Burning fat, pumping trebles – CARBS, here’s the down low!

I have to say I just tucked into a bowl of delicious Pasta, and it was great. A fantastic source, I mean sauce, and of course a great source of Carbs as well. The pasta, made up of carbs, that I just ingested, will now be worked hard, as my stomach churns and breaks it down, swiftly turning into a useful source of dance energy!

All you hear about these days is low carb this, low carb that, but are carbs the dancer’s killer? When it comes to being a dancer carbs play a very important role in the way that the body produces energy. Carbohydrates aka, Carbs can be broken into two types. Simple and complex. You may hear about all these fancy types of carbs, and when to eat them, what to do with them, and how to digest them. There is however, only 2 types of carbs; the simple carbs, like sugars, and sweet products and the complex carbs, like whole fiber foods and whole grains.

Carbohydrates are the main fuel of the central nervous system, which makes them a key ingredient in your body in order to keep your dance machine functioning. As well as fueling the nervous system every person has a certain amount of carbs stored in their muscles and this is called glycogen. Glycogen is made from carbohydrates, and although it only makes up for approx. under 2% of the body’s energy, it is the energy which is usually used in the first hour of a dance class. The most common exhaustion in endurance sports, “irish dance” being one of these “endurance sports” is due to the depletion of carbohydrate fuel.
-To take this on board you can try eating a complex carbohydrate based food around 2-4 hours prior to a dance class. I say 2-4 hours because blood is used to help break down food in the stomach muscles therefore our blood supply can be low, and this is why we may feel sick. It is however different for everyone.

Anyway moving on to fat burning. As I have read in the past, “Fat burns in the Carbohydrate flame.” Carbs will need to keep being replenished if they are being continually burned. Ever heard of the 6 small meals a day theory? Well this is similar to that in the way that your bodies sugars and glycogen levels need to be topped up regularly so that your body is functioning the way it should. Your energy levels and fat burning levels need to be at their premium, no matter how long your dance class. Glycogen also has to be replaced straight after dance class, so that your body can keep burning fat.

Here is my general rule of thumb I have put together:

Championship Solo Class – High Intensity (ie. training for the worlds/oireachtas) – top carbs up 45 mins to 1 hour. Protein should be digested after class as this will help retain muscle mass.

Ceili Class and/or a more moderate intensity solo class inc. learning steps workshop etc. – Depending on the intensity of this class, for eg, if you are doing a figure dance using your whole body not just your legs then you’re intensity level is obviously higher therefore you will need shorter gaps between eating your meals however I suggest that every 60-90 minutes you need a top up.

These are based on continual dancing classes without large breaks. Large break meaning, sitting on your butt getting yelled at by your teacher for being bone idle or lazy!

A few Carb Ideas  – Sorry guys no dounts!

Pre Class
Mixed Nuts

During Class
Cereal – Not highly processed
Sports Drink

After Class
Fruit & Milk
Sandwich/wrap with meat
Baked potato with Beans/Tuna

“Turn out those FEET!”

How many times have you been told that? From my experience over 90% of Irish dancers in the top studios have been told to turn out their feet. Turn out is one of the most important areas in which Irish dancing competitions are judged on. Unfortunately in certain cases, an Irish dancer’s turnout can sometimes be limited due to their body structure, including their joints, bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments. For the majority however, turn out can be improved without having to walk up and down hills like a penguin.

Alignment Issues (The Problems) –

Most of us have a hip tilt of some sort. Often, in my experience, there is huge similarity in dancers with no turn out and an anterior hip tilt, which causes the glutes to protrude. In lay terms this means that dancers who struggle to turn their feet out have a hip which is tilted towards their backside muscles, causing them to stick out more. Cleaning up alignment has assisted in turn out from my past experience. This leads me onto my next point “Loose and Strong,”  which suggests some ways to fix alignment and turn out. Hip tilts are usually a result of muscular imbalances in the body ie. muscular tightness, looseness, weakness and un-trained coordination. Affected muscles include; glutes, tensor fasciae latae and the sartorius.

