Who is most vulnerable to burnout?
Constant training, without enough rest, puts stress on a body’s ability to adapt which can lead to fatigue, muscular weakness and frequent injuries—burnout.
Burnout is a complex clinical condition with no single cause. Symptoms and signs vary from person to person, but tend to occur mainly in dancers whose daily schedules produce an imbalance between physical activity and time for recovery.
Burnout can occur as a result of a few days or weeks of fatigue, by long-term exhaustion and by psychological stress.
Burnout can affect both male and female dancers of all ages and levels of competence. Those most likely to reach the stage of burnout are usually the ones who set very high standards for themselves.
Relative levels of physical fitness also relate to burnout—for the same workload, fit dancers are less likely to suffer than their unfit counterparts.
Amy Jo Vassallo’s research for the Safe Dance Report IV (Ausdance National, 2017) found that the proportion of Australian professional dancers reporting fatigue as a contributing factor to their injury was 48% in 2017, an increased from 26% in 1990 (reported in Safe Dance Report I) and 33% in 1999 (reported in Safe Dance report II) .
Safe Dance Report IV found that there was one accidental or traumatic injury for every two overuse or gradual injuries. The most common responses regarding the self-reported contributor to injury were fatigue (48%), followed by new or difficult choreography (39%) and ignoring early warning signs (31%).
We also know that adolescents are particularly vulnerable to injuries. Apart from periodic growth spurts that decrease muscle strength and flexibility, a teenager's musculoskeletal system is less resistant to repetitive loads during development. According to the 2003 Proceedings from the Annual Meeting of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science (IADMS), students who work more than 8.5 hours a week at age 14 increase the risk of overuse injuries. The same is true for 15-year-old dancers who work more than 10 hours a week.
When do I need to be careful?
Unfortunately, the drive to exceed personal limits is ingrained in dancers of all ages, regardless of the toll.
Safe Dance Report IV found that for professional dancers, approximately 75% of injuries occurred during performance times of the year, even if dancers were not actively performing at the time of injury. This is of relevance as participation in other dance classes and rehearsals and other physical activity did not typically decrease during these times of the year to compensate for the increased time and physical effort spent performing. This finding may be only a reflection of a greater volume of dance exposure during these periods, or it may be due to an increased susceptibility to injury due to fatigue.
Safe Dance Report IV asked dancers about the activity they were participating in at the time of their most significant injury of the past 12 months, and 30% could not identify the particular time their injury occurred. This is expected of more overuse/chronic injuries which have a longer term onset. Of those that could identify the moment, 40.5% reported that the injury occurred during rehearsal, 27% during class, 20.3% during performances, and 12.2% reported other dance related times. This is likely to be due to dancers typically spending the largest volume of their time (in hours per week) in rehearsal, rather than class or performance, as opposed to rehearsal being a riskier activity for injury.
In a study conducted by the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries (UK), 79% of 500 injuries happened at the end of the day, occurring after five or more hours of work. 1
Fatigue is the number one indicator of burnout. Dancers could learn from athletes who use periodisation (hard workouts are alternated with easier routines that have rest built into them) to prevent overload.
Burned-out dancers need to let themselves do less without labelling themselves as ‘lazy’. To develop and improve, dancers should try to balance hard work, good training, thoughtful pacing and healthy rest time.
Symptoms and signs of burnout
Symptoms may include:
- feelings of constant fatigue
- excessive sweating
- inability to perform well during both classes and stage performances
- inability to recover properly following intensive dancing
- loss of desire and enthusiasm for dance (feelings of helplessness)
- loss of appetite and loss of weight
- disturbed sleep, often with nightmares or vivid dreams
- increased need to visit the toilet at night
- increased susceptibility to injuries
- increased anxiety and irritability
- increased depression
Reported symptoms and signs associated with burnout can be divided into those indicating 'acute burnout', and those related to ‘chronic burnout':
(lasting approximately one month)
- resting heart rates increased by 5–10 beats per minute above normal
- heart rates during specific physical tasks may also increase by up to 10 beats per minute
- raised resting lactic acid concentrations
- decreased maximal lactic acid levels following intensive physical exercise
- following specific dance routines, heart rate return to resting levels may take 2–3 times longer than normal
- decreased ability by the body to use oxygen during maximal exercise
- increased use of oxygen during sub-maximal exercise
- symptoms quickly disappear once causes are removed
(lasting several months)
- loss of maximal voluntary muscle force
- females may experience irregular, or loss of, menstruation
- increased susceptibility to infections, especially of the upper respiratory tract
- increased rates of allergies
- minor scratches may heal abnormally slowly
The last two symptoms show that the body's resistance to infection is low, or the immune system is breaking down. Exhausting dance schedules can harm this system, particularly if accompanied by additional environmental and/or professional stress. If classes, rehearsals and stage performances are performed to the level of staleness and/or muscle damage, this can result in lowered resistance to acute infections, HIV infections, and even cancer. Moderate dance activity with proper rest intervals should improve the function of the immune system.
How do dancers manage burnout?
- Make one day a week a personal day for relaxation and enjoyment. 12–24 hours of little or no physical activity helps your body recover from intense exercise, leading to improvements in strength, power, flexibility, and endurance.
- Be careful about working through serious illnesses or chronic injuries. A ‘no pain, no gain’ attitude can be harmful. Research shows that periods of physical rest or reduced physical activity may result in fewer infectious illnesses and contribute to better physical performance. Lack of muscle fuel (glycogen) may lead to rapid fatigue, and may put a dancer at risk of prolonged fatigue.
- Use a graduated work schedule when you return to training after a break of more than 72 hrs.
- Supplement training with a fitness regime that includes complementary activities such as swimming, yoga, pilates or walking. If you exercise at the gym get recommendations from a dance medicine specialist about the best workouts for your body.
- Use stress management techniques such as counselling, sauna, massage or hydrotherapy along with plenty of sleep.
Diet and nutrition
Eat enough carbohydrates.Vitamin levels are generally lower than normal in athletes and dancers suffering from burnout. Vitamins C, D and E are antioxidants which help the immune system function:
- Vitamin C – citrus fruits, tomatoes, spinach and capsicum
- Vitamin D – dairy products, fish oils, egg yolk and sunlight
- Vitamin E – green leafy vegetables, vegetable oil, butter, egg yolk, liver and whole grains
To avoid dehydration, dancers should drink water regularly throughout the day—even if you "don’t feel thirsty"!
- Safe Dance IV: Investigating injuries in Australia's professional dancers by Amy Jo Vassallo
- Articles on The Overtraining Syndrome by R. Budgett
- Journal of Dance Medicine and Science Pub. IADMS
- Water & Dance Health, Dance Informa USA
- Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology by Robert S Weinberg & Daniel Gould. Pub. Human Kinetics 2007.
- Burnout in Dance Information Sheet, by Dr Yiannis Koutedakis, BSc, MA, PhD, SNASC. Pub. Dance UK.
- Burnout: the problem with hard work by Linda Hamilton, PhD. Pub. Dance Magazine May 2005, USA.
- Dealing with Burnout by Rachel Rist, MA and Yiannis Koutedakis BSc, MA, PhD, SNASC. Pub Dance Teacher Magazine September 2009, Canada.