As a student-athlete, proper nutrition before, during, and after a training session is crucial to optimal performance and recovery. This is true with any sport including dance. As a former collegiate dancer myself, I know how challenging it can be to figure out what foods to eat, when to eat said foods, and how to fit it all in with the demanding schedule a dancer has on top of school. It can feel overwhelming, but understanding dancer nutrition doesn’t have to be! In this blog post, we break down pre-, intra-, and post-training nutrition for dancers. We’ll cover why it’s important for dancers to focus on nutrition, types of foods to eat, and when, as well as some examples to get you started.
Pre-Training Dancer Nutrition
Before a dance workout, carbohydrates should be the main focus of a meal or snack. Carbohydrates are the body’s primary and preferred source of energy to fuel muscles during exercise. This is especially true when it comes to higher-intensity training that dancers engage in. Consuming easily digestible carbohydrates before training allows you to optimize the use o energy available from your foods. Keeping protein, fat, and fiber low to moderate may help avoid gastrointestinal distress.
To optimize pre-training dancer nutrition, aim for a high-carbohydrate meal 3-4 hours before dance that includes both quick- and long-digesting carbohydrates and moderate amounts of fat, fiber, and protein. Meal ideas include oatmeal made with milk and topped with fruit and nuts, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with banana slices and low-fat milk.
20-90 minutes before training, focus on easily digested carbohydrates to ensure energy will be available to muscles quickly. Timing may depend on your personal preference or time since your last meal. Snack ideas closer to dance include fruit, a small granola bar, mini bagels, pretzels, or crackers. The longer you have before the exercise session, the more important it is to add some fat, protein, and fiber to maintain blood sugar and prevent hunger. Adding nuts, nut or seed butter, or hummus to the above options will work. If you only have 5-15 minutes pre-workout, grab a sports drink, energy gel, dried fruit, or even a spoonful of honey or maple syrup!
Poor hydration can impact recovery, energy metabolism, and cognition. Aerobic and cognitive performance decline at just 1-2% body fluid loss – when you may not even feel thirsty. While it’s best to work with a sports dietitian to determine individualized fluid and electrolyte needs, a general goal is to drink an extra 16-20 ounces of fluid roughly 2 hours before dance. Factors to consider for adding electrolytes include temperature and humidity in your training environment, the level of intensity of the workout, and whether or not you’re a heavy sweater.
Intra-Training Dancer Nutrition
It is rare that dancers train for under an hour at a time. While there are short breaks, it’s not uncommon for dancers to be in the studio, moving on and off for 4 or more hours a day. Intra-workout dancer nutrition is essential to replenish carbs and electrolytes so dancers can maintain intensity and support cognition and reaction time to limit injury risk.
When training is high intensity and steady state over an hour, aim for anywhere from 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour via easily digestible sources, such as the options that I suggest immediately pre-workout.
As time at the studio increases, even with more breaks and lower intensity, energy needs remain high so opt for a compact energy bar with more protein, fat, and fiber, half a PBJ at a time, or a trail mix rich in dried fruit can be helpful to maintain blood sugar, perceived energy levels, and even limit muscle damage by preserving body protein. We have more ideas in our free packaged performance snack guide so you can stash several options in your dance bag ahead of time.
When you sweat, you also lose sodium and if the workout is longer than 60 minutes, a sports drink can supply the carbohydrates mentioned along with sodium and fluid. If the workout is shorter, focus on water for hydration, unless you know you under-fueled earlier in the day. A good rule of thumb is to drink 3-4 gulps every 15-20 minutes.
Post-Training Dancer Nutrition
After sessions lasting over 75 minutes, you have exhausted much of your muscle carbohydrate stores, so they need to be replenished. This provides energy to ensure your body uses protein eaten for muscle recovery, rather than as an energy source. Immediately after a workout, prioritize carbohydrates and protein. In a snack, aim for a carbohydrate-protein combo such as chocolate milk (which also supplies fluid), a yogurt parfait with granola and fruit, or an apple with 2 cheese sticks and pretzels. Within the next three hours, consume a full meal that is high in carbohydrates and protein, but also supplies fat, an important nutrient. Try a bowl with rice, veggies, a protein source such as chicken or salmon, and your favorite dressing or sauce. An omelet with avocado toast also works any time of day!
Key Takeaways for Dancers
The information provided above includes general nutrition guidelines to get you started. We encourage dancers (and all student-athletes) to listen to their bodies. Training sessions can vary in duration and intensity each day. The longer the duration of the workout and the higher the intensity, the more energy, ideally from carbohydrates, will be needed. If you are still hungry after a meal 3-4 hours before a workout, you should eat more, even if it’s a lower intensity or shorter training day. If you aren’t as hungry, we don’t want to force food, leading to you feeling overly full, so we recommend a compact snack like a sports gel or dried fruit immediately before training and then a plan for fueling during the dance workout.
If you’re looking for more resources, check out our webinar on performance nutrition basics or one of our pdf guides on performance snacking or optimizing hydration! If you’d like more personalized suggestions, consider working 1-on-1 with a performance dietitian.