Your Best Body: Get in Shape for Summer Intensives

A step-by-step timeline to help you arrive in top form
Published in the April/May 2013 issue.

Advanced girls at the School of American Ballet summer course. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

Summer intensives can be a shock. Switching from five classes a week to five a day is a big jump—especially if you spent a month relaxing after the school year ended. “Unfortunately, many students come out of shape, and they suffer because of that,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet School principal  Abbie Siegel.

To get the most out of an intensive, you need to arrive prepared. Fine-tune your body strategically by taking a play from the sports world: Use periodization, an approach to training and cross-training that relies on defined periods of rest and activity. It helps athletes make sure they’re in top form at the height of their season. Megan Richardson, MS, ATC, who works with the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University Langone Medical Center’s Hospital for Joint Diseases, explains: “Periodization is training intensively, taking rest time and then building back up to elite performance level. The cyclical training and cross-training allow the body’s tissues to repair and become stronger in a balanced way.” By following this timeline, you  will reach your peak fitness just in time for your summer program.

First Week Off
After your school year ends, take a break for a week. It should be a time of relative rest—for both your ballet schedule and your supplementary workouts. “Cross-train at a low to moderate level. Yoga, Pilates, swimming and light weight-training are good options,” says Richardson. She suggests dancing about half to three-quarters less than normal. “You want to let your ballet shape rest,” explains Siegel. That way, overused muscles will have a chance to recover.
You’ll need to adjust the intensity based on how many weeks off you have. “If you have a few weeks, your training can remain moderate because you have more time to ramp up slowly,” explains Richardson. “But, if you have less time, you’ll need to ramp up faster, so really take that first week to rest.”

 Regardless, continue working on your core. “A strong core acts as a foundation of all movement,” says Richardson. “Whenever we move any body part, the deep muscles of the core activate first. So ongoing core training is appropriate for all stages of periodization.” She recommends this marching exercise: Lie flat on your back with knees bent in a tabletop position in the air. Keeping your knees at right angles, lower one foot at a time down to the floor and return to the tabletop. Repeat as many times as you can with good form and a level pelvis. To increase intensity, straighten your legs.

Three to Five Weeks Before

After your rest, spend two to three weeks focused on cross-training. Only take about half of your typical load of ballet classes, but work out five days a week. Alternate between activities such as weight-training, Pilates, swimming and other workouts.

In particular, work on your stamina so that you can endure the upcoming string of classes and get through challenging variations. “If you can’t breathe, your limbs will take the brunt, leading to injury,” warns Siegel.

One of the quickest ways to increase stamina is with interval training. “Dance is anaerobic: You go all out for 30 seconds jumping and then wait your turn,” says Richardson. “So interval training is dance-specific cardio.” After a five-minute warm-up on an elliptical or bike, go as fast as you can for one minute, then spend three minutes at a moderate pace. Repeat the cycle for 30 minutes.

Also add in exercises integral to ballet, such as calf raises. “We’’ve seen that if dancers do 20 to 25 relevés a day, they decrease their risk of many injuries,”” says Richardson. She suggests this exercise: Standing on the bottom step of a flight of stairs, relevé with two feet, then shift to one foot and lower slowly until your heel dips below the step. Raise back up with two feet, repeating until you fatigue.

Use this time to branch out as well. Stephanie Wolf Spassoff, The Rock School for Dance Education director, suggests trying a modern or jazz class. Not only will this give your movement more fluidity, it will prepare you for new styles you might encounter.

Right Before
Finally, spend the week or two before the intensive refining your ballet technique. Gradually decrease your cross-training while building up to your full load of dance training. “Work at the level you’ll expect of yourself at the intensive for at least two or three days a week,” says Richardson. “You might not be able to match the volume of activity, but you can match the intensity and therefore get a good idea of what type of rest, food and recovery you’ll need, making you truly ready for a great summer.”



The Fat-Blaster You’re Forgetting
If you’re looking to tone up before summer, don’t ignore the dairy aisle. A recent study from Canada’s McMaster University found that overweight women whose diets were high in dairy gained more muscle and lost more fat than women who ate less. The reason? Whey and casein, two proteins found in milk. Whey is digested quickly, while casein takes longer, so your muscles get strength-building amino acids both more quickly and for longer than they do from other sources of protein. Additionally, several studies have shown that the calcium from low-fat dairy reduces body fat by encouraging cells to burn it rather than store it. To get the biggest benefit, drink one cup of milk during the hour directly after class.


The Organic Myth?
Most people assume that organic foods are much healthier than non-organic—but that might not be true. A recent Stanford University study found no major difference between the levels of vitamins in organic and conventional produce. In fact, you might be better off with non-organic produce: Organic farms don’t use genetic modification, which can improve nutrition content—for example, a genetically modified tomato grown at the University of Exeter contains nearly 80 times the amount of antioxidants of an unmodified tomato. However, conventional produce usually comes with harmful pesticides. To avoid them, the National Institutes of Health recommends peeling fruits and vegetables or washing them thoroughly with warm water mixed with salt and lemon juice or vinegar.


Double Duty
A sore body calls for two things: a massage and an ice pack. Fold two steps into one with Trigger Point Performance Therapy’s Cold Roller from tptherapy.com. The stainless-steel roller, which you store in the freezer, offers both myofascial release and cold compression to simultaneously fight inflammation, get rid of lactic acid and work out knots. It’s a quick way to speed the recovery process so that you’re back in business in time for tomorrow’s rehearsal.


The Ballerina's Bad Habit
You work hard on turnout in class every day. But once you leave the studio, make sure you’re in parallel. Walking around turned out stresses your hips, knees, ankles and feet, causing micro-trauma that could lead to injuries like tendonitis or knee pain. It could also hurt your technique. “You’re overusing the muscles you need for ballet class,” says Erika Kalkan, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University Langone Medical Center’s Hospital for Joint Diseases. “Those muscles will be fatigued, so you won’t be able to use them as efficiently when you’re dancing.”

Kalkan explains that if your legs naturally turn out when you’re walking, your body is probably compensating for some weakness or tightness. Be sure to stretch your calves as well as your external rotators (sitting down with your left leg straight in front of you, cross your right foot over the left knee—making a number 4—and lean forward with a flat back, then switch sides). Kalkan also recommends strengthening your internal rotators with reverse clamshells (lying on your side with your knees bent and together, lift your top foot) and practicing doming exercises to build up the intrinsic muscles of your feet. Then, once you get on the street, consciously remind yourself to keep your toes facing forward until it becomes a habit. Your technique will thank you.


DIY: Ingrown Toenail Fix
The sharp pinch of an ingrown nail can make every tendu and piqué hurt. What can you do to ease the pain? If you see any redness, swelling or bleeding, see a physician. Otherwise, taking these simple steps can help you find some relief.

1. Soak your toe in warm water.
2. Gently massage the inflamed skin, but don’t tear it—you could cause an infection.
3. With a clean, sharp trimmer, clip the nail so that it meets the edge of the nail fold without a sharp edge, then file the nail down as much as you can with a blunt-end file.
4. Clean the nail with rubbing alcohol.

Dr. Frank Sinkoe, a podiatrist who works with dancers from Atlanta Ballet, says you should also take a look at your pointe shoes. “Evaluate your pointe shoes for a ‘dead’ platform or too wide of a box, which allows the toes to fall into the shoe,” he says. “And make sure you’re not knuckling the toes on pointe.”


Which Are Healthier: Blueberries or Raspberries?
Answer: Raspberries. They have fewer calories and sugars, with more satiating fiber and vitamin C. Both, however, have great antioxidant power, helping your body fight inflammation.