Loose and Strong (The Answers) –

Prior to the World’s in 2012, I, myself went and got a remedial massage focusing in on my Glute and hip region and found that 2 days later my turn out was so much easier, due to the loosening of all the muscles in the region.

Stretching of the hip muscles is vital to achieve turnout. More often than not, dancers focus on trying to turn their feet out so much that they end up tensing the muscles through out the hip joint. By doing this they are causing their whole body to try and turn their feet out, which in turn causes postural issues and can look awful in competitive Irish dance performance. Hip stretching is vital, so that turn out can be achieved in the hip joint as opposed to having to overuse the knee and ankle joints, which are more susceptible to injury.

Practice hip joint rotation:
Warming up the hips, moving the muscles around and ensuring enough blood is flowing in the region is very important when trying to increase turn out. Followed with regular hip rotation exercises, turn out can be achieved not only as muscle memory begins to kick in, but also as the muscles begin to activate and improve in their strength and elasticity.

Ball rolling exercises (to loosen), Thera-band exercises (to stretch), joint rhythms (to coordinate) as well as pelvic floor and rotator exercises are all proven ways in which I have increased hip rotation in Irish dancers, and therefore improved turn out, in succession with getting onto the podium. These are all further areas to look into which have worked for me. I suggest that if unsure about any of these areas, you seek professional advice from someone who can teach you to use any of the above methods.

If you want to win that badly, and turnout is holding you back. Take the next step.

Self Realization & Correction

The way forward…?

It took until 10 years into my competitive dancing career that I was given the opportunity to begin training in front of a mirror. We can all dance in front of a mirror however it isn’t until we really begin to talk to ourselves that we start to open up our dancing to a whole other world of perfection.
Most of us in Irish Dance are experts, or so we like to think. I know that, because I am the first to admit about how much I know about something. We, the experts, are always ready to correct others. To knock down our competitors, and highlight their faults. How many of us like hearing about our own faux pas? I most certainly do not. And what is worse, is having to watch myself. There’s nothing I dread more than watching a “parade of the  champions”, video someone decides to flick up on YouTube. Not because I am a bad dancers, but because I am so willing to judge other people’s faults, that when I look at my own, I can see everything which I have pretended was not there, or avoided for the last few years. Its that fear of correcting myself, because when I do, I no longer have an excuse for not being perfect. Everything can be changed!
Being a dancer, of any sort, including an Irish one, is asking for judgement in its highest esteem, and if we so choose to go down the path of competition which will possibly lead us to the opportunity for success then we must accept judgment and criticism. The utmost way in which we become better dancers is going to be not only though the criticism of our teachers and mentors but it is also going to be through the scrutiny of ones self. Mental scrutiny is going to be one of the toughest areas for a dancer to overcome, the stronger I am mentally, the better the performance and usually the better the result.
Physical strength + Mental strength = Improvement! 

Dance class is all about not “jump 2 – 3” etc. As dancers develop and enter their Championship class, it all becomes about the mental strengthening for the Oireachtas. Remember although at this point we must begin to criticize ourselves, we must not take any form of correction as a complete judgement on your dancing as a whole.As Judith Peterson MD states, “It is called a dance class because it is the time for your mind and body to coordinate and learn the programs and movements prior to your time on stage.” I know that as a dancer, I can be a fair bit too harsh on myself if I don’t dance great in a dance class. When I was in the UK before the World Championships in 2011, if I made one mistake or didn’t get through one dance as I wanted, I was in a foul mood for a week. I now know that I need to begin taking these things with a grain of salt.

