Improvement Series, RA Dance Blog, Training Help

Improvement Series: Utilising heart-rate monitoring in dance training.

Heart rate monitoring as become increasingly available to consumers as the years have gone by. 16 years ago, Runner’s World claimed that the two reasons to use heart-rate monitoring are to train and race at the right pace for ourselves. Years later and this is still one of the main selling points of heart-rate monitors for athletes. However, they are also become increasingly wearable. In 2001, heart-rate monitors meant strapping a device around your chest, and now we can get pretty good information from just wearing a watch. It is still more accurate to wear a bulkier heart rate monitor but having this option makes it more accessible for those who move a lot during their training, ie, dancers. So if runners are using heart-rate to improve their performance, in both training and racing, can dancers be using the technology in a similar way? In short, the answer is yes and this post will talk you through my reasoning for this conclusion.


To begin, I’ll explain what heart-rate monitoring can tell us about. Pretty simply it tells us how fast our heart is beating. If you press gently into the radial artery on the wrist you should be able to feel your heart rate, alternatively the pulse can also be found by pressing gently into the neck beside the windpipe. This tells us how rate the heart is pumping blood around the body, transporting the necessary energy to aid the muscles current activation levels. The more muscles we’re using or the higher the intensity of their efforts the more blood we need pumped around the body, and so the faster the heart beats. In this way heart rate can then tell us how hard we’re working. At rest our heart rates are usually between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm). However, those that do cardiovascular exercise more frequently are likely to have resting heart rates lower than 60. For example, Chris Froome, four time Tour De France Champion, has been reported to have a resting heart rate of 29bpm.

When looking at heart rate there is usually a maximum and minimum. To work out maximum heart rate there are a few different formulae, which may or may not be the most accurate. In practice it’s the heart rate experienced when the individual is working at maximum capacity, which is why many turn to the formula to work it out. From there our resting heart rate usually sits at 50% of the max, and is often split into 4 more working zones. It can be split into more, depending on sports and type of training. Zone one is out rest zone between 45-50% of max heart-rate. Zone two, increases in intensity but should still be fairly light, using 50-65% of max heart-rate. Zone three is between 65-75% and is our aerobic zone. The anaerobic zone (zone four) is the next zone, working between 75-90% of max heart-rate. The last zone, zone five, dictates our VO2 max, the maximum amount of oxygen we can use during exercise, and is seen when the individual is working between 90-100% of max heart-rate.

The zone to train in tends to depend on the type of training you’re doing, in order to improve which aspect of your chosen sport. Sprinters, for example, are more likely to train in zones 4 and 5, whereas endurance athletes, will train more in zone 2 and 3. In contrast to this black and white picture we’re now seeing mixed programmes for all athletes which involves training in a variety of these different zone in order to improve overall performance, and training the zone they need more often as part of a bigger training programme.

So what about dance? As with other activities a mixed programme is likely to be useful. Working within a range of zones will help increase the efficiency of the heat and thus help with maintaining movement quality throughout the performance. In other words, stamina will be increased as a benefit of training within all systems. However, for more specific adaptions it would seem that knowing what type of system your genre of dance uses would increase performance. It’s easy to assume all dance is the same, for the non-dancer. But when studied the way the body is used within different genres differs significantly, and this includes the heart.

A UK based research team videoed and analysed 93 dance performances that were either of a ballet of contemporary genre. The team found significant differences between the genres in exercise intensity, change of direction and use of discrete skills. The research did not look at heart rate monitoring but the findings of exercise intensity may be extrapolated into heart-rate zones. Overall they found that ballet performances had longer rest periods but also higher levels of intensity, suggested a more anaerobic use of the heart. Whereas contemporary dance had more longer periods of moderate intensity (Wyon, et al., 2011).

This study (Wyon, et al., 2011) would suggest that these dance genres would both benefit from different types of training. For ballet dancers, it may be more beneficial to train using an interval method, having short bursts of high intensity action followed by rest periods, mimicking the organisation seen within ballet performances. Similarly for those involved in contemporary dance it would be beneficial to train at a moderate intensity for longer periods of time, for example staying in zones 1 and 2 for extended periods of time, causing adaptions that will aid the performance.

However, it can also be said that any training of the cardiovascular system is likely to benefit dancers and it may be impractical to also check which heart rate zone the individual is currently working within. On top of this, other types of training are also important, like strength and flexibility training. To work out what type of cardiovascular training would be beneficial for your genre of dance watch a few performances and watch individual dancers, looking out for how often they’re off-stage or in stillness and well as determining how hard they are working to perform the choreography they’ve been given.


Good luck with your own training, I hope this helps! If you want any more tips be sure to check in regularly and leave your comments for anything you want covered in particular.
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