Recovering from injury

I am a 15 year old ballet student who hopes to pursue a career in dance. Right now I have an achilles tendon injury that requires passive healing, a lot of physical therapy and may take many months to heal. I have been off of dance for about 2 months now, and I’m having a very hard time coping with this rest period. Going from 15 hours of ballet a week to none has put me in a kind of “dance withdrawal.”. I am trying to keep in shape, but there is really no physical activity that compares to ballet for me, and I have a hard time finding the motivation to go to the gym. Do you have any reconmendations for keeping in physical shape (flexibility, strength, balance, core work, etc.) and also in a good mental state during periods of injury rehabilitation?

Thank you so much, your blog is a wonderful resource.

-Jackie B.

I’m so sorry to hear about your Achilles tendon injury. It is especially rough for someone like you who is used to being so active. I know your ankle is being taken care of with going to physical therapy, so we’ll focus on the right of your body ‘s well being.

I’d like you to first focus on the perspective that this is a good cross training opportunity for you. How is your cardiovascular strength? What about your upper body? That is an area that many women could improve – especially in these days of extreme athleticism and using your arms for support in contemporary choreography.

Those 2 areas along with core work with theraband or foam roller could easily be focused on during your rehab – even without going to the gym☺ (I don’t like the gym atmosphere and also prefer working out at home) I like using the kettle bell for my cardio. It’s amazing how much you work within just a minute. It’s a weight that has a handle on top and you swing it for between a minute and 2 minutes (I started at 30 secs) and then rest, walking around for a few minutes in between. You are doing interval training with this. Cardiovascular health is about the ability of your body to recover from stress.

I found a kettle bell demo on youtube that is better than most – although I will say that I do not ‘snap’ my knees or suggest that my dancers do as she is showing on this video. Bring them to straight, using the gluts and engaging the abdominals as you straighten your legs – but do it without snapping. Here’s the youtube link so you know what I’m talking about.

This time off from dance is a great time to be focusing on virtual rehearsals – using visualization to set new pathways from the brain to the muscles.

I’d like to tell you a fascinating story about Marilyn King, who was a two-time Olympic athlete and later a coach at the University of California. Her story beautifully demonstrates the power of mental rehearsing. She made the 1972 pentathlon team and placed 13th in the 1976 Olympics. She was determined to do even better at the 1980 Olympics and gave herself all of 1979 to train for the trials that would happen in the spring of 1980.

In November 1979, she was in a head-on car accident and suffered a severe back injury. Her friends and physicians felt her chances for competing in the Olympics had come to an end. She spent four months in bed, a daunting setback for anyone training for a physical competition. During those long months, Marilyn was determined to continue training and working in the only way she could, which was in her head. She went through every event in her minds eye and watched endless hours of the world’s best pentathlon athletes competing. Sometimes she watched them frame-by-frame.

When she was able to walk again, she went to the track and continued to train by envisioning herself going through each event successfully.

When it came time for the trials, she was better enough to compete and put herself through five grueling events—without having months of physical preparation, as the rest of the athletes had. She described moving almost as if in a dream, as she had rehearsed it so many times in her head during the past months. She placed second in the trials and went to the Olympics that summer.

Inspiring story, yes? She had a strong desire, focused only on what she wanted – cultivated by an emotional attitude that supported success—and took the actions she knew would optimize her performance, physically training when she was able and mentally training when she was not.

Elite athletes have long known about the power of mental rehearsing. Musicians and dancers are beginning to be more aware of the body/brain connection to their performance.

Watch the videos of your favorite dancers, put music on and go through barre, or other warm-ups… in your mind’s eye – not in real time. Imagine how good you are going to feel when you are back in class – and feel that way now!

What I know about healing is those who are able to maintain a positive attitude, imagining the best coming out of the situation, rather than the worst, are often the ones who heal the quickest as well.

Hope that helps – and best wishes for a speedy recovery!

Pain… should you work through it?

Check back often for new questions! Thanks to all the people who wrote in with appreciation for the podcast. I loved reading all your kind words!

I have a question about dancing while in pain. I hear such different opinions from different people. My daughter’s dance teachers will absolutely not let them dance if in any pain at all. She has them sit out. Yet, my daughters friend who has a different teacher is told to push through the pain, toughen up and keep going. I say this could cause further damage and they could be out for longer. I have seen other dancers dance at shows when they could barely walk due to muscle pulls. I think my daughters teachers are right and I’d personally never allow my daughter to dance in pain, but what is your professional opinion?
Thanks, Eileen

I agree with you Eileen. When we get young dancers believing that pain is just a part of dancing – we are doing them a huge disservice and setting them up for injuries. You may want to read my article posted on the website (under articles, a new section for me) on ‘Soreness versus Pain’.

Let’s take a closer look at what pain really is. When a dancer injures strains a muscle, breaks a bone, etc. that is called nociceptive pain. The International Association for the Study of Pain defines nociceptive pain as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” There is also neuropathic pain which is pain that results from an injury or problem in the nervous system. We aren’t going to talk about that type of pain – most dancer’s nervous systems are working just fine – and for that we need to be grateful!

When dancers hurt or injure themselves the nerves send a message to the brain. They are doing their job by informing command central that there has been some damage to the tissues. Some times the brain sends back a messages such as ‘get out of there fast!’, for example, when we accidentally get too close to a hot stove, our hand’s response is to jump away from the danger.

Pain can be dull or aching rather than sharp. The pain is still a message from our brain that we need to be careful – it keeps us from injuring the muscle or joint further. When we appropriately attend to the pain through a variety of methods, ice, changing our technique, rest, etc. the pain lessens because the tissues are healing. When a dancer keeps going in spite of the pain they run a very real risk of creating a chronic injury that may ultimately take them out of dancing for a much longer period of time.

I know how challenging it can be to translate our body’s messages – from dancing and doing gymnastics myself, and teaching for the past (gulp) 30 years! It takes time and awareness to learn what is the soreness of a newly activated muscle is compared to the strain of tendonitis. This is part of the dancer’s education if they continue dance for any length of time.

And – there are always ways to work with pain besides ‘ignoring’ it! Sometimes an adjustment in alignment or turnout can immediately take the painful stress away. That would be good information, yes?

Sometimes resting for a day while stretching and icing can do wonders. Sometimes it takes a physician or physical therapist to help decipher what the pain message is.

My message to dancers? Learn to listen. To your body’s physical messages, as well as to your emotional responses and intuitions. Don’t freak out when you start to feel discomfort – but instead ask yourself with real curiousity – hmmm.. I wonder what this means? Do I need more sleep? Need to eat better? Stretch more? And so on..

Happy holidays to you all!


“Education is the key to injury prevention”