... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Why Ballerinas Should Run: Making a Case Against Everything I've Ever Been Told

When I decided a year and a half ago that I was going to do a triathlon, my fears were different than many multisport athletes'. Although I hadn't attempted freestyle stroke since I was 5 and I didn't own a bike helmet, I knew that with training, the swim and the bike would come to me. The thing that worried me was running, and the reason is right there in the title of this blog.

You see, ballerinas don't run.

This is hammered into our heads from the time we are little. Our teachers tell us, our peers tell us, our mentors tell us. There are several reasons that ballerinas have been discouraged from running. In fact, if you Google "ballerinas running okay" you will come up with a whole preponderance of articles discussing the topic. The tide seems to be changing a little, with more people whispering that maybe a 5k now and then won't actually make your ballet skills immediately shrivel and die, but there is still a lot of resistance floating around in the dance community. Anyhow, here is what I was told growing up:

Flexibility at work.
1. It builds the wrong muscles.
In theory, ballet muscles are very specialized, and in order for them to be strong, you don't want other, larger muscles taking over. If you run, you build up these "other" muscles, which will interfere with your "ballet muscles." (In-group out-group shaming at its finest).

2. It promotes heavy movement.
Ballerinas are supposed to be light and airy and look like they're flying. Running's repetitive pavement pounding will rob you of your light aesthetic and make you look like you're dancing while carrying 100 lbs. of cement.

3. You will lose your flexibility and turn out.
Running tightens up your hamstrings, quads, calves, and back, and you will lose all of your Gumby-like flexibility, being left with reduced range of motion. Building muscles with your legs turned in (rather than turned out, the aesthetic of ballet) will reduce your ability to turn out from the hip and ultimately harm your technique.

4. Injuries.
You will get injured and will never be able to do ballet again. If you go running, you might die.

5. All that aerobic training will ruin your anaerobic fitness.
You won't be able to do the relatively short but very intense bursts of activity required for ballet class and performance because your fitness will have transitioned to aerobic only.

6. You will get BIG.
The most important message of all: If you run, you will develop huge man muscles and you will no longer look dainty and nymph-like. Company directors will scorn you, Balanchine will roll over in his grave, etc.

When I decided to start doing triathlon, these warnings played and replayed in my head. I didn't want to get hurt or turn into The Incredible Hulk, and even though I'm no longer dancing seriously, I didn't want to affect my ability to go to a ballet class and dance well. I decided that it would be worth it to at least do one tri since it's something I'd always found intriguing, and if new leg muscles somehow began to interfere with my life (... my God, how ridiculous) I would just stop.

Since I was semi-out of shape when I began the triathlon training, nothing on me got bigger. Everything got smaller and more toned. After eight months of training, I found a new ballet teacher and took my first ballet class in over a year. In the past, going this long without a class has meant that my extensions (how high I can lift and hold my leg in the air to the front, side, and back) are pathetic, my legs feel heavy, and my jumps feel like I can't get more than a few inches off the ground. I was ready to be weak and lame. Imagine my surprise, then, when I went to my first class and my legs soared easily upward, my jumps felt like I was flying, and there was no loss in flexibility whatsoever. I was amazed.

Because of this experience, I would like to respond to what I've been told my whole life and perhaps shed light on why running may actually be exactly what ballerinas should be doing.

1. It builds muscles that complement ballet muscles.
While it is true that running and ballet use different muscles, cross-training can provide support for the muscles integral to ballet movements, giving you more stability. Increased stability reduces fatigue in the working ballet muscles. In addition, building running muscles greatly improve your jumps and your explosiveness as well as keeping your extensions high.

2. Increased musculature allows for better jumps and an overall lighter aesthetic.
Prima ballerina and Balanchine muse Gelsey Kirkland once wrote that in order to achieve a light appearance, dancers should try to feel heavy, as if they are constantly pushing against the floor with all their might. While the conventional wisdom says that running makes your dancing appear heavy, you can use your new muscles, especially those in the booty and upper legs, to push against the floor and fly like the lightest of all Balanchine's nymphs.

I think my back flexibility is doing okay...
3. All of these new complementary supporting muscles can actually improve your turn out and avoid injury caused by twisting while forcing turn out from the knees. Your feet will even get stronger. If you're a serious dancer, just make sure that you and concentrate on rolling through your foot while running and do arch-strengthening exercises to maintain your arch height. In addition, as long as you stretch regularly after running, flexibility shouldn't be affected. I haven't noticed any deficits developing.

 4. Injury prevention.
Running isn't the only activity that causes overuse injuries. A shockingly high percentage of ballerinas are taken down by acute and chronic use-related injuries each year, and while it's true that running carries some risk (like any sport), building those stabilizer muscles I mentioned above can actually drastically cut your risk of ballet injury.
My kryptonite in ballet was an unstable knee cap, which, due to a muscle imbalance, started tracking sideways instead of upward when I straightened my knee, causing extreme pain as it rubbed on the tendon next to it. I did physical therapy, took time off, nothing helped. That is, until I started running. Running has strengthened the opposing muscle, which can now hold my knee cap on the correct track, eliminating the problem completely. I hate to admit it, but running was the solution to my ballet injury.
As long as you build your mileage up slowly and learn to run with proper form, the risk/benefit ratio is decidedly in favor of running.

5. Aerobic and anaerobic fitness are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
There are plenty of dances in which aerobic fitness can be a major benefit. As long as you are also doing ballet on a regular basis, you will not lose your ability to dance in intense segments. Improving one type does not have to harm the other.

Tell me again how runners have such bulky body types?
6. Endurance runners and ballerinas actually have very similar body types.
The whole myth that if you run you will develop legs like Godzilla is just stupid. If you do direct comparisons of endurance runners to ballerinas, their overall shape is not so different. Strong, tiny arms, strong abs, lean, muscular legs, etc. Add to this that running may help dancers take off a couple of pounds, and the body type paranoia just becomes ridiculous. If you're looking at a professional sprinting career, you may have some concerns, but otherwise, the fear is unfounded.

So what is a ballerina to do?

Well, start slow. Start with a couple of short runs each week at an easy, comfortable pace. Ballerinas have a great head start because we are used to being hyper-aware of our body positioning. Educate yourself on proper running form: use your good ballet posture to "pull up" and out of your hips while you run, make a conscious effort to use a midfoot or forefoot strike rather than a heel strike, run with a quick, light stride, try to maximize forward motion rather than bouncing, and don't overstride. Read all you can about  running form so that you can maximize benefits and minimize risk. Just like in ballet class, be aware of each part of your body -- its angles, position, and which muscles you are using. Increase your distances very, very slowly. Most importantly, enjoy!

Running can offer ballerinas a great way to get outside, use their bodies in a new way, and enjoy a new challenge. My experience has been so freeing and empowering, and my dancing is better for it. So get out there, because ballerinas should run!

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