Nutrition for Irish Dancers

Sláinte, April 2011

Sláinte is going to talk about the Irish dancer today. What is the most important on feis day? The costume, cape, shoes, poodle socks? (the wig is not, Sláinte is very anti-wig, makes them look like little Dolly Partons) What about the steps? Nope, the important thing is the food you will put in your dancer. The higher the level she competes, the more important nutrition becomes. Her muscles have been trained to give the best performance they can give, but in order for them to work they must be fueled. Same goes for the brain. You want your dancer to remember her steps, correct?   

A bit of dancer biology.

The muscles burn glucose for fuel and a certain level is kept in the blood at all times. After your child eats, glucose from the carbohydrates circulate in her blood. This causes a release of the hormone insulin (dinner bell!) which moves the glucose from the blood into cells. In muscle cells, extra glucose is first stored as a kind of fast food called glycogen. When glycogen stores are filled, extra glucose is changed into fat, a storage form that takes longer to burn.

What does all this mean to you? Protein and fat are needed for muscle cell growth, cell replacement and maintenance but on feis day the most important nutrients are carbohydrates, electrolytes and water. Which is why sports drinks happen to contain all three.ID-10076296 free digital by Ohmega1982

Stress and tension can decrease blood flow to the digestive tract interfering with digestion so no large meals the night before or on the morning of feis day or during the feis itself.  Your dancer might even complain that she is too nervous to eat. But don’t let her skip breakfast either. You want high carb foods that will empty from her digestive tract quickly. A whole grain cereal with low fat milk is a good choice for a feis breakfast. Avoid high fat foods (bacon and fried eggs) that will sit in her nervous stomach all morning. Ensure drinks like it make good meal replacements for the child who refuses to eat because of a nervous stomach. They contain protein but are not high protein in themselves.

When your child dances, first glucose is burned and then the muscle cells turn to glycogen. Depending on how many dances she is doing (and some children in small competitions have to do their solos almost in a row) her leg muscles might eat right through their glycogen stores. These can be replenished with sips (not gulps) of a sports drink or diluted fruit juice. Unless she is sweating buckets, extra water is not needed to keep her hydrated. She’s not playing football so don’t push her to drink constantly; it’s not necessary and it increases the likelihood of her have to dance on a full bladder at some point. On the other hand, if she is practicing a group dance over and over in a hot room before the competition, dehydration could be a problem. If she is thirsty let her drink. Cramping is a sign of dehydration.

A midmorning snack is a good idea. Low fat yogurt, juice, or crackers are good choices. Limit high fiber, high fats foods and protein supplements that linger in the stomach. Lunch in the middle of a competition day should also be light.

Don’t give your child or let your teen drink one of those quick energy drinks. Most are stimulants of some kind. They make you feel like you have energy when your muscles could be exhausted. Performance suffers because it is like whipping a dying horse. Some contain very high levels of caffeine which will make your child jittery not precise. Some contain herbs or supplements of unknown safety. Skip diet sodas or soda altogether because of the carbonation. End the day with a nutritious dinner with lots of veggies to provide the muscles with nutrients to heal and grow from the exercise.

If your child competes on a national level, it would be a wise to invest in a few sessions with a sports nutritionist to design nutrition programs for training and competition based on their age and stage of development.