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Fitness and Conditioning
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Are you training smart? Understanding stamina

If you have ever been to an Irish dancing class (assume that’s why you’re here?) then you would have heard talk of stamina – “gotta get your stamina up! gotta get through your dance!”. The first step to working on your stamina is understanding exactly what it is. There are different types of stamina, and you want to make sure you’re adopting the correct training system for Irish dancing.

Anaerobic vs Aerobic Training

First, let’s make clear the difference between aerobic and anaerobic training. Lauren Early, 6-time World Champion and Irish Dancing trainer, describes aerobic exercise as the body exercising “in a steady controlled state, long and moderate enough for oxygen to be present and carbon dioxide to be produced.” In terms of figures, it’s exercise of two minutes up to marathon. “If competing in an aerobic sport, the athlete must make aerobic training a priority and structure it accordingly. It would be much more beneficial for the athlete to train over longer periods with short or no rest periods similar to that of the sport”, says Early.

Conversely, anaerobic exercise is the body exercising “with no oxygen present, resulting in lactic acid being produced”, Early explains. “Because of the fast paced nature of anaerobic sport it predominately uses our fast twitch muscle fibres, therefore it would be much more beneficial for the athlete to train with short and intense bursts of speed, power and aggression for shorter periods and taking longer rest periods to ensure the intensity can be kept high.” Exercise up to two minutes falls in the lactic acid zone, and this includes Irish dancing – the average dance is 40-60 seconds, performed at high intensity.

Training smart

Just like a sprinter wouldn’t train like a marathon runner, training programs need to be tailored for specific outcomes. Early muses, “I see people running for 40 minutes a day and cycling for 1 hour under the impression that it is going to aid them over a 60 second event. Training that long will produce very little lactic acid as the intensity is so low, then we step on stage and fill up with lactic acid very quickly. We then put this down to our fitness being poor and the same process happens again.

“What we actually need to improve is your ability not to fatigue once maximal speed has been achieved. This ability to maintain speed, power, and posture right through the 60 seconds will not come from improved stamina but will come from improved lactic acid tolerance – your ability to keep going at a high pace for longer.

“Remember as we are only on stage for up to 60 seconds it is not our goal to have the ability to go on forever with minimal intensity, it is our goal to go for a short period of time with maximal intensity. Think of yourself as a sprinter – a sprinter will never want lots of stamina or fitness but they will want lots of power, speed and maximum acceleration. Remember you can have volume or you can have intensity but you cannot have both – in other words you can run slow for a long period of time or you can run fast for a short period – don’t be the dancer training to dance for a long period of time, be smart and be the dancer training to go fast for a short period of time!”

Making it count

There is an inverse relationship between intensity and volume. “As intensity rises, volume must drop, and the opposite is also true, if volume rises the intensity must drop to allow for more volume. In order to complete a dance round lasting 10 minutes the intensity would have to be significantly reduced”, Early points out.

Early describes two session plans to highlight the difference between training the two energy systems:

Marathon Runner                          400m Sprinter / Dancer
Exercise: 1 x 10k run Exercise: 8 x 200m sprints
Recovery: None Recovery: 3 minutes between runs
Intensity: Low Intensity: High
Volume: High Volume: Low
Session Time: 40 minutes Session Time: 40 minutes

“Both sessions last around 40 minutes, however you will see that the endurance runner has no recovery therefore intensity must be low for him to complete 40 minutes of continuous exercise.

“The sprinter’s session also lasts around 40 minutes, however after every 200m is completed the sprinter receives a 3 minute break. This allows him to attack each run with maximum intensity, enough to create a lactic acid build up effect similar to race conditions.”

Early is careful to point out, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with cardio training. This is strictly about the most optimal way to train for competitive Irish dance. Irish dancers are fast paced athletes that need to focus on the development of our speed, power, height, posture, flexibility, and lactic acid tolerance, similar to competition conditions and expectations. To improve these key areas of our sport they must be incorporated into our training programs outside of dancing.”

Do you cross train? What other exercises do you incorporate into your training schedule? Have you seen improvements in your dance performance? Share your experience in the comments below or join the conversation on Facebook.

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  • This sounds really helpful! Since sometimes it’s hard to find a place with distances measured out just so, is there a way to do the intervals with a timer/stopwatch? If so, what would you recommend?