Muscle cramping commonly leads to discomfort for dancers, ultimately hindering performance. Proper training, adequate rest, and supportive warm-up routines are crucial, but how about nutrition? Are there meal-time interventions that dancers can make to prevent and alleviate muscle cramping? In this blog post, we’ll explore the answers to this question, along with key considerations for dancers to manage muscle cramping effectively.
Why do dancers’ muscles cramp?
Dancers can experience muscle cramps for a variety of reasons, often related to the intensity of their movements. Normally, muscles move by continuously contracting and releasing. A spasm or cramp results when either the muscle is unable to relax properly or when lactic acid (a natural byproduct of cellular metabolism) builds up (a result of improper rest times). The result is painful and unpredictable contractions that forcibly tighten your muscles.
The strenuous and repetitive nature of dance leads to muscle exhaustion— cramping in the legs and feet is most common. Add overtraining to the mix, and dancers who forgo adequate rest periods will be even more prone to this discomfort.
Can nutrient deficiencies cause cramping?
It’s understandable to assume that nutrition plays a pivotal role in muscle function. Muscles rely on a spectrum of vitamins and minerals—particularly potassium, calcium, and magnesium— for the mechanics of contraction and relaxation.
For dancers specifically, it’s common to point the finger to food. Dancer diet culture often promotes a fixation on food and nutrition in hopes for easy solutions (like supplements) or justification for “clean” eating patterns. However, in populations like athletes and dancers, specific nutrient deficiencies have yet to be associated with exercise-induced leg cramping. A case study even demonstrated that overdoing it on potassium-rich foods may worsen muscle cramps. While preliminary studies have shown a potential association between B vitamin deficiencies and leg muscle cramping, there isn’t enough conclusive evidence to support the use of supplementation as an intervention.
I’ve heard tart cherry juice can help!
Tart cherry juice has gained attention for its potential benefits in alleviating muscle cramps. Rich in compounds like anthocyanins and antioxidants, it is believed to offer an anti-inflammatory effect and therefore, relieve muscle soreness and pain. Several studies even suggest that tart cherry juice may reduce muscle damage during and after exercise. However, evidence remains mixed (here’s another study that refutes this claim). While research is ongoing, incorporating tart cherry juice into your diet isn’t yet a promising remedy (unless, of course, you enjoy the flavor addition!)
A Dancer’s Diet: Can we make changes to alleviate cramping?
In the realm of nutrition, balancing a lack of scientific evidence with lived experience is pivotal. While studies remain limited in providing valuable insights into specific nutrients for the alleviation of muscle cramping, individual experiences can offer perspectives to help with the discomfort. Acknowledging the limitations of generalized research allows for a more open-minded approach while recognizing that lived experience— whether it’s packing potassium-rich produce for rehearsal or using a topical muscle relaxant— can provide meaningful support. Let’s dive into key interventions that you can implement to ward off muscle cramping.
#1: Remember to hydrate
Dancers, especially those engaged in rigorous training during hot and humid months (ie. summer intensives) experience an increase in fluid loss through sweat. This exacerbates the risk of dehydration— including a subsequent loss of essential electrolytes like potassium, magnesium, and sodium.
Ensure an adequate intake of water throughout the day, and consider incorporating electrolyte-rich drinks to replenish what is lost through sweat. Proper hydration efforts will also aid in the clearance of lactic acid from your working muscles. Coconut water is sometimes promoted to prevent muscle cramps because it is a rich source of potassium. While limited studies exist demonstrating the positive effects of coconut water on muscle cramps, if plain water feels boring to you, coconut water is a helpful alternative to boost your fluid intake.
#2: Prioritize food variety
It’s simple: eating a variety of foods will ensure that you’re getting a spectrum of nutrients to support cellular metabolism and ultimately, muscle functioning. Potassium-rich foods like bananas, oranges, avocadoes, and leafy greens are a great start. Magnesium can be found in nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Additionally, sodium can be replenished through foods like salted nuts and pretzels, along with yogurt and cheese.
Opting for foods rich in complex carbohydrates and protein is also important. Whole grains, brown rice, and sweet potatoes are examples and as a bonus, you’ll boost your intake of b vitamins and magnesium. Consuming carbohydrates before and after rehearsals can also help prevent muscle fatigue and spare protein for muscle recovery.
Certain vitamins and minerals may also contribute to muscle health. There is some limited evidence that vitamin D, found in sunlight, mushrooms, fatty fish, and fortified foods like orange juice and dairy products— helps to alleviate cramping. Calcium absorption. Calcium-rich foods like dairy, leafy greens, and fortified plant-based milk alternatives should be incorporated into the diet for overall muscle health. Last, omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts, are known for their anti-inflammatory properties. Preliminary studies suggest a possible benefit of omega-3’s in helping to reduce inflammation and alleviate muscle discomfort.
#3: Improve your relationship with food
It’s no secret that your relationship with food matters— when aiming for the above suggestions, food flexibility will set the stage for your ability to access abundance and variety. Consuming a balanced meal or snack approximately 2-3 hours before rehearsals provides a sustained energy source. Additionally, a post-rehearsal snack might be essential in repleting lost nutrients from intense dancing.
Looking beyond your plate
In addition to these meal plan additions, we can recognize additional reasons why our muscles might cramp.
- Improper footwear or dancing on surfaces that lack shock absorption can contribute to muscle strain and cramping, particularly in the feet and calves.
- Underlying medical conditions and medication usage can contribute to an increased propensity for cramping.
- Emotional stress and anxiety can manifest physically and contribute to muscle tension and cramping.
Self-massage, relaxation techniques, topical muscle relief, and hot Epsom salt baths offer additional approaches to easing muscle cramps. Targeted self-massage can release tension and improve blood circulation in specific muscle groups, promoting flexibility and reducing the likelihood of cramping. Incorporating relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or gentle stretching, enhances overall body awareness and helps dancers identify and address areas of muscular strain. Hot baths, with their soothing warmth, contribute to muscle relaxation and can alleviate stiffness, promoting a quicker recovery.