Have you ever got up the morning of a feis and had an argument with your parent, partner or sibling? Most of the ones I witness are about wigs, however most of my own are just caused so that I can blame someone if I don’t win or something. How did you end up on the day? What was your result like? Most cases I see of people with a bad mindset end up being those “could have beens” as I like to call them. They are the dancers that you wish had the balls to win!! I know a person like that at the moment. This person just constantly thinks they are perfect and when you tell them otherwise they blame other people and other circumstances which are apparently out of their control. They could be a champion, but you know unless they strengthen their mind, they will never be.
Mental strength has a stronger relationship to physical strength than most dancers realize. Your brain -the mental department- has to communicate with your nerves -the action transport department- in order to get your muscles -the physical department- to do the dance. “If you become overwhelmed by the classroom or the teacher, your brain will make your muscles become tense – and a tense dancer is not a dancer performing to his or her best abilities.”
Self criticism can be broken down into a few steps. But this can only be done by a dancer with self awareness. Everyday I am opening up new doors of self awareness. We only become aware of these things when they are brought to our attention, and this is most commonly done by watching ourselves. Steps to Irish dance self awareness commonly go somewhat like this:

  • Being told what you are doing incorrectly
  • Seeing & understanding what you are doing incorrectly
  • Working out how to correct your highlighted fault and improve

To take that next step in improving through self correction, we must give it a go! By watching ourselves on video or in a mirror we will begin to pick all of our own faults. This may prove very hard at first, but by watching ourselves over and over again, we will begin to not only fix our improvements but we will also begin to strengthen our mind to allow us to take on not only our own criticism but also that of our harshest teacher on a bad day. Armed with a strong mind, we as dancers are then able to face any variable on the big day!

Try getting fit… Minus the trebles!

Growing up, I had my “moments”! I’ll probably tell you all a lot about these moments over time but the most vivid attitude stricken moment was probably the hot Australian summer when I was 17. Most of the top Aussie Irish dancers persevere through the tough 40C degree heat to put their best foot forward on to the grand World Irish dancing stage. Going to the All Ireland’s this particular year however, my priorities were some what, elsewhere, I suppose you could say. Corona’s and Chips came ahead of anything remotely Irish dance practice related. Upon my arrival in the UK just 10 days before my, at the time, sluggish self was to do my 2-5 rounds, the thought of me getting though my new double time Downfall of Paris was a great deal too much to handle. At the always reliable but more often than not difficult to get to Gleneagle hotel, my resources consisted of a swimming pool, a gymnasium and those god awful concrete based carpet hallways.

Gleneagle Hotel Gym!

The Downfall had to be at 76, and I wasn’t going to be able to pull that out of somewhere undiscovered, so I guess to the gym it was! Jumping on the treadmills, and putting myself through some of the most grueling training I have ever done not only made the Downfall feel great, but my Reel effortless. Interval training at the time was a relatively new concept to me and although difficult to begin with, over time it became extremely practical. Interval Training can be defined as: Training in which an athlete alternates between two activities, typically requiring different speeds, degrees of effort etc.

Theoretically, if a dancing bout is, let’s say an average of 2 minutes in length using an average of 80% of a dancers functional capacity, then it would be common sense to use this same formula when training without shoes on. Obviously if a dancer is running with cushiony trainers on grass, as opposed to belting out a floor with shoes on, they are going to have to run a lot harder and take slightly more time to get there body up to that 8/10 energy level output. Just so you can get a more accurate understanding in relation to you using your energy output, a sprinter would use almost 90-100% of their functional capacity, where as a marathon runner may use 30-40% spread out over a long period of time, thus we would use approximately about 80% throughout a dance, however it would be us giving 100% for the needed time frame. This differs with every individual on any given day, however you have probably heard your teacher say, ‘they came out like a bomb in their lead around, and now they’ve just died.’ This is a perfect example of a dancer using too much energy too soon.

I will however explain energy systems and how they’re used in Irish dance in a later blog. Of course I did not hang around in the gym for 12 hours and do 5 intervals over that period as I would have done back 10 days later on the day of the Championship. I did however, refuel with fluids and allow my body to go back to resting heart rate, before beginning another bout of a 2 min 30 sec interval.

