Your Best Body: The Secret Performance Enhancer

Caffeine can improve your dancing—if you use it correctly.
Published in the June/July 2012 issue.

Photo by Nathan Sayers

Caffeine is everywhere. There are Red Bull energy drinks, 5-hour Energy shots, Foosh energy mints, Sheets energy strips that dissolve on the tongue, even AeroShot “breathable caffeine” that gets sucked in like an inhaler.

Most of us assume we should feel guilty about our caffeine habit. But the stimulant is actually loaded with benefits. Professional athletes regularly harness caffeine’s power to improve their performance—and dancers can, too. Imagine it: You’re on stage in the same body, with the same talent, but your concentration is sharper, you have more endurance and vivacity, your feet don’t even hurt quite as much. All it takes is a cup of coffee.

But there’s a catch. Not all caffeine is created equal. You have to calibrate its kick if you want it to work to your advantage.

Your Body On Caffeine

The rush of a latte comes from caffeine stimulating your central nervous system. Caffeine works by blocking adenosine, which slows down nerve activity so you rest—it’s the body’s natural chill pill. When adenosine can’t do its job, your muscles and brain stop receiving the usual messages to mellow out, and voilà, you’re ready to tackle 32 fouetté turns.

Depending on how much you drink, caffeine stays in your system for about three to four hours. Heavy caffeine drinkers often fall into a daily morning habit. “When somebody says, ‘Don’t talk to me yet, I haven’t had my coffee,’ they’re going through withdrawal,” explains Andrea Giancoli, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It’s a pretty safe substance, but it’s addictive.” People who become dependent may feel irritable and drowsy, and could experience headaches or even stomachaches if they don’t get their fix.

Performance Perks
Caffeine’s benefits extend beyond the wake-up call. Because it slightly increases heart and breathing rates, caffeine prepares your body for peak athletic performance. Research has shown that it improves endurance by sparing glycogen, your muscles’ primary fuel source. One study found it reduces the loss of glycogen by as much as 50 percent in the first 15 minutes of exercise, which means your body can go longer before running out of gas.

Caffeine also makes exercise feel easier because it blocks some nerve endings from sending pain signals to the brain. The typical discomfort of holding a développé will diminish, a sore ankle will feel less tender. “”But that doesn’’t mean you can skip the physical therapist if you’’re injured!”” warns Roberta Anding, a sports dietitian who works with Houston Ballet. Caffeine is no silver bullet to pain relief, but it could be a helpful addition to icing, taking ibuprofen and whatever else you’re doing to work through minor aches or soreness.

In addition, caffeine activates the parts of the brain that control short-term memory, attention and concentration. This means it can help you pick up and remember choreography better. You’ll also feel more alert, better able to focus during a performance.

The Right Stuff

How can you take advantage of all these benefits? Drink one cup of coffee or two cups of tea about 60 to 90 minutes before dancing. (Beware: One cup—8 oz—is a Starbucks “short,” not a “tall.”) Have it with a meal, such as a healthy sandwich and a mixed green salad, for well-rounded fuel—your body needs calories for true physical energy. Plus, if you don’t have any food in your system, coffee’s acid could upset your stomach.

Bypass the souped-up chemical products like Red Bull, and stick to caffeine’s natural plant sources: coffee or tea. “If nutrition science has learned anything, it’s that, just because there’s an active ingredient in something (i.e. caffeine in coffee), when you isolate it and put it in another product, it doesn’t necessarily behave the same way, because it doesn’t have the same supporting cast members around it,” explains Anding.

While tea’s benefits are well-documented—it fights everything from cancer to clogged arteries—coffee also offers a number of health advantages. With about two to four times the caffeine of tea, a cup of joe is loaded with antioxidants and even offers up to one and a half grams of fiber. “There are so many things to worry about and avoid,” says Giancoli. “Coffee shouldn’t be one of them. As long as you don’t have a heart condition or an ulcer, chill out and enjoy it.” Just skip the sugar and reach for skim milk rather than cream.
Contrary to popular belief, coffee and tea don’t dehydrate you. Although there is a mild diuretic effect, regular drinkers adapt to it. More importantly, eight ounces of either beverage provides eight ounces of water. “Studies have shown that because coffee and tea contribute to your fluid intake, there ends up being no decrease in hydration,” says Giancoli. A daily cup of coffee will hardly leech calcium from your bones, either, as long as you maintain your dairy intake. Even adding one to two tablespoons of milk to your cup is enough to offset any negative impact.

This isn’t to say you should start drinking huge amounts. Most nutritionists agree that the upper limit is around 300 milligrams of caffeine a day (about three cups of coffee), depending on your tolerance. Beyond that, you could become shaky, anxious or experience insomnia. Paraphrasing a scientific adage, Anding puts it simply: “The dose determines whether it's medicine or poison.”



