A few months ago in the early days of the lockdown, I rekindled my passion for ballet. Dancing in my living room for an hour or more a day has been my most reliable coping mechanism. But now returning to it as a 33-year-old, after a hiatus of eleven years, I’ve been noticing a lot of muscle soreness, tendon strain, and joint pain. Back in college, I used to not pay that much attention to these symptoms and cross-train vigorously with running and group fitness. Now, I get the distinct feeling that if I went running after dancing, I would really hurt myself and do serious damage.
Sports injuries like tendonitis commonly occur in athletes between 30 and 40 years of age. Not only am I older now, I also have been vegan for 14 years, which might require special care to obtain certain nutrients that are critical for keeping up muscle, joint, and connective-tissue health. (More on these nutrients, below.)
In my quest to improve my recovery time and performance, I discovered Lauren Lovette, a New York City Ballet principal dancer and a vegan since 2017. It’s surprisingly difficult to find vegan ballerinas to look up to for inspiration; most professional dancers tend to be omnivores, which makes it hard for me to follow their nutrition advice. Thankfully, Lovette is an outspoken advocate who shares how veganism completely elevated her dancing.
Lovette had always had a very lean body type, and could eat anything without gaining a pound. She would eat meat, dairy, candy, and caffeine, often just to be friendly and social. She was also rapidly rising through the ranks of NYCB, becoming a corps de ballet dancer in 2010, a soloist in 2013, and a principal dancer in 2015, at only 24—becoming the company’s youngest principal. But that doesn’t mean she felt healthy.
“I was struggling with depression and I would get really tired in the middle of the afternoon. [I was] surviving off a double shot espresso, not gaining muscle,” she told Setting the Barre. “I always had bad periods every month. I would faint on stage.”
Lovette thought, “I look [like] I could take on the world, but I feel horribly unhealthy. I feel like I can’t make it up the stairs.”
A wake-up moment came when Lovette went to the doctor and was diagnosed with a small tumor. It turned out to be benign, but she couldn’t shake the fact that she, a “healthy” young dancer, had abnormal growths in her body. This became the start of her vegan journey.
“My recovery time is so much faster. I started building lean muscles. My tumor shrunk down… I have not had a bad period since. My overall energy levels are way more calm,” Lovette said. Although she first turned to veganism for improved health and performance, she’s since become a passionate advocate for animals and the environment. “I’m saving animals’ lives, and I love animals. […] The animal industry is worse for the environment than all transportation combined. You can try to be green all year. If you’re eating beef three times a week, you’re still killing the planet.”
View this post on Instagram
I had no idea that switching to a plant based diet would allow me to do what I love at such a greater intensity! Of all the times I've done Tarantella, I've never had more fun than dancing it this summer at 8,000 ft altitude! I didn't even need oxygen and I wasn't sick once. Thank you plants for being my medicine ❤️ if you want to hear about my journey to better health I will be doing an interview with @thewholedancer August 20th. Further info at the link in my bio. Spread the love! 📸 @erinbaiano #vaildancefestival #tarantella #dowhatyoulove #lovewhatyoudo #veganfitness
Whereas she used to take eating for granted, she now prepares her meals with more intention and self-care. “My breakfasts are the most important to me. I love making a good tofu scramble, usually in a wrap.” She makes it with tofu, turmeric, potatoes, kale, Swiss chard, onions, mushrooms, garlic, salt, and pepper, and adds fresh avocado, salsa, and refried beans for good measure. Turmeric, she notes, is also good for inflammation and aids in recovery. (Noted!)
Another favorite breakfast is a superfood vegan pancake made with pancake mix, matcha powder, açai powder, and hemp protein. She might add walnuts, bananas, and blueberries to this, depending.
Yet another, quicker option is coconut yogurt topped with fresh fruit and agave or “real maple syrup.” Now, I totally get why Lovette says she has energy to burn. Just writing these down is giving me a burst of energy!
More nutritional supplement ideas for vegan dancers/ athletes
Aids in reducing inflammation for tired muscles and joints; speeds recovery. Try taking it in supplements for best results.
An electrolyte, magnesium deficiency can cause muscle weakness, fatigue, and twitches. Studies show that magnesium supplementation increases peak oxygen uptake and “work output” or performance. It also helps prevent oxidative damage and induce muscle relaxation, even sleep! Pumpkin seeds, almonds, Brazil nuts, and sesame seeds are some excellent sources. Also, when you soak in Epsom-salt bath, you’re restoring magnesium directly to your muscles!
Essential for wound healing, tissue repair, and growth. In fact, zinc deficiency can even delay wound healing. Note: Zinc is not naturally found in most vegan foods. Hemp seeds and tahini are good sources, for example, but you’d have to eat 3/4 cup of hemp seeds to meet 100% of daily recommended zinc! And not all fortified foods are the same. I was assuming that Bragg’s Nutritional Yeast that I’d been eating for years had zinc, but it is not listed on its nutrition facts. My favorite brand, Red Star nutritional yeast, is fortified with zinc. I stopped buying them because they became harder to find at my local grocery stores, but I actually far preferred this brand in terms of my health, and now I know why.
Building Blocks for Collagen
Essential for the production of collagen, which is in your tendons, ligaments, cartilage, and bones. It’s also anti-inflammatory.
Along with vitamin C, silicon, proline, and lysine, iron is a co-factor in collagen production. Try leafy green vegetables like spinach and dark chocolate, but your best bet is to supplement, as plant-based iron is only about half as bioavailable as animal-based (heme) iron. Personally, this was the only borderline deficiency I had when I did a blood test in 2019, and my anemia went away after taking supplements.
Make sure you’re getting enough macronutrient, too! You have to get enough protein to rebuild your muscle, get stronger, and let all your hard work show.
How do you make sure you’re eating right for performance and recovery?
Photo: Lauren Lovette via Instagram