My intervals looked something like this for example: 

After beginning with a 5 mins warm up...

Time to get heart rate to 80%, assuming I dance for 2.12 (length of set dance) at 80%: 3 mins

Time working at 80% of functional capacity consistently: 2.30 mins

Interval time (time taken to get the body back down to resting heart rate): 6 mins

This would be counted as one interval!

So the way you can do this is simple. As I have done before, I will break down this exercise for you so you can try yourself. You can also record the heavy/dead feeling in your legs (out of 10) at the end of each dance and this can allow you to mimic that feeling in the Gym by using functions such as resistance and incline to build up your resistance to this possible lactic acid build up or muscle weakness.

In the dance studio…

Step 1: Begin in a dance class or dance practice by measuring your resting heart rate (bpm).
Step 2: Complete a full solo dance, whichever you are struggling with your fitness in.
Step 3: As soon as you finish your dance, measure your finishing heart rate (bpm) and record this result. Also record the dead/heavy feeling in your legs out of 10.

Onto the gym…

Step 1: Warm Up 

Step 2: Jump on a piece of cardio equipment, I use the treadmill for best results.

Step 3: Begin watching your heart rate, and push yourself so that it reaches the finishing heart rate which you measured after the dance. 

Step 4: Use the equipment functions so that if you choose, you can mimic that feeling in your legs from the end of said dance. 

Step 5: Once your body reaches the finishing heart rate, begin counting the time that you have set yourself. So this can be either the length of a dance, or it could be longer if you so choose. Eg. Adding 16 bars or so.

Step 6: Push Yourself!!!

Step 7: After time is up, stop the equipment, and measure how long it takes you to reach your resting heart rate.

Step 8: Once at resting heart rate, have a few minutes to allow the legs to recover and repeat as many times as you like

Each interval theoretically counts as one dance! I highly suggest that if you are going to give it a go, you keep records of things like your heart rates etc. A good measure of whether your fitness has generally improved could be your resting heart rate. Remember at his peak Lance Armstrong had a resting heart rate of 32-34 bpm. So remember, the lower the better.

Air conditioned gyms have now become to best way for me to increase my fitness leading up to majors. Sorry Scouts but your halls just don’t cut it. A sticky hot Australian summers day, leading up to the World’s in a stuffy Scout Hall is more likely to cause agitation as opposed to any actual result. Training really has to be replicated in the same environment as you would be dancing in. Weather and environment are probably our greatest variables when it comes to energy and functional capacity. So I suppose in a small way, Belfast locals might have a slight advantage this year.

Legs from Hell! – Shin Splints (Part B)

After reading Part A, I will now gather that you have a thorough understanding in the leading cause of shin splints in Irish dancers. Shin splints are rooted much deeper into a dancers training beyond the point of bad flooring or footwear, however these can be an added cause.

A little over a year ago, I was visiting a dancing acquaintance in Dublin, who had stumbled across a video from the 1995 World Championships. Intrigued and eager to reminisce, they put it in their dusty “VCR” player. Although I was at the Championships that year, I was astonished at how far Irish Dancing had come. In only 15 years it was as if a completely new sport had emerged. For the average hornpipe back then, was full of heel drags, lethargic front clicks and bent leg over 2 3s. This is opposed to the now double beat drop heel walks, triple mid-air front clicks, and over 2 3 / front click combos we dancers push the limits with at every feis. The point I am trying to make is that “folk” Irish dancing, is now a sport, not an art form and with this change comes the need to adapt the body.

Proper sprung flooring is crucial because training in your plimsols in a concrete basement whilst attempting to do some of Irish dancing’s modern twists and turns will only damage your body so you can twist and turn no more. This is much the same for any other modern day athlete such as a runner. Running on asphalt in sandals will do the same. For me, appropriate flooring and footwear/attire is just a given. Otherwise a dancer is asking for injury.

