By Loraine Ritchey
Cross Training in Highland Dancing by Bill Weaver
There has been quite a bit of talk lately about injury prevention and training. As an aside, my opinion is that most of the injuries I see in Highland are overuse injuries and that often it is the dancer that causes many of this type of injury. That is not to say that there aren't some teachers who might contribute to a dancer's injuries or that it doesn't matter if you dance on bad floors. But, for the most part, I believe that it is the dancer's lack of a consistent practice schedule and not knowing their own physical limits when they do practice that causes many of the injuries I have seen.
But, this long post doesn't address that directly. I have been asked lately about using cross training to enhance the quality of traditional dance practice sessions. I think one of the biggest misconceptions that people have is that a person can use cross training to become as skilled at Highland dancing as a person who only does Highland dancing. I have spoken previously, not necessarily on this group, about "sport specific" training. I will attempt here to explain the difference between sport specific training and cross training. Hopefully, after you weed through the following, you will have a better understanding of the importance of sport specific training and what place cross training really has in Highland dancing.
In order for anyone to become stronger, faster, or increase their endurance, stamina or elevation, that person has to "overload" the involved muscles. In order to understand the overload principle, you also have to understand that the changes you are trying to stimulate by overloading requires changes at the cellular level. These changes won't occur overnight as it is a slow process that takes time. When you train or practice, you cause damage to some cells. You also use up resources within the cells such as fuel, water and electrolytes. Because of this, right after you are done practicing you are weaker, not stronger. How much weaker you are depends on how hard your practice session was and how hard you worked your muscles. Over time, as you continue to properly stress the muscles you get stronger or increase your stamina. The cells in your bodies are always trying to maintain a balance, so the stress of exercise results in not just a repair to former levels, but an adjustment or buildup of the stressed system to help minimize stress in the future. When you practice, if the intensity or duration of overload is too small, little or no adaptation growth is stimulated. On the other hand, if the overload is too great, growth or adaptation is delayed or even prevented.
The best practice program is one that best stimulates the adaptations referred to above, while minimizing the stress put on the body in order to trigger the adaptations. In layman's terms, you should try to do the least practicing possible that still achieves the desired results. So, besides being sure not to over work or under work, your program would also need to have the correct amount of recovery time that is long enough to allow the repairs to occur, but not so long that it allows the cells to revert back toward the state they were in prior to training.
Just like athletes, you also have to train to become good Highland dancers. When you practice, you each choose how hard and how long you will practice and you repeat this with a certain amount of frequency (hopefully close to daily). Each person has his or her own minimum amount of intensity (how hard) and duration (how long) of stress that must be exceeded before the body begins to adapt to them. For example, when sedentary people (couch potatoes) start an exercise program, we probably wouldn't see significant improvements in their exercise capacity unless the training was at an intensity that exceeds 50% of their maximal oxygen consumption. Fortunately, this isn't too difficult to achieve, after all, if all you have been doing is watching television, almost any exercise helps. The bad news is that one of the unfortunate effects of training is that this threshold level increases as we become more fit. In highly trained athletes, the threshold level may be over 80% of their maximal oxygen consumption instead of just 50% for the couch potato. Now here is the good news, not every practice session needs to be at or near our maximum level. Unfortunately some dancers never learn this, or they only learn it after sustaining repeated injuries due to over training and staleness. What this means is that if you are at a level of strength and endurance that you are happy with, you could exercise at an intensity that is a little below the higher training threshold and maintain your existing levels of strength and endurance. As competitive dancers, you need to determine what intensity and length of time will cause the adaptations you want without doing too little, which won't cause any adaptation, or too much, which may inhibit adaptation as well as cause overuse injuries, which are adaptations you don't want.
I'm not sure why, but many people believe that "Cross training" is the key to peak performance. I hate to break the news to you, but this isn't necessarily true. Any sport you participate in places demands on your body in two basic ways. First, the exercise will have a very specific effect on your joint and muscle coordination. What that means is that for Highland dancers is that there is simply no substitute for Highland dancing, including aerobics and ballet or any other form of dance. The same goes for swimmers or soccer players or any other sport. Even when you try to duplicate the basic movement of a sports skill by performing strength training exercises, the transfer of increased strength acquired through strength training to the actual sports movement is usually very small or totally absent. Depending on how the strength is achieved, such as dancing with weights on your ankles (something I don't recommend), this type of practicing can hinder performance of the skill you are trying to improve because you are practicing improper technique. Second, the non related exercise will place increased demands on a very specific group of muscles, not necessarily the muscles you intended to stress. For example, running and cross-country skiing seem to involve many of the same muscles, used in similar ways. However, several research studies have demonstrated that there is no relationship between the amount of energy used when treadmill running and the amount of energy used when cross country skiing. To put it in a scenario you can better understand, if you think that you can do biking, or running or aerobics as a substitute for practicing Highland, thinking that your legs will remain in good shape for dancing, you are wrong. To further explain why........
To improve endurance capacity in a specific sport requires change and modification by the body in both 1) high oxygen delivery via a strong heart and 2) high local blood flow that carries the oxygen in the precise muscles used. The first portion CAN and does benefit from cross training because all good dancers or athletes need a strong heart to pump the blood that carries the oxygen to the muscles. However, the only way to develop the second portion of endurance, the part after the blood actually gets to the muscles, is to train those exact muscles by doing your specific sport. If you need proof, just ask a distance runner to swim a mile, or vice versa. Without proper training, either one will be hard pressed to do the other's event very well.
So there is a place for cross training but, far from being the panacea many think it is, the purpose and value of cross training is limited. For example, during the off season, a dancer may choose to practice dancing only half as much as normal because she is mentally tired of dancing and because no competitions are imminent. This is the time when cross training could be of value as you might want to mix in running, biking or swimming along with your dancing to increase your aerobic exercise volume to keep you from growing mentally stale and losing your cardiorespiratory fitness. Cross training helps maintain your general aerobic base during the off season, while allowing you temporary relief, both physical and mental, from the constant practicing. That way you can get ready, both mentally and physically, for of another cycle of intense practicing of Highland dance. However, even when you are running or biking, you should always remember and be aware that when you get right down to it, it is the quality and quantity of your dance practice that will determine if you win or lose any upcoming competitions.
Cross training can also be used during the competitive season while dancers are in the middle of intense Highland dance practice sessions. Besides improving your technique, endurance and strength, one of the keys to success in any sport is staying injury free. Weight training by itself doesn't do anything to improve a dancer's back steps. But, if weight training maintains muscular balance in the dancer's upper body, which helps prevent injury by helping the dancer to maintain proper body alignment, then it is helping her because, by remaining injury free, she is able to continue to practice those back steps. By the same token, swimming isn't dancing, but if by swimming a dancer is able to take the pressure off of her tired feet, ankles, knees and hips on the day that she is using as a recovery day after an especially hard Highland session the day before, then it will probably make the next dance practice better. Try to use cross training activities that allow you to do your dance specific training workouts with greater enthusiasm and intensity, or less risk of injury. In other words, cross training should be seen as a supplement to dance practice, not a substitute for it.
As always for Questions and Comments, I can be reached at
Loraine Ritchey, 1127.W. 4th Street, Lorain, Ohio, 44052.