Competition and Injury
With the Canadian Pole Fitness Championships completed for 2019 and people starting to think about their Pole Sport Organization Competition routines, I've been answering a lot of questions about competitions.
One of the most common questions I've gotten is ''How do you deal with injuries around competition?''
My response: ''I've never actually had injuries with competition training.''
It's hard to say. Recreational and competitive pole dance are not really well researched. Neither is circus in general, although much more is being done in circus now. However, we can assume some of the general principles relating to training and sport injury are applicable here too.
Of course some injuries just happen. No matter how safe you train, most of us have jobs, families, and other hobbies that affect our bodies and minds, and sometimes injuries happen. Pole dance or fitness, like any other form of physical activity, has an element of risk. We just need to do our best to train intelligently so we can do our best to prevent injury.
Everyone has success training in different ways. These are just some thoughts and strategies based on my experience and some science that may support it. It is by no means THE answer or THE absolute final statement on it. Just some thoughts to open conversation and get people thinking about safe ways to train. Explore, experiment and work with your coach (if you have one) to see what works best for you.
I'm going to be making a LOT of assumptions here based on how I've seen and experienced most training. I'd love for you to weigh-in in the comments and we can get a good discussion going.
First, let's consider how competition training often occurs:
It's 4/6/8/12 weeks out...time to train.
1. Increase workouts to build muscle (maybe at gym, maybe getting stronger at pole),
2. Change diet (usually focused on weight loss and cutting calories...maybe just a couple kilos)
3. Learn/perfect a couple new/new-ish tricks to increase difficulty of routine
4. Do some extra stretching to increase flexibility or maintain it while you're building muscle
5. Spend more time at studio or home pole for choreo and practice
We're asking our bodies to do a whole lot of everything. On the one hand, we're increasing our training and giving ourselves the potential to advance and grow with an excellent time-limited goal of performing on-stage for a competition. On the other hand, we're risking injury by increasing our workload, possibly decreasing our overall fuel (reducing caloric intake for weight loss), and our chance to recover (often, less sleep and and fewer rest days). On top of all this, we often experience more psychological stress with the extra pressure we put on ourselves with competition.
So, what's the answer?
As I said, I'm not completely sure. But I will tell you a little about my training and suggest reasons why it may have some injury prevention advantages.
1. I actually LOVE the gym.
Unlike many people, I didn't take up pole dance to avoid the gym. Actually, I took up pole dance to get back to dancing, re-build confidence, and feel more like myself. I haven't always been super consistent at the gym, but over the last half of the time I was competing, I was.
When I first started at the gym, it was hilarious! I worked with a personal trainer (it was a birthday gift to myself) and I was SO uneven. My left bicep would give out before my right, my chest was weak, my traps were big, but I could hardly shrug any weight, and I could lat pulldown like a CHAMP! Point is, my body was ridiculously uneven. I was lucky enough to work with a personal trainer and he helped me even out. Still not perfect, but definitely a healthier balance.
There is super mixed research on this, but I also did periodization training. This simply means that you go through cycles to focus on building muscle, strengthening muscle, and muscle endurance (way oversimplification). I worked with my trainer to time it so that I did all my muscle building and strengthening, and then about 6-8 weeks out, I would switch to endurance. This means higher reps of lower weight, which means less muscle damage and less recovery time needed. Which means I had a little extra to allow for my extra pole routine training.
2. I took up running
In all honesty, I didn't actually start running until January 2017, so this was only helpful for 1 competition, but I still did cardio at the gym prior to the other competitions and muscle endurance phase was almost always circuits or intervals, so cardio was built in.
The higher your cardiovascular fitness, the better able your body is to use energy efficiently. Learning about our body's energy systems can take some time, but essentially, for a 3-4 minute routine, your body will mostly use anaerobic systems as your aerobic system actually takes about 2 mins to start up. However, the better trained you are, the more efficient these systems become and the less likely you are to feel gassed by the middle-end of your routine. The more efficiently your body can deliver oxygen to your muscles to make energy, the more efficiently they can work, which could reduce your risk of injury.
3. I fixed my nutrition
I am in no way, shape, or form a nutritionist, so I'm just passing on advice I got from my first trainer. He had a certification through Precision Nutrition, which is one of the few "diets" I would say I actually LOVED. And I don't use the term diet, like a crash diet. It's totally a lifestyle-based way of eating to help you learn to combine healthy foods, to eat until you are full (but not overfull), which means learning that "full" means not being hungry for 4 hours or so after a meal. If you are hungry an hour after a meal, consider eating more or including more protein or healthy fats in your meals.
