weekly routine!

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core strength for irish dance
Fitness and Conditioning
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How to build up your core strength for Irish dance – Part 1

Now you know that core strength is crucial for Irish dancing, you need to know how to get it. Our experts have some beginner level and intermediate level exercises that will help you strengthen your torso, improve your posture, and take your dancing to new heights.

As with all our advice, please consult a doctor, TCRG, parent, or physiotherapist before starting any new exercises. This is meant as a guide only.

TCRG and Accredited Exercise Physiologist (ESSA) Suzanne Cox points out that “the core muscles in the human body wrap around our mid section like a corset so it is important that we think of strengthening the core from the front and the back.

“Let’s take a look at the front first. In simple terms the front side of our core contains 4 layers of muscles. The layer that we can see on the surface (our ‘6 pack’) plays an important role in helping us to bend and move our torso but is not as important in stabilising our spine. An exercise that helps to strengthen this muscle would be an abdominal curl. It’s important to remember that strengthening your core and strengthening your abdominals is not always the same thing, and performing hundreds of crunches per day will not give you a stronger core! Our deep core muscles that stabilise our spine are the main muscle group we need to strengthen when work on our core. One of the main muscles is called the transverse abdominis.

“On the back side of our body are core muscles that act to hold our spine upright and stabilise it at each segment as well as stabilising the pelvis. Some of these muscles track all the way from the pelvis to the base of our skull. If these muscles aren’t strong enough a dancer may be hunched over or will have too much curvature in their upper or lower back.

“When starting core strengthening work it is usually best to begin work in a lying position. Once this is mastered you can move on to exercises that are in standing, which is obviously more similar to your position when you are dancing, so more beneficial!

“There are many exercises you can do to work on your core but here are a few to help get you started. Remember that being concise and controlled is your focus, not speed.”

Leg Extensions

core strength for irish dance core strength for irish dance

This exercise focuses on lowering each foot to the floor while maintaining the position of your spine. Lie on your back with hands by your side, keeping legs bent, feet straight and hip width apart. Aim to stop your back from arching as you lower and keep a controlled, slow movement for best results. Raise one foot off the floor as high as can be controlled, hold for 1-2 seconds and bring back to original position now do the same movement with the opposite leg. Perform the extension of each leg 5 times each side to begin with and gradually progress to perform 10-15 on each side.

Plank or Hover

core strength for irish dancecore strength for irish dance

Lie with your belly on the floor and forearms under your chest while placing your feet together. Start with the hover (on your knees) focusing on maintaining a solid set position. Lift your torso off the ground by pushing up with your arms and abdominals until it forms a straight line from head to knee. Make sure your hips don’t drop too low or sit too high and your head doesn’t drop. Once you can hold this position for 1-2 minutes you are ready to move to the plank – the same exercise, but on your toes.

Lateral/Side Hold

core strength for irish dancecore strength for irish dance

Lie on your side with your forearm slightly propping you up, place the other hand on your hip or by your side  with feet on top of each other. Tighten your core and use it to lift off the floor, while pushing with your arm. This exercise can also be performed on the knees as a starting option. Begin with 30 seconds and progress to 1-2 minutes. Your aim is to keep your body nice and straight without allowing your hips or head to drop. Repeat on both sides. Challenge yourself by raising your top arm up to the ceiling.

Download our handy pdf by clicking here, print it out, and add these core exercises to your weekly routine!

 

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most important muscle group for Irish dancing
Fitness and Conditioning
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The most important muscle group for Irish dancing

If someone were to ask you what the most important muscle group is for an Irish dancer, what would you say? Legs? Probably not arms! It’s actually your core – if your core is strong and firing, you’re going to have great posture, strong balance, get better lift, and be able to get your legs up high on your kicks and clicks.

More crucial than big kicks, a strong core means you’re going to reduce your risk of injury. According to Suzanne Cox, TCRG and Accredited Exercise Physiologist (ESSA) with the Australian Institute of Fitness, “Irish dancers with poor core strength are more susceptible to back injuries but can even be at more risk for leg and foot injuries. Our bodies function as a whole and a weak link in the chain can impact another area, which can in turn cause an injury somewhere else. For example, a back injury can cause a dancer to favour one side, which means one leg takes more load while one leg becomes weaker and unable to handle the stress placed upon it.”

Core strength is something that Chloey Turner, professional dancer and personal trainer, has learnt along the way. “During my competitive days I knew very little about the importance of core training. I thought that by putting in the hours at dance class and running occasionally that would be enough. It wasn’t until I went to college and studied to be a personal fitness trainer that I realised how important it was to make extra time to strengthen my entire body starting with the stabilising muscles.” These days Turner is putting that knowledge to good use by working with the cast of Riverdance to keep them in peak condition for their gruelling show schedule. Working with partner James Greenan, they have developed a fitness and nutrition program for Irish dancers called theCJway that will be launching soon.

Apart from injuries, Cox tells us that “A weak core can create a faulty movement pattern. If we don’t move in the correct way our bodies adapt and learn a skill in a different way. Usually this will be a less efficient way that takes more energy and doesn’t look the way we want it to. We can change the way we do a skill but it takes a lot longer! In fact, some research tells us that if we want to correct the way we perform a move we need to do it correctly hundreds of times. That means instead of performing a click with straight knees 20 – 40 times to get it right, we now need to perform it many more times to get it right!”

If you’re a dancer who struggles with posture, arm, and shoulder issues when you dance, then all signs point to a weak core. Cox describes it as, “A strong core allows a dancer to have a greater level of strength, power, precision and elegance when they dance. The core muscles that surround our spine are responsible for maintaining posture as well as keeping us strong, stable and upright. They also play a role in providing a solid support for our hips and legs to be able to do what they need to do.”

So how do you get a strong core? Stay tuned next week for a series of exercises that will help build this crucial muscle group.

 

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the one strengthening exercise you need to do every day
Fitness and Conditioning
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The one strengthening exercise you need to do every day

We know life is busy, right? Not enough hours in the day, and sometimes things have to give. As much as you wish you could be practising and conditioning and strengthening for three hours every night, you need to prioritise. To that end, we consulted one of the top Irish dancing fitness experts to find out what the one strengthening exercise is that you should be doing every day.

According to Frances Dunne, personal trainer and founder of Fitness Formula Irish Dance, you should get in a few sets of Side Lying Clams every day. Dunne says “this exercise works the gluteus medius muscle (among others) which is crucial for hip stability, especially when you’re on one leg – obviously very important for dancers!”

“Another benefit is the activation of the glute muscles (gluteus medius and gluteus minimus), a lack of which causes back pain and all sorts of movement malfunctions. It also assists in hip rotation, meaning that a strong gluteus medius equals better turnout!”

Follow our simple step by step:

1. Lie down on your side. Rest your head on your arm or hand so that you’re comfortable.
2. Bend your legs so that your hips are at approximately 45 degrees, and bend your knees at 90 degrees (your feet should be in line with your back). Make sure your hips are ‘stacked’ – one hip above the other.
3. Take a deep breath in – as you slowly exhale, engage your core muscles.
4. Inhale – as you exhale, float the upper knee upwards while keeping your feet together.
5. Inhale – as you exhale bring the knee back down to the starting position. This is supposed to be a slow and controlled exercise, and it is crucial that the hips don’t wobble at all – they need to be totally still as the leg goes up and down.
6. Repeat this 5-10 times on each leg.

If you want to increase the challenge of your clams, you can tie a resistance band just above the knees.

Simply taking five minutes out of every day to do this one strengthening exercise will keep all the important muscles strong so you can dance your best.

What’s the one exercise you do every day?

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