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How Much? How Fast? How Soon?

Three simple concepts for progressing training loads by Tim Gabbett

With Greg Retter and Brian Maloney, The Royal Ballet Mason Healthcare Suite

The previous issue of One looked at the science behind the art of dance healthcare management and performance and efforts to monitor dancers’ workload. Following this, Tim Gabbett, a leading applied sport scientist and coaching consultant, illustrates the concepts behind effective training load progression to ensure dancers are fully fit for performance and more resilient, with a reduced risk of injury.

With research in dance having shown a strong link between fatigue and injury (Laws, 2005) and that traditional training and rehearsal periods inadequately prepare dancers for the physiological demands of performance (Wyon and Redding, 2005), here are some simple concepts to take into consideration when planning training and rehearsal periods.

Performers Need to Load in Order to Withstand Load

A key principle of training is overload; load must exceed load capacity in order to improve. In order for progression to occur, these increases in load must be systematic. Small increases in load that are slightly greater than load capacity* will result in an enhanced ability to tolerate further load. However, if the applied load greatly exceeds load capacity, then tissue tolerance is exceeded, and injury may occur (Verhagen and Gabbett, 2018).

The Floor, the Ceiling, and Time

When developing rehabilitation or performance programs, three key concepts are critical: the “floor”, the “ceiling” and time. The “floor” refers to the dancer’s current capacity, whereas the “ceiling” refers to the capacity needed to perform the specific activities of the repertoire. It is possible to safely progress a dancer from the “floor” to the “ceiling” as long as they are afforded adequate time (Figure A).

However, a challenge in most dance environments is the time required to progress from the “floor” to the “ceiling”. If dancers’ training loads are progressed too rapidly, they will be at increased risk of injury (Gabbett, 2016). This scenario occurs all too frequently. Consider dancers who enter a very short rehearsal period. If the gap between the current capacity and the required capacity is large, then the only way to progress from the “floor” to the ‘ceiling” is to rapidly increase training (rehearsal) load to ensure that the dancers are prepared for the premiere or first performance. Unfortunately, training in this manner is associated with a high risk of injury (Figure B). Rehearsal directors/coaches can take more time to safely progress to higher training loads and prepare dancers for the “ceiling”, but Rehearsal directors/coaches do not have infinite time. Equally, if an inadequate training stimulus is applied, then the dancer is at risk of being underprepared, and incapable of delivering a quality performance.

How can rehearsal directors, coaches or those responsible for staging dance progress their dancers from the “floor” to the “ceiling” and ensure that they safely reach the high rehearsal loads required to deliver elite performances? Reducing the “ceiling” is not a realistic option.

One option is to take more time to bridge the gap between the “floor” and the “ceiling”, although most coaches will be less than impressed if their best dancers aren’t fit enough to deliver an outstanding performance on opening night. But what if we were to “buy” more time prior to the official start of the rehearsal period? If dancers performed a minimum volume of training prior to returning from an extended break, this would have the effect of artificially increasing the length of the pre-rehearsal period, thereby ensuring that progression to the “ceiling” was gradual and systematic (Figure C).

Progressing dancers from the “floor” to the “ceiling” is further complicated when the dancer returns to the initial rehearsal period in a severely deconditioned state. In this example, their current capacity is inadequate to sustain a normal rehearsal load; rather than having an adequate “floor” their capacity is more like “the basement” (Figure D).

In this respect, given the same amount of time, progressing that dancer from their current capacity to the “ceiling” would result in rapid changes in training and rehearsal load, which in turn increases the risk of injury. Another solution to ensure that dancers are safely progressed from the “floor” to the “ceiling” is to raise the “floor” (Figure E), or by ensuring that when dancers are taking an extended break, they don’t allow their physical capacity to fall to the “basement”.

“For the most part, the demands of elite dance cannot be changed; in general the complexity
and physicality are increasing every year.”

From Risk to Resilience

Training loads can have positive and negative effects. The risk of injury increases with rapid changes in training/rehearsal load. However, not all training load is bad – in fact, when prescribed appropriately it can create resilience and robustness.

Systematically increasing training loads not only lowers the risk of injury but allows dancers to progress to higher training and rehearsal loads typical of those required for elite performances (Gabbett, 2016). Importantly, once dancers have reached these high training loads, they are at reduced risk of injury – loading allows dancers to withstand further load.

Further information

Glossary*

  • Training load: The cumulative amount of stress placed on an individual from a single or multiple training sessions (structured or unstructured) over a period of time.
  • Capacity: The actual or potential ability of a dancer to accept load. This is affected by various factors including fitness status before load, loading rate, psychological factors and various other internal and external factors.

References

  1. Gabbett, T.J. (2016). The training—injury prevention paradox: should athletes be training smarter and harder? British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50:273-280.
  2. Laws, H. and Apps, J. (2005). Fit to Dance 2. London: Dance UK
  3. Verhagen, E. and Gabbett, T. (2018). Load, capacity and health: critical pieces of the holistic performance puzzle. British Journal of Sports Medicine, (in press).
  4. Wyon, M., Redding, E., Head, A. and Sharp, NCC. (2005). The physiological monitoring of cardiorespiratory adaptations during rehearsal and performance of contemporary dance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 19(3) 611-614

Originally published in One, Issue 6 – Spring 2019