Ballet, Running and Getting Back on Your Feet After an Injury

August 16, 2011
Traci D. Mitchell
Traci D. Mitchell

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Last week I had chance to sit down and talk with one of Athletico’s physical therapists, Laura Daniels, who works with the dancers from the Joffrey Ballet. Fortunately, I’ve worked with a lot of dancers – and have developed an appreciation for their skills and diligence that go into practicing for performances. Here is full disclosure: I am not a dancer (repeat NOT), and have no dance experience…unless you want to count tumbling that I took for a few months when I was in kindergarten, or my stint on the pom pon squad my senior year of high school.

The Joffrey is one of several dance companies performing at next week’s Chicago Dancing Festival.  The dancers at the Joffrey rehearse seven hours a day, not including 90 minutes of class. Overall, this adds up to over 40 hours of dancing every week. With 42 dancers in this company active a majority of the year, it’s no surprise that there are plenty of injuries. Having danced most of their lives, the Joffrey dancers know their bodies very well. That said, the injuries that professional dancers incur, however,  aren’t at all different from a few of the more common injuries everyday-runners suffer.

Here are three common injuries that affect both professional dancers and everyday runners:

1) Achilles Tendonitis
The Achilles tendon is a long, thick tendon located behind the ankle. Tendonitis develops when the tendon itself becomes inflamed. This particular tendon is frequently injured in dancers, and accounts for 11% of all running injuries. The Achilles tendon allows you to stand up on your toes, and push off every time you walk or run. Runners are always pushing off, and ballet dancers are not only pushing off, but also en pointe, or up on their toes. Pushing off frequently, standing on your toes and wearing high heels causes this tendon to shorten – increasing the potential for injury.

Physical Therapy Suggestion: Laura has her dancers do a lot of eccentric strengthening of the Achilles tendon and calf muscles. This is also a great exercise for injured runners to do as well. Start by standing on a step, with your heels hanging over the edge (balls of the feet absorbing the weight). Elevate both heels, the slowly lower one foot (not both). Repeat multiple times on both sides.

2) Ankle Sprains
Every day over 20,000 people sprain their ankle.  Ankle sprains occur when the foot rolls or twists outside of its normal range of motion, causing the ligaments that support the ankle to stretch. The greater the force that occurs every time your foot hits the ground, the greater the potential of a sprain. Needless to say, the force of a dancer landing from a jump is great, as is the force of a running pounding the pavement stride after long stride.

Physical Therapy Suggestion: The homework Laura gives the dancers at the Joffrey include stability exercises that isolate the injured muscle(s). The easiest way to start increasing stabilization is through single leg exercises. Standing on the injured leg, balance without wobbling. After you master your balance, move to a less stable surface, like a wobble board. NOTE: if you think you have a sprained ankle, talk to a physical therapist or doctor before attempting this.

3) Hip Alignment Issues
The dancers at the Joffrey often come to Laura with hip alignment issues because of the unconventional movements their bodies go through day in and day out. While the ability to stand with one leg elevated overhead requires rigorous practice, grace and flexibility, the repetition can throw the hips out of alignment due to muscular imbalance. Runners, on the other hand, suffer hip alignment issues because of weak muscles through the pelvic region – usually on one side, but often on both.

Physical Therapy Suggestion: Laura has the dancers focus on strengthening the weaker side of the pelvic region. This suggestion also gets passed onto runners with hip imbalance, too! A simple exercise anyone can do that will help strengthen through the hip muscles is a side leg lift. Start by lying on your side, legs stacked on top of one-another. With a slight bend at the knee in your top leg, raise the leg up and slowly lower down. Repeat 20 to 30 times.