Is It Impossible to Balance Dance Training and a Desire to Run?

Photo by Thomas Sørenes

Photo by Thomas Sørenes

My boyfriend is the captain of the cross country team.

He goes running every morning at 7:15, attends practice for two to three hours in the afternoon, and goes on “long-runs” every Sunday, logging between 15 and 18 miles that day alone.

I am a dancer. I start to hyperventilate the second I even begin to consider running more than a mile.

I don’t need to run too, do I? Hanging around my boyfriend, I’ve started to realize there must be some appeal, some benefit to running. After all, the thought of being stuck in dance classes all day is just as hive-inducing for him as it is for me to think about running. So I’m asking, can dancing and running live in harmony?

There are some fundamental differences between ballet training and training for a marathon…

The most obvious difference is that the training for one requires you to run long distances over and over to build stamina while the other requires you to perform isolated movements over and over again to build stamina.

Wait though; I did just say “build stamina” in both of those examples. In her article Dancing Vs. Running: The Difference In Muscle Tone, Burr Leonard explains that in running,

“Each step by one leg gives a brief rest to the other…Running is thereby highly efficient at conserving energy, affording leg muscles built-in instants of regenerative rest so that they are never completely exhausted. Put a runner’s quads or hamstrings in a situation that calls for sustained muscle tension – or strength work — and they experience quick fatigue. Dancers, on the other hand, train to hold sustained positions such as plies, extensions, and balances.”

Runners win when it comes to conserving energy and using it in short bursts whereas dancers take the cake when it comes to holding a muscle in a position for a prolonged time period of time.

Are there actual differences between the muscles of a professional ballerina and a marathon runner?

Well, yes. The hips of the marathon runner will be tighter than the hips of the ballerina. Running also favors the use of some muscles over others, as I mentioned above. Still, some dance forms require more cardiovascular endurance than others. But are these differences as present in someone who dances 4 hours a week and runs 4 hours a week? Maybe not so much.

Sally Fitt emphasizes in her book, Dance Kinesiology

“Cardiorespiratory fitness is just as important to dancers as it is to athletes, but dance training seldom has paid as much attention to it. While some choreographers are noted for the vigorous demands they place on dancers, it is rare to find sufficient preconditioning for those demands in dance classes. High levels of cardiorespiratory fitness delay the onset of fatigue and accelerate the recovery rate from vigorous exercise.”

Runner in a pink tutu

Photo by Frank Kovalchek

There are many instances where running can be an effective cross training activity. As Lauren Warnecke explained for DanceAdvantage in her article on the benefits of cross-training, “Your body can only benefit from introducing alternative forms of exercise, given you aren’t fatigued or over-training.”

My conclusions

The key is using moderation when exploring the two together.

Eric Franklin seems to agree in his book, Conditioning for Dance.

“As a dancer, you usually do not need the maximum strength of a weightlifter, just as you don’t need the muscular endurance specific to a marathon runner. However, including an aerobic workout three times a week can be beneficial, especially if you pay attention to alignment and use imagery to move with sound biomechanics .”

There are obvious benefits that cardiovascular fitness has for the dancer, but maybe tagging along for my boyfriend’s 18 mile Sunday runs won’t help my plié.

Assuming I am staying safe, adding running into my routine will not hurt my dance life. In fact, it might even help!

Going into a new week of dance classes, I’m thinking a lot about how I view these two activities.

For further reading, here is a link to Jen Stahl’s article “Running for Dancers” that expands on some of the ideas I’ve explored and offers tips on how to run when you are a dancer (like me!).

What can I pull from one to help me with the other?

What experiences have you had balancing dancing and running?

What ways have you found to effectively combine the two?

We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Alissa Anderson is a lifelong resident of Jamestown, New York. Currently in her senior year at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin, she is majoring Dance and Comparative Literature. Her choreography has been featured in the Beloit College December Dance Workshops during Fall 2011 and 2012. Additionally, she studies both Spanish and Portuguese and spent a semester abroad studying environmental sciences in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais, Brazil. After graduation, she plans to pursue a career writing for the arts and to continue her study of the Portuguese language.

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  1. Great article! I myself have just started running to help with my cardio in dance. I also dance 6 hours a week. I’m 26 years old and have always been active, but training for our dance recital has kicked my cardio butt!! I’m training to do my first 5k too this spring. I agree with doing both in moderation. I won’t ever be training for a full marathon as long as I’m dancing. I figure the farthest I would like to be able to run is maybe a half marathon?? 🙂

  2. I used to be a runner, and I can say from experience that ballet and running were (and will always be) a bad combo. For ME, anyway. Both activities are hard on the hips, knees and lower back. It was just too much of the same kind of stress on my body and I can’t run anymore because of knee pain. Dance is hard enough on the body. Instead of running, I cross-train with weights and walking, which keeps my body strong and happy.

  3. I think the last sentence of Monika’s comment is the key: “…which keeps my body strong and happy.” My run-in with running (pun) was somewhat short lived because once I started playing around with longer distances I started having IT band troubles. That was several years ago before the magically foam roller really came into play, and now I just don’t care enough about running to put in the time. But I will say that standard dance training without any additional cross-training no longer meets the demands of the field. It’s super important to supplement ballet training with something in parallel to strengthen the abductors, and something that focuses on upper body strength. What those things are, to a certain extent, a matter of personal preference.

