As a ballet dancer and ballet coach, looking after my body is one of my top priorities. In order to perform at my best whilst in training and now, as a professional, my physical health must be at a constant optimum throughout the day, week and season. Whilst training is a huge part of maintaining my strength, stamina, flexibility and technique, all of this work must be fuelled by a nutritious dancer’s diet.
Everything I eat is part of my training, and because of the physically-intensive lifestyle of a ballet dancer, eating well has nothing to do with restriction or deprivation of food. The classical dancer’s diet is all about thinking smart and working out how your diet can best complement your craft. Diet in itself is a very subjective matter and what enables one dancer to work at their optimum each day won’t be the same for another dancer. Here’s what I’ve worked out works for me.
Preparing with breakfast
For many, breakfast is the most important meal of the day, especially if the day ahead is packed full of rehearsals. Often, I don’t get to stop between breakfast and dinner for a proper meal, so I have to make sure my breakfast will fuel me sufficiently.
The answer to this is a breakfast rich in protein. This food group tends to be favoured by dancers because protein stimulates the metabolism and muscles, but also wakes up the brain cells – important when remembering complicated choreography. I don’t switch up my breakfast during the week as much as I do other meals, because I’m always on a time limit, but I make sure to eat something filling. Due to the fact that I’ve been based in Russia for the past six years, I’ve also come to really love some of the traditional foods here, so my diet has a strong Russian influence. Tvorog is my go to for breakfast – it’s a bit like cottage cheese and kefir is a fermented milk that, whilst recently becoming popular in the West, has been a staple in Russia for a long time. It goes without saying that both products are high in protein. Typical breakfasts are grain-free porridge with tvorog, kefir, berries or scrambled eggs with grain-free crackers and spinach. I tend to drink a large cup of tea with breakfast and at other points during the day, however, I do actively try to drink as much water as possible too.
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Balancing the food groups
As I mentioned, diet is subjective. Consequently, it is important to spend time discovering which food groups you personally respond better to in larger quantities than others. I’ve been a vegetarian all my life both for moral reasons and because I find I can fuel my body most efficiently without meat or fish. because I think it keeps me healthy.
Different sources suggest different percentages of food groups. For me, I limit carbsas much as I can, replacing them with fatty foods that are high in protein, such as nuts or slow carbs like beans and pulses. I use lots of fresh vegetables in my home cooking – which I love to do. My favourites are aubergine and butternut squash due to their versatility. I also eat plenty of fresh fruit, particularly berries and mango.
Eating a mostly grain-free diet means I cook a lot from scratch. For me, this isn’t a chore as I’m hugely interested in creating dishes that don’t scrimp on flavour, whilst also containing the right amounts of protein, fat and nutrients for me.
While dairy products usually contain a fair amount of protein, I prefer plant-based milks, as opposed to traditional milk. Cheese, yoghurt and the aforementioned tvorog and kefir however, are foods I eat a lot of.
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Packing in the proteins
Central to a ballerina diet is protein. Speaking to The Huffington Post, I explained:
“I tend to eat lots of protein-based foods, such as eggs and tofu. I’m vegetarian, so I make sure my protein intake is sufficient anyway, however, I’ve realised that I can train much more efficiently on a larger amount of protein in relation to the other food groups.”
I include protein in each of my main meals in order to get the most out of my training. Protein is not as difficult to consume as some people might think for a vegetarian – I get what I need from tvorog, kefir, eggs, tofu, beans and pulses and products such as seitan, if I can find it. Many supermarkets now have good sources of meat free protein (always check on the box what percentage of protein as some can be quite deceptive).
My training regime puts a lot of pressure on my joints and my muscles. When I was at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, I was taught some extreme stretches to aid mobility which I continue to include in my training routine. Including enough protein at every meal is really important for a dancers diet and helps keep me injury-free.
To maintain consistent energy, I eat various snacks throughout the day to keep me going, sometimes nuts though usually raw chocolate. Raw cacao always provides me with an instant energy boost and tastes amazing too.
A hearty dinner
After a long day of rehearsals or performance, a filling meal is essential to help the body recover. No matter how tired I am at the end of the day, I always make sure I eat well.
The perfect evening meal should include lots of healthy protein for muscle recovery – tofu, eggs, lentils and beans. I always include generous helpings of nutrient-packed vegetables with a favourite sauce, perhaps, such as harissa or something tahini-based.
Treat yourself (occasionally)
The foundations upon which I base my diet aren’t strict doctrines that I never break. Life is still life and I adhere to the ethos that it is important to live life to the full and experience as much as possible – that means in a culinary sense too! I am a huge foodie and love to try different foods during my travels, plus I always have a huge list of restaurants I want to visit whenever I’m in my food-heaven capital, London. That’s right, I’m looking at you, Ottolenghi almond and chocolate croissant. Treats break monotony and keep life interesting.
With one day a week off, I prioritise recovery. I’ll sleep for a chunk of the day but I make time to cook to help me unwind and prepare myself mentally for the week ahead.
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