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Irish Dance FITTness: Applying The F.I.T.T. Principle


Cara Sutherland is an Open Champion dancer from Cleveland, Ohio, USA. She is currently studying Exercise Science and is involved with the Performing Arts at John Carroll University.

Irish dancing is unique because of the incredible physical demands: combined aerobic exercise, muscle strength and endurance. Partially due to the physical stress and intensity of the sessions, Irish dancing can create a high risk for injury. It’s important for dancers to train and practice efficiently, and the FITT Principles of athletic training help us to understand the frequency, intensity, time, and type of exercise to improve the quality of skill-related fitness.

Frequency: How often

When the FITT Principle is applied to physical training, the general consensus for frequency is 4-6 days/week. Some dancers are programmed to believe that they need to practice every single day for big results. However, experts believe it can be more beneficial to take 1-2 days off for muscles to recover. Doing the same movements and using the same muscles at a high intensity every day could lead to strain and overuse injuries. Balance out your schedule with a day or two of another lighter exercise like cycling, which has a lesser impact on leg joints.

Intensity: How hard

A proper fitness regimen should include some workouts with long, repetitive, moderate intensity exercises alternating with some short, high intensity workouts. Our dancing tends to be short, high intensity bursts: two minutes of 100% effort.

Balance the intensity with your own training, for example cycling, jogging, or dancing at a moderate intensity for a longer time.

Dancers tend to measure the intensity of the workout in their exhaustion, rather than a recommended heart rate. The simplest way to measure heart rate is to hold 2 fingers over your pulse and count the beats for 15 seconds, then multiply by 4 to give you the number of beats per minute. An intense workout should achieve a heart rate of 60-80% the maximum heart rate (220-age in years). For example, if you’re 15 your max heart rate is 205, and an intense workout would be a pulse of 123-164 beats/minute. Push yourself to stay in this intensity zone for 20-30 minutes in order to build stamina.

Time: How long

One of the most important components to competitive Irish dancing is having good stamina—being able to finish the dance strong and still have enough energy to point, bow, and walk off. This requires a high level of cardio-vascular fitness. To improve your cardio fitness, trainers recommend 20-30 minutes of non-stop exercise 4-6 days/week. It’s hard to imagine anyone Irish dancing for 20-30 minutes non-stop. When you’re not dancing in class, try to keep moving around by jogging or bouncing in place in order to keep the heart rate up for better results. Research suggests it may take as long as 6 weeks to even notice improvement, so don’t feel discouraged if you’re still out of breath.

Type: What kind

Variety is everything! Of course, the best way to become a better dancer is by dancing, but you can train to become a more athletic & ‘FITT’ dancer by doing exercises that enhance your muscle strength/endurance and cardio. Resistance/strength training like core workouts or stretching with a resistance band will help to build muscle strength, and other sustained cardio exercises (swimming, cycling, running/jogging) can help dancers to build their stamina.
Photo credit: Nina Stojanović

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