A lot of people I know have been blown away to see much their body changes as they become leaner and more defined after actually eating MORE food.
Let's say this another way - to build things, you need extra materials, so to build muscle, you actually need more food. So, when you are getting enough fuel for your muscles to work hard and then properly recover, you build more muscle. Your body doesn't worry that it is being starved and stops trying to hold on to every calorie it possibly can.
As much as I'd love to say "you don't need to lose weight to compete" I know this will still be a goal for many, so let's address that too. Be aware that when you are training for things that require a positive caloric balance (build and repair muscle) while you are also trying to do things that require a negative caloric balance (lose weight) you put your body in a bit of a tough position because if you're cutting too many calories, even to get the "healthy" weight loss goal of a kilo per week, you may also be cutting out the nutrients your body needs to properly grow and repair. So, if you make the choice to do this, be very aware of the quality of food you consume to give your body the best chance.
If you reduce your caloric intake (dieting) excessively while simultaneously increasing your activity output (increasing training) - that is, putting yourself in negative caloric balance - you may also find it more challenging to focus and make good decisions, you may be more moody, and you may feel more fatigued. Simply lacking focus could result in injury and of course fatigue is a big factor too. It may be best to just focus on fueling your body rather than trying to cut back calories. There's a good chance that with your increased activity, you'll lean out a little anyway, if that is important to you.
You are an athlete - your body will do what you fuel it to do. Fuel it well.
4. I trained my flexibility well in advance and included tricks that fell within my normal warm-up range.
When you do a really intense stretch, you damage the muscle, and then following recovery, your muscles positively adapt to the stress you're putting on it and voila! you are more flexible.
The down-side is that if you do flexibility training as your warm-up to be at your max flexibility before training your routine, your muscles may be a tad on the weaker side and you may be more prone to injury.
My general rule for performances is to be able to do the trick after a light-to-moderate warm-up. If I can't spatchcock with just a few pancake push-ups and straddle plies, or eagle with just my normal active range of motion warm-up, it's not in my dance. This is just my personal rule. A lot of other things work for other people. I will also add that my body in general responds really poorly to passive stretching, so it may be a good rule for my body type, or it may just be a comfort I've given myself to feel more prepared backstage, as you can't always count on sufficient space and perfect timing for warm-up.
5. I dedicated Saturdays to rest days
When I first started competing, I had JUST completed my PhD (defended May 2013, 1st competition August 2013). I didn't have a real job, so pieced together income with research contracts and teaching fitness and pole classes. Plus training, etc. The teaching carried on. At one point I was teaching maybe 10 pole classes per week, plus private lessons, plus 5-6 fitness classes, plus gym, plus my training. Saturday was my day of nothing more physically active than walking my dog and a gentle stretch.
Does this mean that to avoid injury you need to go to the gym, take up running, eat well, stretch and rest?
Not exactly. You do you. Everyone's got a unique body, life, and goals, and so their training will look different to match. I would recommend being mindful of how you train and being aware of what could result in injury so you can prevent it before it happens. Think of ways you can even out your body, because training the same routine tends to cause some imbalances as I'm sure no one runs their routine on the other side (I sure don't).
I do strongly recommend some form of cardio, mostly because I've found this to really help me with my stamina, though you already may not have much of an issue with this. I'm also talking about proper cardio training, not just getting out of breath. So an actual chunk of time (20 mins is good) to fully activate your cardiovascular system and give it the stimulus it needs to make adaptations.
Nutrition - probably the most important part. If you don't have the fuel, you don't have the fuel. If you don't have the nutrients you need for repair and recovery, you won't achieve the optimal benefits. And drink lots of water. Proper hydration is also important for healthy movement/injury prevention.
Allow yourself rest and recovery. Your muscles repair when you rest - i.e. that is when you get stronger or more flexible. A good test is that if you find you are not getting any stronger or more flexible despite increased training (or worse - you're getting weaker), it may be a sign that you are over-training and need a little extra rest.
I guess the moral of the story is, treat your body like you love it - or better yet - love your body and respect all that it does for you, even when you're adding the pressure of competition or any performance training.
Fuel it properly so it can function, repair and maintain good health
Give it rest
Don't expect it to do everything all at once
And of course, as I said before, this is just advice from my work, education, training and experiences. It is not the correct way to do train, but it may give you some ideas for how you can make your training more efficient and reduce your risk of injury.
Be healthy, train smart, and have fun!