I recently contributed an article to Dancetrain Magazine’s Bodywise edition, published in September 2018. You can check out the online publication here.

Here is the original text…

‘Load’ refers to the overall physical force being placed on the body. Managing load appropriately is vital in dance conditioning as it reducesthe risk of injury and guides rehabilitation. When the amount of load outweighs the body’s ability to cope, an overload injury can occur. The difference in the younger population is that throughout growth spurts and physical maturation, the body is undergoing constant change in size, shape, weight and hormones.Finding the balance between participating in enough class work to continue progressing a dancer’s skill acquisition, without overtraining, can be quite the juggling act.

Sports physiotherapists and dance medicine experts look at the influence of external and internal load, and ratio between chronic (the cumulative training load over a 4 week average) and acute load (the load in the current week).

External Load is the volume (number of hours) of physical activity. For example, a typical client of mine is a 13 year-old aspiring ballerina, whose weekly timetable involves 15 hours of dance, 3 hours of netball, and 2 hours of school sport – 20 hours per week on a regular basis; over the course of a school term, her body adapts and is now capable of managing this chronic workload. During the holidays she participates in a ballet intensive, involving an additional 6 hours of dance per day over 5 days (extra 30 hours); this dancer’s body has not prepared for this sudden spike in volume, the acute load, so is now more susceptible to injury.

Internal load can be measured as the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) on a numerical scale from 1 to 10; 1 being minimal and 10 being maximal exertion. Both the dancer and the teacher can report RPE and note any discrepancies. For example, a teacher may report that a student had a fairly light class and rated the RPE as 4, yet the dancer rates her RPE significantly higher at 9. This discrepancy could be a warning sign that the dancer perceives a higher intensity of class, which could lead to an overuse injury. Professional sporting teams connect to an online database where players upload specific data, which is analyzed to calculate optimal loads for individual athletes. Recreational dancers can monitor their internal load/RPE on a daily basis in their diary, calendar or on smart phone apps.

As well as the dancer keeping track of their RPE, other signs for dance teachers and parents to watch out for are:

  • Reduced tolerance of current activity schedule – they are just not able to keep up in class
  • Sudden deterioration of performance – both physical and mental function, at dance or school
  • Washed out feeling, fatigue, lack of energy – they used to voluntarily practise their class work at home but have ceased
  • Body aches and pains which do not subside with rest
  • Reduced immunity – they are experiencing frequent colds or sore throats
  • Headaches
  • Altered sleep patterns – the National Sleep Foundation recommends a teenager aim for between 8 and 11 hours of sleep per night, as during sleep, the brain triggers a release in hormones that instigates tissue growth and repair
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities which usually bring joy

The World Health Organization suggests that kids aged between 5 and 17 should accumulate 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity daily. Many dancers will be doing in excess of this and their bodies are able to cope just fine…to a point. Any number or combination of factors can contribute to the development of an overload injury, such as:

  • a rapid growth spurt – more than 1cm per month over a few months is considered significant
  • a sudden spike in physical activity volume – might not even be dance-related, such as cross country running at school
  • a sudden change in type of current class work – unexpected extra attention on allegro
  • a recent injury to another body part which has lead to a technique modification or biomechanical substitution
  • an unsustainable/unreasonable chronic load
  • a recent illness
  • emotional stress caused by school work, friends, family concerns

Nobody knows a dancer’s body better than the dancer themself, and most understand that mild muscle soreness is inevitable when learning a new technique, after a holiday/break or after a particularly demanding class. The challenge with young people is that thankfully most have never experienced adverse pain; the challenge is helping them to differentiate between an acceptable post-exercise soreness, a ‘warning pain’ and a ‘must stop pain’.


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