  4. I’ve been a long distance runner since high school – and that was many, many years ago. I came to ballet training as an adult. Being a runner gave me the strength and stamina to be able to begin learning ballet at full tilt. As a runner, I spent a lot of time stretching and tending to my muscles. So I was actually kind of amazed at how flexible I was in ballet class, more than I would have imagined. Turn out continues to be a challenge because since I was brought up as a runner from a young age, I was trained to keep my hips, knees, and feet completely forward. Moving forward is good, moving sideways is challenging. In all my years as a runner, I only ever had one injury to my right knee, which healed well and I haven’t had a problem since. Since starting ballet less than 2 years ago, I suffered a fractured foot which left me with a calcium deposit that is now a permanent fixture on my body. That injury has left me challenged in both dance AND running since the deposit is in my toe knuckle. Since my injury, I haven’t been able to return to dance classes but have been able to get in short and easy runs. I hope to be able to return to both with some adjustments. Where there is a will (love, dedication, and pasion), there will be a way! Wish me luck!

  5. Yes! Just started running and, like Lauren said, I’ve been especially aware of my IT band. I was always told running and dancing were like oil and water, but then I went to college where the dance department MADE you run as part of their conditioning program. Granted, outdoor running and treadmill running are a bit different, so I’m staying on my treadmill to help ease my joints.

  6. Marja Finnigan says:

    I’ve been a dancer and a runner for my whole life. They just happen to be my two favorite activities. When I was younger I was a mid-distance sprinter and hurdler and dancing definitely helped my running with understanding proper form and breathing, extending my stride and reaching through my feet. On the dance side I had tons of power in my jumps and I rarely was out of breath when dancing. As I’ve gotten older I have switched to long distance running. I’ve found if you make sure you have the right pair of shoes and don’t over train (as you are cross training all the time if you are dancing all the time) you can fit the two together. I often get my best choreography ideas on nice long run listening to my iPod. It’s not for everyone, but I can’t imagine giving up one or the other, so they will have to learn to get along.

  7. My biggest problem is finding time for both. As I love ballet, that is my priority, and I don’t often have time for other training as well. I don’t have enough time for the amount of ballet that I want to be doing!

  8. I have found that three back-to-back dance classes made my endurance level look like crap. I took up running and found my dance performance improve on those especially long performance nights. I had always heard dance and running didn’t go together, but now I can’t imagine either without the other. My cardio endurance went up and I protected my turn-out and flexibility with frequent stretching and pilates. It has been a win-win.

  9. Kait Laten says:

    Before you start to run I highly advice you to think on how the cantrast between the two sports. After having chronic shun splints from September 2013 to June 2014, I highly advice you to rethink the health issues linked. As a runner and a dancer, I’ve learned the two don’t go hand in hand. After cross country I would go to dance, and ever sense then I’ve had hamstring, hip, and shin problems. I’ve been dancing and runningclothes entire life, but opted out of dance for a season and this was the impact, please don’t make the same mistake I did. It has altered my life. I wake up during the night with shin pain, and am unable to run with my friends. I have had major weight gain, pain, and an altered life style. I’ve been to more doctors than I can count, I’ve never met one who has helped my shins. Please rethink putting the two together

    • Kait, it is really unfortunate to hear your story. Though I’m not the author, I’ve done a similar piece for Dance Advantage about cross-training, and am generally a proponent of non-dance related cross-training activities. Everyone’s body is different, and while dancing and running ultimately wasn’t a good fit for your body, that may not be the case for everyone. I don’t believe dance and running to always be mutually beneficial, but for some dancers who require a lot of athletic movements in parallel, and/or stamina and endurance, it is a very viable option. If dancers are struggling with the high impact of running on the knee and hip joints, cycling or aqua-jogging are also options.

  10. I took up running my junior year of college, while obtaining my BFA in Dance. I never ran more than five miles and never more than 3x/wk. I also limited my pace and focused on inclines. I started to have some ankle pain and switched my gait to land toe first and have never had a problem since. I run outside because I noticed my tendency on the treadmill is to run just enough behind the treadmill speed that my knee is slightly jarred with every impact.

    That all being said, adding running to my training changed my growth rate in dance DRASTICALLY. First, I had always been the dancer with the worst stamina. I found myself in the top three within a few months. My hamstrings finally began to develop, as did my calves. As my stamina improved, my ability to push through classes got better and I got stronger. At 5’4″, I also went from 135 lbs to 118lbs (with diet adjustment, but running was definitely key). With a lowed body mass, training got easier, movement felt smoother, and my whole body felt more cooperative.

    What I know about my body type: I am hyper-mobile in 70% of my joints. My ligaments have a high laxity which provides me a lot of range of motion, but makes it difficult to pull myself together and be vertical. My internal organs are affected, the connective tissue around my heart is lax, so my blood pressure also runs lower with a weak pulse and my body adjusts by forcing out more adrenaline. Running strengthened my cardiovascular system and more naturally provided/used adrenaline I need/make. 10% of the population, at least, is hyper-mobile. I am lucky it is not in my knees, but my hips, spine, feet, ankles, hands, and more are all loose/double jointed.

    Running couldn’t tighten me up for this reason, but it did strengthen major muscle groups I am forced to rely on to stand straight up because my ligaments can’t/don’t do the job. I also weight train, full body, low weight and high rep. I don’t really dance much more than for hobby now as I decided to become a massage therapist and am now focused on getting my Doctorate in Physical Therapy, but I dance a little and keep up with the running and weight training which keeps my body, that loves to fall apart when left to its own devices, moving efficiently.

    Your biochemistry matters. Running is not better for all dancers. Dance is not good for all dancers. Doing both helped me reach my personal goals. If you want to try it, I recommend finding a very good personal trainer, or keeping in touch with an Athletic Trainer or PT for the first six months. Less can be more. Consistency is the key to life.

  11. It depends on what type of dance you do, but ballet dancers are not supposed to regularly run because it turns your hip flexers in and can ruin your turn-out. For hip hop and other types of dance where turn-out doesn’t matter though I’m sure it would be fine.