While training at The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, Emily Docherty was plagued by recurring stress fractures in her feet. “I tried everything—icing religiously, physical therapy, cross-training, special shoes," she recalls. She didn't fully heal until she took a look at what she was eating.
"The value of good nutrition when recovering from an injury should not be underestimated," says Emily C. Harrison, MS, RD, LD, a dietitian at Atlanta Ballet 's Centre for Dance Nutrition. Harrison helped Docherty develop a nutritional strategy for complete recovery. "I really started to see a difference within a few weeks," Docherty says. Now 21, she is thriving as an apprentice with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
All dancers want to heal quickly when they're injured. Every day on the sidelines is a day that could have been spent working on technique, auditioning or performing. Like Docherty, you can use what you eat to help your body recover faster. These three key nutrients in particular can help to get you back on your toes.
Protein is essential to building and healing muscle. But it's also a powerhouse for repairing bones, improving muscle contraction, maintaining fluid balance and restoring collagen, which is part of connective tissues such as tendons and ligaments.
The trick to maximizing protein's impact is eating it strategically—not eating more. "Many of the dancers I work with are already getting more than enough protein," Harrison says. "Too much protein actually backfires by forcing the body to release calcium from the bones as a way to keep equilibrium." Going overboard could actually slow your recovery from a fracture.
Instead, Harrison tells injured dancers to eat small amounts of high-quality protein with each meal and snack. "When you distribute protein evenly throughout the day, the body can really use it for rebuilding tissue." Along with yogurt, cheese and lean meats, Harrison recommends plant sources like beans and rice, quinoa, nuts and seeds.
"We are adamant about dancers getting enough calcium and vitamin D," says Dr. Jordan Metzl, a leading sports-medicine physician at Manhattan's Hospital for Special Surgery and author of The Athlete's Book of Home Remedies. Stress fractures like Docherty's are among the injuries he sees most often, and along with calcium, vitamin D is crucial to repairing them. Vitamin D allows your bones to absorb calcium and use it to repair stresses, hairline fractures and breaks. As a bonus, vitamin D also strengthens the immune system and helps reduce inflammation throughout the body, so it's a triple whammy for healing.
However, according to a 2011 study of young male ballet dancers led by researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Australia's Deakin University, dancers are at a higher-than-average risk of vitamin D deficiency because they spend so much time indoors. Just 15 minutes a day of sun exposure, even when it's overcast, can help increase your levels for better healing, says Harrison. Yogurt and fortified milk are good food sources of vitamin D. Read the labels to make sure the brands you like include it. You can also get vitamin D from tuna and salmon, and the yolks of eggs.
Vitamin C is a master healer, aiding everything from the rebuilding of ankle ligaments after a sprain to the repairing of skin wounds, like blisters. In his book, Metzl says vitamin C is also a key element in creating collagen.
Before you power up with vitamin C pills or packets of powdered drink mix, beware: Vitamin C is acidic, and your body will use calcium to neutralize the large amounts found in supplements. "If a dancer is megadosing on vitamin C," Harrison warns, "she's actually weakening her bones. Nobody needs 1,000 milligrams." The actual daily requirement is just 45–100 milligrams—the amount in an orange or two. Again, the savvy strategy is to eat small servings throughout the day: half a grapefruit at breakfast, a kiwifruit with lunch and a chopped bell pepper in your dinner salad.
What to Avoid
Healing is about not only what you eat, but also what you don't eat. Junk foods fill you up without contributing any useful nutrients, and they can undermine your recovery. "The worst are sodas with caffeine," Harrison says. "They reduce bone-mineral density and increase fluid loss." Ditch the empty calories. Other problem foods: candy, fried foods, packaged cookies and crackers.
"My general advice is to shop on the edges of the supermarket," says Metzl. Stick to the produce, dairy and meat aisles on the perimeter and avoid the pre-packaged goods that fill the center of the store. His word to the wise: "If anything has an expiration date of 2036, or if it's not a color found in nature, you probably shouldn't eat it." That's a smart game plan for healing—and for maintaining a healthy diet after you've recovered.
The Healing Foods Grocery List
Protein, vitamin D and vitamin C are just the beginning—every nutrient plays a role in recovering from injuries. Fill your shopping cart with these staples.
- Calcium: milk, yogurt, low-fat cheese, almonds, collard greens, arugula
- Magnesium: wheat bran, almonds, spinach, pumpkin, ground flaxseeds
- Omega-3 fatty acids: walnuts, ground flaxseeds, beans, wild salmon
- Protein: skim milk, eggs, tofu, beans, lean meats
- Vitamin A: sweet potato, carrots, blue/orange/purple fruits and vegetables
- Vitamin C: broccoli, citrus fruits, berries, winter squash
- Vitamin D: fortified milk and yogurt, tuna, salmon, mushrooms, egg yolk
- Vitamin E: whole grains, fortified cereals, leafy greens, nuts
- Vitamin K: leafy greens like kale and chard, asparagus, cabbage