The Australian Ballet

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R&R: How Rest Can Be the Best Medicine

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Sara Andrlon
Photo Kate Longley

How The Australian Ballet's Artistic Health team helps our artists find the balance between work, rest and play.

The dancers of The Australian Ballet are undeniably extraordinary artists. They are also elite athletes who rehearse, train and perform a wide variety of repertoire nationally and internationally throughout the year. Our team of dedicated health professionals use a holistic multidisciplinary approach to ensure the mental, physical and emotional wellbeing of each dancer is fully supported.

The dancers returned to rehearsals in January and are preparing to enchant audiences with our 2024 season of classical favourites and wild(e) new works. Behind Ballet speaks to The Australian Ballet’s Rehabilitation Physiotherapist Sophie Emery about the importance of rest periods for our greatest asset, our dancers.

On a typical workday during a performance lead up, the dancers would attend morning class for an hour and a quarter before heading into the studio to rehearse the upcoming repertoire for anywhere between three to five hours. If it’s a performance day, they are also potentially on stage for up to three hours, making for long days and nights. “Outside of class and rehearsal, the dancers are also doing their gym work. Often the dancers arrive early and complete strength and conditioning training as a warmup before class, or they use their breaks between rehearsals to work on their individualised strength and conditioning programs.” says Sophie.

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Mio Bayly
Photo Pierre Toussaint

Can you give a brief rundown of how the body recovers during a rest period?

Recovery periods allow the body to heal and adapt to recent training and provides time for dancers to connect with friends and family. Sleep is a very important part of recovery because this is when the body does the majority of its healing, and also where memory consolidation takes place.

Choreography and corrections that were given during the day in class and rehearsal form into long-term memories during sleep. Rest periods provide recovery time from the ‘microtraumas’ which are naturally caused by training and lead to improved strength and performance.

Microtrauma

When micro damage is caused to muscles (i.e. lifting weights) and they rebuild stronger to overcompensate reducing the likeliness of re-injury.

For example: A callus on a rock climbers’ hand is from repetitive microtrauma to the area that has grown to protect the skin from future abrasions.

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Joseph Caley
Photo Christopher Rogers-Wilson

What are some of the activities the dancers do during their strength and conditioning training?

Each dancer has an individualised strength and conditioning program that is tailored to support their needs in relation to upcoming repertoire, the individual's injury history and performance improvement goals.

The Australian Ballet is well known for its expertise on hip and lower leg strengthening, particularly working to develop strength and endurance of the calf muscle and the intrinsic muscles of the feet. This has been shown to reduce the likelihood of injury and improve performance. Dancers also use a heavy weights program to develop strength in their upper legs and shoulders.

Does the training differ for each ballet performed?

Absolutely, we tailor the training to support the repertoire, for example, for the upcoming production of Carmen has a lot of lunges in the choreography, so we’re getting the dancers to do a lot of lunge work including walking lunges, weighted lunges, squats etc. in preparation.

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Hugo Dumapit
Photo Christopher Rogers-Wilson

Do the dancers have allocated rest periods?

Every five to six weeks throughout the year we ask the dancers to participate in a recovery week protocol. During that time the dancer will only do half the sets or repetitions of their usual strength exercises. What we’ve found is the following week they have what we call a 'super compensation', where they achieve improved performance gains.

I read that depending on the dancer, bones take roughly 96 hours to recover, while tendons and ligaments take 72 hours. How do dancers manage that during a strenuous season?

When dancers are performing, they have usually reached a level of fitness where their bodies have adapted to the loading requirements, and they don't have to modify their workload around specific body tissue (for example bone or tendon) recovery times. However, if dancers have sustained an injury involving either bone or tendons, we do modify the amount of class and gym that they do each day to maximise tissue adaption throughout the week.

Supercompensation

Supercompensation is the adaptive response of the body after physical training. Post workout and during recovery, the body anticipates the next training session and adapts to a higher fitness level.

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Joseph Romancewicz
Photo Christopher Rogers-Wilson

What are some of the short-term recovery activities for the dancers?

Our dancers find the use of plunge pool, hot and cold showers, compression garments or treatment from the company’s physiotherapists or myotherapist very beneficial. Nutrition and hydration are also very important components of recovery, as well as a minimum of eight hours sleep each night to help them perform at their best.

What about long-term recovery activities?

Things like the recovery weeks during the season that allows for supercompensation. They’re still training and rehearsing but not at the maximum weights or for as long.

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Kirsty Martin in Raymonda (Baynes) 2006
Photo Jim McFarlane

Do you ever recommend complete rest days, where dancers are encouraged to do “nothing”?

Yes! Each week the dancers have one day of complete rest. Dancers also have two periods of annual leave each year which are essential to mentally decompress as well as physically recover.

What is an often-overlooked aspect of rest and recovery?

Sleep is an underestimated part of the recovery process. Research has shown that athletes who sleep on average less than 8 hours per night have 1.7 times greater risk of being injured than those who sleep more than 8 hours*. Dancers often have an incredibly high work ethic and capacity for long hours. The artistic health team provide education to help dancers learn that rest and recover have as much value in improving their performance goals as the hard work that they do in the gym and studio.

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Photo The Australian Ballet archives

Are there any downsides to rest periods?

A measurement that can be used to mitigate injury risk is called the ‘acute chronic workload ratio’. This is a way of comparing an individual’s current training load compared to the average volume of training they have been doing in the past month or longer. If an individual's current training load is much higher than the average amount of training done in the past month, they are more likely to sustain an injury.

This is because our body takes time to adapt to changes in training load; the more rapid the change in load, the less likely the body will cope. The longer the period of reduced training an individual takes, the longer it will take for them to safely reach full training capacity. At The Australian Ballet, dancers have approximately four weeks off over summer.

The company have developed a ‘return to work policy’ to help minimise injury risk associated with returning to rehearsal and performance after this break. This policy provides a guide as to how the dancers workload can be safely increased each week by gradually increasing the length and complexity of class and rehearsals that are offered.

*(Milewski, M. D., Skaggs, D. L., Bishop, G. A., Pace, J. L., Ibrahim, D. A., Wren, T. A., & Barzdukas, A. (2014). Chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased sports injuries in adolescent athletes. Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics, 34(2), 129-133.)

To learn more about the Artistic Health team or The Australian Ballet’s Injury Risk Management Program

Artistic Health Team