So how do you improve you leg strength equally, to prevent and cure shin splints? For Irish dancers there are a few exercises you can try which incorporate both dance, and strength & conditioning


This exercise is very basic and can be done during warm ups / cool downs or whilst even watching TV.

Step 1: Sit upright with legs on the floor parallel.

Step 2: Point toes down to the floor, trying to achieve a line from the waist to the middle of the foot. Past this point, the foot should begin to curl downwards. Hold for 10 seconds. (A)

Step 3: Flex toes up towards the torso. Keep toes taut for 20 seconds. (B)

Step 4: Repeat!

A) Point Toes

B) Flex & Hold

Next exercise coming momentarily!

Celtic Illusion Tour 2011!

Completely off the topic of Irish Dance Fitness, I have been busily touring this last month with the planet’s newest Irish Dance Show – Celtic Illusion! My long time friend Anthony Street has dreamed, created and choreographed the show through out the last year into what is definitely going to become a great success. With an All Australian cast, there is a big future ahead for Celtic Illusion in and outside of the Irish dance world. After rave reviews, a highly successful and although at times, stressful first tour, the production is finally ready to be launched onto the World stage. Congratulations Anthony!

Here is what had to be said for the show:

“Irish dance has come a long way since the premier of such shows as Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. Now be prepared as irish dance is taken to the next level in this world first dance phenomenon. Anthony Street, former principal dancer from Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance and magician, will fuse magic and dance together in this never seen before stage spectacular.

Embark on a journey of magic and amazement as you witness breathtaking illusions amongst modern irish dance performed by a cast of champion dancers. With a blend of modern celtic music composed By Angela Little (Baz Luhrmanns ‘Australia’) and flawless choreography, this show is absolutely unmissable. These international professionals will take your breath away whilst they share with you their perfected craft. This is entertainment at its best.”


Legs from Hell! – Shin Splints (Part A)

From Melbourne to Milwaukee to Meath, the haunting thought of Shin Splints is one which sends shivers down the spines of nearly all Irish dancers! Shin Splints are not anywhere near being in the same death – like category as the bubonic plague, however, they are that one agonising annoyance which every dancer avoids. Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome, is probably what you will hear it described as, by experts. This is just before they lean over the table and prescribe you a selection of “diclofenac” anti- inflams so that you can just get through your set at the Oireachtas or, your figure dance for the Nationals. Not to mention the fact that, well, all these years, all this effort, all the blood, the blisters, the bubble socks, and now to be jaded by the dancers curse. At the end of the day will just taking a pill help you get through it all?

Talking from personal experience, every time I have taken a pain killer for some injury, whether it be Shin Splints, a soft tissue injury or even a fracture, I seem for a brief moment to envisage, that I am invincible. I try belting out each step harder than the one before, because well hey, my legs have no idea of the pain that awaits them. From most of my leg numbing experiences, the next day is not always the prettiest feeling. Due to the previous night’s exercise I now feel 10% worse off and my legs are that extra bit more painful. As a result, I think it’s been about 3 years since I have danced on anything form of Ibuprofen or the occasional paracetamol, because they are not long term remedies. When I get a headache, or an ailment which is realistically, “pain killer worthy” now, the stuff actually works.

Let’s get technical-
Shin Splints are the pain felt through the shin bone – referred to as the Tibia – which is the larger of the lower leg bones, joining the ankle and the knee. Shin Splints are often described as being something of a niggling pain at first, which if left untreated can result in the dancer being barely able to walk. Shin Splints always seem to attack dancers towards the most important part of the dancing season, when they are putting in more work than they have before. This is why they are classified as an “overuse” injury. Trauma is what causes Shin Splints and this is attributed to the way Irish dancers jump, pound the hard floor and overall place great stress upon their legs for significant periods of time.