Plank Out

One of the quickest ways for dancers to warm up is with a plank: It’s a full-body workout. To make the position even more effective, take a limb off the ground. The fewer points of contact you have with the floor, the more your muscles have to work to support you. Try bringing one hand at a time up to shoulder-height, or picking up one of your feet. You can even give your balance a super challenge by picking up your right hand and left foot at the same time, then switching sides.



Smarter Comfort Food
Ever wonder why you crave ice cream and French fries when you’re stressed? Whenever the body senses anxiety, it releases cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, which stimulates cravings for energy-dense foods. Your cavewoman instincts are making sure you’re properly fueled to fight or flee possible danger. The next time you feel the urge to smother your stress in bacon, try munching on these foods instead:
-Citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruits contain high levels of vitamin C, which can reduce cortisol levels.
-Complex carbs such as whole grain cereal, bread and oatmeal help stabilize blood sugar and prompt the brain to produce serotonin, a feel-good chemical that eases stress.

-Nuts or fatty fish such as salmon and tuna contain omega-3 fatty acids that help stabilize hormone levels and prevent mood swings.



Soothe The Burn

A leotard strap digging into sunburned shoulders can ruin an entire day of class and rehearsals. Unfortunately there’s no quick fix to undo the damage. But you can lessen the pain with a few easy steps suggested by the Mayo Clinic:
1. Keep your skin cool and moist. Lather up in aloe or moisturizer, and keep a damp towel nearby to apply to your skin whenever you have a break.
2. Take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory, such as ibuprofen.
3. Avoid the temptation to pop blisters, and be gentle with peeling skin—you could slow down the healing process.
4. Next weekend, use more sunscreen!



It’s Tasty, Too!
Every so often the health gods smile down on us, and something decadent is actually good for our bodies. Nutritional yeast, the trendy dietitian-approved health food, is filled with B vitamins and is a complete protein. It’s also low in fat and sodium, and free of sugar, dairy and gluten. But you’d never guess its wholesomeness. The powder or flakes have a nutty flavor that tastes just like Parmesan cheese.
What Is It? A deactivated yeast made by culturing yeast with a sugar cane and beet molasses mixture.
Where To Buy It: The supplements aisle of most health food stores.
How To Eat It: Sprinkle some on popcorn, or add it to a stir-fry, roasted vegetables or pasta.



Protect Your Feet
Small wounds like splits on your feet can be prime infection spots for plantar warts. Caused by a virus that thrives in warm, moist environments, these bothersome warts often grow under calluses and are painful to dance on. Dr. Frank Sinkoe, a podiatrist who works with Atlanta Ballet dancers, advises patients not to use self-treatments such as over-the-counter salicylic acids, which can injure the surrounding skin and cause the wart to spread. Instead, cover the wart with duct tape during the day and apply a foot antiperspirant such as Mintoes before going to bed to buy time until you can see a podiatrist to undergo a more aggressive treatment. The best way to prevent plantar warts is to avoid going barefoot in the studio or theater, and to keep your feet clean and dry after dancing.



Train Like A Pro
Every day, whether she dances or not, Miami City Ballet principal Mary Carmen Catoya does a little Pilates and a little Gyrokinesis. “Not necessarily the whole routine,” she says, “but enough to bring everything back into balance. When a ballet works one muscle or one side too much, the body starts to complain. I need to even it out.” Catoya changes her cross-training regimen depending on what she’s dancing: “It’s different for Giselle than it is for Don Q or for Ballet Imperial. If you have a lot of partnering, you need to work more on your arms; if you’re performing something with a lot of small jumps, you need to strengthen your feet.” How does Catoya determine what parts need extra toning? “The first time after rehearsing a piece, wherever you’re sore tells you exactly where you need to work.”



Boost Your Creativity

Attention, budding dancemakers! There’s a new cure for choreographer’s block. Researchers in the Netherlands recently discovered a simple trick to get the creative juices flowing: Break a habit. It can be as mundane as pouring milk in your breakfast bowl before the cereal. Actively shaking up our typical patterns stretches our cognitive flexibility. The mind sees more possibilities—and we become more inventive artists.



Iron Woman
Feel like you don’t have the energy to make it through class? Fatigue, headaches and poor stamina are all signs of iron deficiency. Iron is essential to dancers. It helps our muscles receive, store and use oxygen. Without adequate amounts, both our physical and mental function is impaired. Yet insufficient iron is the number one nutritional deficiency in the United States.

Make sure you’re getting enough. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences recommends 15 to 18 milligrams a day for women, and 8 to 11 milligrams for men. The richest sources include lean red meat, poultry, salmon, tuna, dried beans and fruits, eggs and whole grains. What’s tricky is that our bodies absorb the iron found in meat more easily than iron from plants. If you’re vegetarian, remember to eat foods rich in vitamin C, which helps to increase iron absorption.