Almost every study one reads about injuries in dancers points to lack of strength or conditioning as likely co-conspirators intervening to undermine the artist. Many dancers working without a well-designed strength and conditioning framework are on their own when it comes to developing the strength and conditioning they need to perform at world-class levels. We’ve previously addressed strength in other blog posts (here and here), so today I’d like to zero in on the conditioning piece of injury prevention and performance.

I’ve interviewed dancers about their cardiovascular conditioning routines and learned that some are relying on long, slow bouts on elliptical machines in order to address both body composition and conditioning. Their instinct is right: using the elliptical to avoid the stresses of running is the right mindset, particularly in-season. But the execution is both inefficient and not hard enough to help with the rigors of performance.

Dancers are renowned for their work ethic, so the idea that they’re not working hard enough on their conditioning might come as a surprise. Don’t get me wrong, this has nothing to do with discipline or toughness. Sometimes dancers just don’t know how to work hard in the right way.

A 2009 study set out to develop a dance-specific physical fitness test that could mimic the cardiovascular rigors of the dance world. One of the more interesting things in it is its citation of an old ballet study from 1982 in which the authors found a peak heart rate of 184 beats per minute (bpm) and a mean heart rate of 169 bpm during performance. Perhaps most critically: “Cohen and coworkers also found that dancers perform at 90% of their maximum HR.”

One rule of thumb for sports performance is that, as coaches, we are negligent if we put our athletes into positions in which they have to work harder than they’ve ever worked under our guidance. If the first time an athlete has to work at 90 percent of their heart rate is game time, then we’re quite likely to blame for putting them at risk for injury. Unfortunately, a number of dancers appear to rely mostly on class and rehearsal for cardiovascular conditioning, but the research clearly indicates that this isn’t enough. Even a full rehearsal isn’t likely to reproduce the excitement and exertion of a prime time Saturday night performance. So it’s up to a strength coach to ensure the dancer is ready for that environment.

If we go back to that in-season elliptical training, we can tweak that dancer’s instinct for not beating up his joints while also pushing him to work harder—but far more efficiently. Instead of spending an hour on an elliptical, during which time it’s unlikely that the dancer will be able to hit 90 percent of his maximum heart rate, he’d be better off doing strength training according to a specific in-season plan, followed by high intensity intervals (think, 20 seconds of work, 40 seconds of rest) on an assault-style bike or ergometer. He gets the joint-saving benefits he was after on the elliptical, but the interval training will push his heart rate much higher in a shorter amount of time—leaving the dancer more time to work on difficult choreography, cook, sleep, and socialize.

In-season athletes are in a never-ending struggle to mitigate cumulative stress. High intensity interval training is an invaluable tool for the in-season dancer wishing to perform at a high level late in the season while simultaneously guarding against a fatigue-induced injury. Dancers stand to gain far more from a 20-minute assault-style bike interval session than an hour on an elliptical.

Sometimes working harder is working smarter.