Not that long ago, it was standard wisdom that dancers – and all athletes – should "keep warm" immediately after exercise. Following a work-out – such as class or a performance – dancers would rug up in their woollies. Cold was the enemy – it meant stiff muscles and potential injury.
Today, the thinking has completely changed. Instead of rugging up, dancers are advised to do the reverse – and get cold. Once the curtain has fallen, professional dancers plunge their bodies into ice buckets or baths. Dance companies have ice machines on their premises and supply large rubbish bins and even tubs full of ice back stage. During the day, it is common practice for dancers to apply icepacks to their overworked limbs during breaks. So what is the reasoning?
Ashlea Cohen is the principal physio for Sydney Dance Company and also owner and director of Peak Performance Physio and has a Masters in Sports Physiotherapy.
Ice immersion, she explains, has been proven to help muscle recovery.
"Whether dancers have injuries or not, ice is helpful in preventing soreness or aggravation of already sore areas," she says. "About ¾ of the SDC dancers post any show will have their knees, ankles and even just toes submerged in icy water, or be icing their shoulders and elbows using an ice packet. Full body immersion in ice is obviously pretty cold, but it might have to b done for backs or hips."
As Cohen explains, when the muscles work hard, they produce a waste- or by-product called lactic acid, which causes soreness. Ice works by constricting the bloodflow to the area and thereby restricting the circulation of lactic acid.
Can you ice for too long? The general rule is that you keep it up for as long as is tolerable, which for most of us ranges from 10 to 20 minutes. By then the ice may have melted anyway.
Is it safe to go straight from an ice application back to dancing? Generally, during the day, ice will have only been applied in a pack to a body part. Cohen says it is fine to go back to the studio as long as the dancer takes it easy, allows feeling to return and increases the intensity of the exercise gradually. (Full limb immersion is usually only undertaken at the end of the performance when no more activity is likely anyway.) For those without the "luxury" of ice baths and buckets on hand, an icepack kept handy in the fridge, or a “click” icepack, will do the trick!
Is there ever a time when it’s better to use heat?
Heat is still a useful part of a dancer's kitbag. Heat does the opposite to ice: it increases blood flow to area and helps to soften and relax muscles and mobilise joints, so they have the necessary range of movement. Applying heat is still the best way to ease stiffness, such as in a neck or back. The ideal time to stretch is when the body is warm, such as after exercise or a warm shower or bath. Keeping warm in breaks between exercise is still vital to stay limber.
So its not a matter of ice or heat, but ice and heat, used strategically, for the right reasons.