Ask the Experts: Sleep better, dance better

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By Dr. Chris Koutures

For all of us, sleep is an important part of maintaining optimum health. For dancers and other performers, however, sleep becomes a crucial pillar of success. 

Physical conditioning and good nutrition are critical in reaching peak performance, but sleep plays an equally important role. 

Dancers like to use multiple “recovery” options such as cold, heat, stretching, and massage. While these things can be beneficial, there is little doubt that sufficient sleep is hands down the most important recovery option available. In fact, if the time needed for those other choices takes away from sleep, then choose getting enough sleep each and every time!

The importance of sufficient amounts of high-quality sleep

A dancer’s schedule can be grueling with many long days of practice and very few breaks. However, it has been proven that well-rested dancers and performers learn quicker, have less injury risk, and perform better during longer training blocks. 

  • Sleep gives muscles needed time for repair and growth. In fact, most of getting taller takes places during sleep.
  • Bodies and brains move faster, think faster, and respond more favorable to instructions and technical changes.
  • Good sleep can reduce the risk of accidents – not just on the dance floor, but also sleep-deprived car accidents after late night sessions.

The best coaching, strength training, and nutrition advice cannot overcome the nightmare of inadequate sleep. Now, how much sleep does that mean?

High School aged athletes who got at least 8 hours of sleep a night had less injury risk than those who got less sleep. 

Pre-high school dancers probably do best with 9-10 hours minimum, and post-high school dancers still need that minimum 8 hours a night.

Now, part of this recommendation is somewhat individualized. Some may need more, and some may need a bit less.

So how do you measure the amount and quality of sleep? There are apps (and monitoring devices) for that. However, before becoming over-dependent on apps that may not be truly accurate, there are some other ways to assess sleep needs.

Look at your mood and feelings of how hard you are working:

  • If you are more irritable, quicker to anger, less patient or focused, you probably need more sleep
  • If you seem to be working harder on the dance floor or in class and getting less done, it’s time to get more sleep

Your families, peers and instructors may also notice these things. Honest self-appraisal shared with teachers and others can create a more individualized program that promotes more sleep and better performance. 

Balancing school, dance, social lives, and the need for sleep

Now, I hear all the time that this idea sounds really good, in theory. However, in reality, there just aren’t enough hours of the day between school, dance, travel/commute, social life.

How can a busy young dancer find enough time to get it all in? I’ll cover some general sleep recommendations and guidelines.

Sleep Hygiene 101

  • Try to go to sleep the same time (or within ½ hour) every night.
  • Use your bedroom for sleep and changing only. Try not to study, watch Netflix, or do too much else in the bedroom.  Train your brain to view your bedroom as a sleep room.
  • Don’t have the time visible. Waking up and checking the clock can lead to poor sleep patterns and increase anxiety.
  • Don’t have electronics in the bedroom. Eliminate blue light, chirps, pings and other distractions.
  • Stop electronic use at least one hour before bedtime. Alert friends you are going off the grid. This may make them have better sleep as well!
  • Maybe even put down that device more often during the day. Less checking of social media might mean homework gets done quicker and more time for sleep.
  • Trying to fit in “just one more” class or private lesson? If it interferes with getting those key hours of sleep, then it may not be worth the time. Better to select more sleep over more time in the studio or on the dance floor.
  • Do not use any supplements or medications for sleep without appropriate medical advice.
  • Don’t rely upon using weekends or breaks to “catch up” on missed sleep. Getting a longer or deeper amount of sleep one day cannot make up for poor sleep on previous or future days.

Do naps count in that daily sleep amount?

Yes, they do, especially if done right. Falling asleep in class or video sessions does not count. A planned nap in the middle of the day for 30-45 minutes maximum can restore energy, reduce post-nap grogginess, and not delay bedtime at night.

Final words on sleep

Many dancers report awaking frequently during the night and not getting that key 8+ hours a night. Some get the recommended 8+ hours but are still tired or fatigued.

Recently injured or concussed athletes may have unique sleep issues.

In these cases, it is highly recommended to schedule a medical evaluation to review sleep habits and hygiene.

Things such as tonsil/adenoid enlargement, overtraining, uncontrolled asthma/allergies, and other illnesses can contribute to poor sleep. Sleep alone won’t put you in lead roles, but without enough of it, all the other stuff just won’t matter as much.

Dr. Chris Koutures

Dr. Chris Koutures is a dual board-certified pediatric and sports medicine specialist who practices at ActiveKidMD in Anaheim Hills, CA. He is a team physician for USA Volleyball (including participating in the 2008 Beijing Olympics), the U.S. Figure Skating Sports Medicine Network, Cal State Fullerton Intercollegiate Athletics, Chapman University Dance Department, and Orange Lutheran High School. He offers a comprehensive blend of general pediatric and sport medicine care with an individualized approach to each patient and family. Please visit https://activekidmd.com/or follow him on twitter (@dockoutures).

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