Let me begin by saying that I am neither a medical professional nor a certified nutritionist, and my advice should not be taken as such. I’m just a science nerd with a pair of dance shoes and a platform to rant about food. Another disclaimer: the way our bodies respond to nutrition is highly individual, so what works wonders for me and other people may cause you to vomit halfway through the quickstep. And trust me, nobody wants that.
Finally, it’s on that note that I’ll encourage you to do a great deal of self-experimentation over a sustained period of time when figuring out your competition diet. You shouldn’t risk trying something entirely new and outside your wheelhouse the morning of, as the result could be catastrophic. There are about 10,000 different ways to eat strategically and healthily to maximize your performance, so if what you’re doing now works for you, stick to it. Like everything else in dance, nutrition is about listening to your body and seeing what makes you feel good.
Now that the disclaimers are out of the way, I’d like to take this article in a slightly different direction than what most nutrition articles do. Rather than spend much time on what to eat (although I will offer a few brief notes on that), I’d like to focus on when you should be consuming your calories competition day. Ballroom dancers are in a unique position when compared to other sports, where maximizing energy is key to controlling our bodies for short bursts of time, but pushing harder during your Waltz will do little good.
I hope to offer two things: the first is some basic nutritional science and how consuming your food at the right times can improve your athletic performance. The second is a shortlist of actionable recommendations with possible foods for you to experiment with and see how your dancing responds. If you’re not much of one for nerdy science stuff and just want the instruction, then reading the headings should suffice.
Tip 1: Eat a substantial breakfast 3-4 hours before go-time.
When you consume carbohydrates, the body will shuttle them either to muscle glycogen or (less so) liver glycogen. The former will be our primary fuel source when we dance, utilizing muscle glycogen stores during medium and high intensity movement. Glycogen is important for dancing, and manipulating it effectively will be the running theme of this article.
That feeling after your eighteenth jive of the day when your body has just hit a wall and you feel completely drained? That’s your glycogen stores emptying, and although you can spike your energy back up for brief periods with high-glycemic index carbohydrates, it’s not a sustainable or effective solution.
You’re probably going to burn through a much greater number of calories dancing all day than what your body is used to. Since muscle glycogen can’t be replenished immediately, we want to load up early in the day to give your body as much fuel as possible for later.
Your breakfast should be mostly low-glycemic index carbohydrates and healthy fats. Brown rice, sprouted wheat breads, and other carbohydrates like them take longer to absorb in your system and prevent your blood sugar from spiking unnecessarily. This leaves you with a more sustainable energy source throughout the day than if you just load up on Snickers.
Your breakfast should also be balanced and include healthy fats with high amounts of omega 3’s if possible (aside from being generally awesome, omega 3’s tend to have nootropic benefits that improve focus, a topic for discussion another day). Both the fats and carbohydrates, however, will take time to absorb in your system, and digesting them is a major energy draw. Leaving 3-4 hours as a buffer period for your body to process the food and fill your muscle glycogen reserves is strongly recommended; moving too much during this period of time could make you queasy and limit absorption. Explore how long this window should be for you on non-competition days.
Tip 2: Eat small meals throughout the day, but more than an hour before you hit the boards.
For most people, it will take roughly an hour for your body to actually prepare the foods you eat for use as fuel: you can’t just dump a pixie stick down your throat and triple the speed of your jive kicks. Although it may feel that way, that’s likely part placebo and entirely unsustainable. The fuel already stored as muscle glycogen will be far more effective in powering your body than spiking your blood sugar time and time again.
Keeping our glycogen stores level throughout the day means consuming small meals, once again, low-glycemic index carbs and healthy fats, and allowing an hour or so for your body to be ready to use it. Make sure these meals are small, otherwise your body will siphon energy from the rest of your system to digest the food and you’ll be left with less fuel to dance.
Tangent: this style of eating is not healthy in day-to-day life. While it can be very useful on competition days, recent research has shown that snacking puts undue stress on the body and can lead to fat development. Snack at your own risk.
While these snacks should be well-timed and balanced, it’s a common misconception that high-protein is needed for optimal performance. Protein is wonderful and necessary for muscle development and body composition, but it’s one of the last things your body will source for energy. Eat lots of protein in your daily life and post-competition, but on competition day? Prioritize your carbohydrates.
Tip 3: Eat small amounts of fruit 15 minutes before you dance.
While your body cannot immediately move your spoonful of peanut butter into storage, ready to use, there are some foods that don’t need to be processed quite the same. Fructose, the type of sugar found in fruits, is generally not stored as muscle glycogen, and as a result, can be used as energy right away.
Simple monosaccharides that come from regular starches are shuttled to muscle glycogen and only muscle glycogen. Fructose, however, is sent to the liver and stored as liver glycogen, which is, put simply, a more accessible source of immediate power for your body. The catch is that your liver can’t hold a lot of fuel, so its energy provision ought to be supplemental to your muscle glycogen stores.
A handful of blueberries about 15 minutes before you dance can go a long way, giving you some lovely nootropic effects alongside a quick jolt of energy. Fruit is a much better way of getting last minute sugars in your system than a candy bar or a big bag of Starburst, as the fructose will be much cleaner and more readily accessible than the more common, processed foods.
Tip 4: Aim to eat again within 60 minutes after finishing for the day.
Assuming you are at a multi-day competition, you’ll want to give your body as much opportunity as possible to begin repairing your system and refilling your fuel stores. Eat a balanced meal with lots of carbs, healthy fats, and proteins as soon as possible after your last dance to start the recovery process. Give your body as much time as you can to fix itself up, as the more work it can do now, the more restful and uninterrupted your sleep will be after.
A few final notes: do not dramatically shift your diet on competition day. Your body will function best with what it is familiar and comfortable with, so introduce the foods you plan to eat long before you compete. Likewise, your lifestyle or dietary choices may not work with each of these tips; if you’re fat adapted on a ketogenic diet or you’re used to dancing in a fasted state, your strategy will likely look very different.
At the end of the day, every aspect of your competition nutrition is going to be highly personal. Experiment and allow your body to acclimate not just to what you’re eating, but when, too; see how long you need to process a meal, or how different you feel dancing with a handful of berries in your belly. Knowing these facts, what and when to eat, is just one more way a dancer can be better in tune with their body, and in turn, put a better performance on the floor.
(Published in Sheer Dance magazine June 2020)