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Fitness and Conditioning

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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  • Kelseigh

    I unfortunately had to quit dancing about two and a half years ago due to ridiculous fatigue. I’m just now getting answers and it’s my sleep. I’m not getting any REM/deep/dream sleep because of periodic limb movement disorder. I twitch in my sleep (I joke that I dance in my sleep) and it wakes me up a little bit, so little I don’t notice, keeping me in light sleep.

    Just as you said, I feel weak, lethargic, and have no energy. I also struggle to concentrate and take in information. I produce too much of some hormones and too little of others. Now that I’ve got a diagnosis, I’m hoping that once we find the right meds and dosages that I can get my life back. I hope to be able to go back to dance.

    • readytofeis

      Fingers crossed you can get back to dance soon Kelseigh! Thanks for sharing your story.