Alex Gonzaga is a professional dancer with Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre and also a personal trainer to dancers and athletes with Proteus Fitness. “I still remember years ago when I took the Atlanta Ballet summer program,” he shares. “I was 18 years old and straight out of high school. The workload during that summer was a lot more intense than I had ever experienced. With my limited knowledge at the time, I did not think hydration would be a problem, but it was. Right around the second week of the program, I had an unusually hard day, and down I went. Due to dehydration, my body just completely shut down. I didn’t pass out, but I got extremely lightheaded and had to stop dancing for the day. An older company dancer at that time introduced me to this simple hydration drink where you mix sugar, salt and water together. That was my first experience with dehydration.”
Gonzaga isn’t alone in his experience with the crippling effects of dehydration. As a dietitian, I’ve found that one of dancers’ biggest challenges is hydration. The first two signs of dehydration are fatigue and poor balance, which happen long before you actually feel thirsty. If you’re thirsty, you’ve already lost 1-2 liters of fluids. Muscles are 73 percent water, so hydration plays a major role in managing muscle function and soreness. Even fluid losses at only two percent of body weight will affect heart function and the ability of the body to regulate heat. Drinking plenty of water and getting plenty of hydrating fruits and veggies like melon, berries, cucumbers and leafy greens are also essential for beautiful, clear skin. Nutrition can be complicated, but hydration shouldn’t be. Here, we highlight some easy tips for performing at your best.
Not everyone sweats the same or has the same sensitivity to the thirst sensation, so hydration has to be individualized. One thing is for sure, dancers should have easily available access to their water bottles and should be sipping regularly throughout the day. “Individual sweat rates can be estimated by measuring body weight before and after exercise. During exercise, consuming beverages containing electrolytes and carbohydrates can provide benefits over water alone under certain circumstances. After exercise, the goal is to replace any fluid electrolyte deficit” (2).
Sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium and calcium are the main electrolytes that maintain blood volume and affect muscle contraction and release (among other talents). Since most dancers exercise indoors, a sports beverage isn’t always necessary, but it can help in certain cases, such as going for long periods between meals/snacks or when doing multiple shows under hot stage lights. If dancers find that they are getting muscle cramps more than usual, this is a sign to hydrate more and pay attention to the amount of sodium and calcium you are getting. Dancers sweat so much that they don’t normally have to worry about eating excess sodium. Calcium, on the other hand, needs to be addressed. Having a large glass of fortified almond or soy milk or added to a smoothie with potassium-rich fruit and a palm full of nuts is a great way to check a lot of electrolyte boxes.
Athletes should be well hydrated before exercise and drink enough fluids during and after exercise to balance fluid losses. Sports beverages containing carbohydrates and electrolytes may be consumed before, during and after exercise to help maintain blood glucose concentration, provide fuel for muscles, and decrease risk of dehydration and hyponatremia (sodium loss)” (1).
Amount and frequency
Start your day hydrated with at least 2 cups of water or tea (500 ml). During class and rehearsals, drink 20-40 ounces (600-1200ml) per hour. After class and rehearsal, drink at least 16 ounces (500ml) and continue to hydrate in the evening. A beverage such as soy milk can provide protein as well.
Before a performance, your hydration regimen should start at least 24 hours in advance. Don’t wait until the hour before the show to start thinking about your water intake. Getting started early is best for muscles.
In sports nutrition, we used to worry about caffeine’s diuretic effect, meaning that it makes one go to the bathroom more than usual. But current research suggests that caffeine isn’t much of a contributor to dehydration, especially in someone who consumes fluids regularly. Small to moderate amounts of caffeine, such as the amount in green tea or one cup of coffee can actually have a beneficial effect on performance, but be aware that too much (like an energy drink or excess coffee, for example) is not only performance decreasing, but it can also lead to increased risk for injury.
Gonzaga has a much better understanding of hydration now as a seasoned professional. “Fast forward to present times and as a member of Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre. We perform outside in the unforgiving Georgia heat often (95 degrees F), so proper hydration is a crucial part of my daily life.”
He continues, “I drink about eight liters of water daily. When I have an extremely hard/sweaty day, I like to drink pickle juice to replenish my sodium, as well as take magnesium baths. If you are not eating a healthy diet and getting electrolytes into your body, water alone won’t do the trick.”
By Emily C. Harrison MS, RDN, LD of Dance Informa.
1. Nutrition for Athletic Performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 41(3):709-731, MAR 2009
2. Sawka MN, et al. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Exercise and fluid replacement. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007 Feb; 39(2):377-90.