Over the last twelve months I have begun to look into and discover that Shin Splints in Irish Dancers must be caused by something more than just pounding the floor excessively, or our, now athletic sport, would not exist. What I have found to be the key in preventing those tiny leg fractures we like to call Shin Splints from occurring, is an understanding of our leg muscle imbalances and weaknesses in certain muscles. In simple terms, there is a strong correlation between dancers who struggle to flex their foot upwards – commonly referred to as dorsiflex – and dancers who have Shin Splints. I have come across this on more than one occasion in the last year and even with myself, the stronger and looser my ankles have become and, the more flexion required in my steps, the lesser my Shin Splints have affected me.

I will break this down for you…..
Trauma causes microscopic fractures in the shin bone – Tibia. This is due to a weakness in the Tibialis Anterior (muscle next to shin) and Extensor Digitorum Longus (other muscle beside shin), teamed with excessive use and stress into the legs. Ankle dorsiflexion (flexing foot up) is the action which both these muscles control. If there is a weakness in these muscles, there can also be a weakness in the ability to control the ankle effectively whilst executing a dance. Certain moves may prove hard to do etc.

Leg Anatomy

When a dancer is overly focused on pointing their toes, and trying to get that perfect line with their leg, more often than not, the Gastrocnemius and Soleus (calf muscles) are working harder and harder which causes them to strengthen over time. However, when a dancer gets to a certain point and they begin to feel shin splints, this has probably occurred because dancers have neglected to work their flexing just as hard as they worked their pointing. Whenever a muscle imbalance is created, it is usually caused by a lack of equal training, and this is no different for Irish dancers.

Part 2 will follow and will include exercise methods.

Post Dance Recovery Methods – Ice Baths

When the phrase, “Short term pain, long term gain,” is spoken, often glacial ice baths are the first image which come to mind. Not the sort of ice baths that those on the Titanic endured of course, but the sort which the likes of Lance Armstrong and Michael Flatley would soak in, night after night, after a day of intense performance. I, myself only discovered the benefits of Ice Baths as I got older and found I could no longer walk after a week of strenuous and extensive dancing. The first time I experienced an Ice Bath I found it was exactly the chilling experience one would expect when sitting in a bin of near frozen water! The next morning however, I awoke with what can only be described as a feeling of total relief, as if someone had given me a fresh pair of legs.

The benefits of Ice baths and their benefits as a post-exercise recovery method are still being debated in the health and fitness industry, however, having used them myself over the last 4 years I can definitely say they have proved to be extremely effective in doing what they are supposed to do.

So, what is it that Ice baths actually do for a dancer? Well, as we go through a long dance session and begin to stress our legs, they begin to get tired and heavy due to a build up of lactic acid which causes a lead like heavy feeling in the legs. This usually occurs either at the end of a dance, or towards the end of a long class. By getting into an ice bath as soon as possible after a dance session, the cold begins to constrict the blood flow throughout the legs – much the same as what occurs when a muscle is iced immediately after an injury. With the blood flow constricted, the blood vessels begin to draw the lactic acid and other chemical byproducts out of the legs, reducing inflammation and toxins. It is this inflammation and these toxins which cause the pain the next day. Once the dancer takes themselves out of the Ice bath, the blood begins to flow back into the legs, replacing the old toxin filled blood with the new fresh blood. New blood, means new legs! Well, new enough anyway!

Don’t get too put off by the word blood, that just has to be said with the technical explanation of what an Ice bath will actually do to the legs. All that really needs to be said is why not give it a go yourself and see if it works.

Here are the steps to follow:
Step 1: Finish dancing and cool down. Stretch significantly while still warm.
Step 2: Fill a bath or waist high tub with 2-3 bags of ice and cold water.
Step 3: Get a sweater, a towel and your iPod. Trust me, you will need these!
Step 4: Get into the water. Try to go in without, but if you have to, wear tights.
Step 5: Sit in the water for up to 10 minutes. Then get out and dry off.