Danseur Ignoble: Ballet Bonque 2: This Time, It’s Personal

I  think I’ve written about the phenomenon of “ballet bonk” once before,
but since bonking makes the old brain a bit foggy, I’m not going to try to find that entry and link it.

So what, you might ask (since not all of you are endurance athletes as well as dancers, and I’m too cooked to link), is “ballet bonk?”

In short, it’s the almost completely avoidable phenomenon that occurs when your muscles run out of fuel.  in an endurance sport context, it’s just “bonk” or “the bonk,” sometimes with various adjectives (dreaded is a good one).  When it happens in ballet class — which it only will if you are, as I am, a complete idiot — it seems fair to call it “ballet bonk.”

The physiological explanation for bonk is that the muscles have depleted their “reserve tank” — the glycogen stores that they tap when you make them do things like run or ride a bike or fondu.   Normally, at that point, they switch over to using the fuel you’ve recently added in the form of caloric intake, but (and here’s where the “idiot” part comes in) not if you have grossly under-eaten and there’s basically no fuel for them to tap.

When that happens, your muscles will firmly and politely refuse to do frack-all until such time as you top up.   Unfortunately, unless you can afford to take a break of a couple hours, a full-on bonk spells the end of your race or brevet — or, in this case, your ballet class.

The chief symptom of bonk is that your muscles just say no.  They don’t usually stop responding entirely, of course — but you can kiss speed and alignment and power good-bye.   On the bike, your legs will make occasional, pathetic efforts to turn the cranks; in ballet class, meanwhile, your grand battement week suddenly be less than grand.  All your efforts will feel inconceivably weak.   You will wonder what is wrong with you.

And then you’ll figure it out, and graciously bow out after barre (which, today, was an hour long), and go eat some food.  Or, at least, that’s what I did.

I should point out that there are contributing factors, here.

Derp the first: I am having the usual summer uptick, which makes falling asleep very difficult, and Denis keeps leaving the shades drawn, which makes waking very difficult.  Thus, I woke up today with fifteen minutes to get out the door.  That’s plenty of time to brush my teeth, get dressed, and grab a water bottle, but not enough time to make food.

Derp the second: I didn’t eat enough yesterday, so I was already starting from behind.

Deep the third: I over-estimated how long it would take to ride to the bus stop and, as a result, rode too hard and fast, using up more energy than I should have.  At an easy pace, the ride in question burns about 300 calories.   At molto prestissimo, of course, it burns more.

Derp the herp: for some reason, at the bus stop, I ate the little 90-calorie snack thing I’d packed instead of the 190-calorie one.   I couldn’t eat both because we have already established that it is a bad idea to ingest 40% of your day’s fiber RDA in one sitting half an hour before class … a very bad idea.

Add to all this the fact that A) Brienne’s class is always demanding and B) it was really hot in the studio, so my body was working overtime to cool itself, and you’ve basically for the perfect storm, so to speak.

The worst part is that bonk is not something you can work through.  You can get stronger, you can build endurance: but bonk is bonk, a lack of available fuel is really kind of an insurmountable problem.  Sure, you become more efficient through training — but no matter how fit and efficient you are, of you don’t plan well, you can set yourself up for a bonk.

Thus, I quit while I was behind to avoid hurting myself … or, for that matter, anyone else; nobody needs a bonking flailer (flailing bonker?) crashing into — or worse, onto — them mid-adagio.

So how, one might wonder, can ballet bonk be avoided?

That, friends, is (fortunately) simple.


In endurance sports, you avoid bonk by eating-on-the-run (or on the bike), taking feed breaks at regular intervals, etc.

In ballet, of course, that’s not really possible: fortunately, most people can handle about 90 minutes of sustained activity before they deplete their glycogen stores, and most ballet classes are about 90 minutes long.  Dancers can avoid bonking simply by, like, remembering to eat, and remembering to take into account how much energy getting to class requires if they use “active transportation” like cycling or walking.

I would have been fine if I hadn’t ridden the bike this morning and/or if I’d fueled appropriately.  Instead, having taken in only 90 high-fiber (and thusly slow-digesting calories), and having already burned upwards of 300 on the bike, and having started the day with an energy deficit in the first place, I set myself up for a bonk.

So there you have it, gentles: remember to eat.   Then you won’t bonk during barre.

And if you do ever experience The Dreaded Ballet Bonk, consider ducking out after barre so you don’t injure yourself.

That’s it for now.   Remember: eat food and avoid the bonk!

Today’s message brought to you by the letter B and the number glaaaaaargh.

About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Neuro-atypical. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2015/05/27, in balllet, class notes, life management and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Hi,

    I’m a runner, besides a wannabe ballet and modern dancer, so I have my experience with bonking. We call it “the wall” here, because it’s like running into one when it happens.

    There is one thing: If you cycle or run or do another aerobic endurance sport, you can increase the size of the glycogen store, too, additional to getting more efficient. But this all doesn’t help when not eating … and fullfilling this ballet dancer anorexia stereotype.

    • Don’t worry, I’m not starving myself on purpose 🙂 Sadly, I’m just horribly disorganized right now.

      That’s an interesting point about increasing glycogen stores! Since I do a lot less long-distance cycling now, I imagine mine are probably back to their “default setting,” so to speak. I’ve been thinking about adding some trail running (which might be more ballet-friendly than bike racing) back in to my conditioning rotation, so that’s another point in its favor (plus, it’s something I enjoy, and the park 2 miles from my house has nice trails).

      • Great, trail running is here a nice thing to do, too. I have the wood(and small mountains) almost directly at my door.
        You can come over if you like for a round or two, but it’s around half of the world I think (Heidelberg/Germany).

        I never managed bonking in Ballet, but last week a strong form of “We have done intensive intervall training yesterday!” in petit allegro until my legs didn’t wanted to jump anymore.
        So no trail running (with lots of hills) a day before ballet 🙂 additional to eating.

      • Duly noted! I will have to make sure to do my trail running on Saturday afternoons, so I’ll have a recovery day (and eat).

        If I’m ever in Heidelberg, I might take you up on that 😀

  2. Oh, I have so done this…not with ballet, but definitely with mountainbiking. It didn’t happen all that often 10 years ago, the first time around when I just ate whatever. Then disability happened, and I was a couch potato for awhile. Hard work + medication = now I’m better than ever. But I count calories to stay that way. I was so excited to be mountainbiking again! But that requires some serious fuel. Seems like I need to eat more than I actually burn in order to ride. It’s weird, and frustrating. I need to figure this out, though, because mountainbiking is awesome, but really not awesome when you’re bonking. 😛 I don’t seem to have this problem with skating, for some reason, which is what I do most days.

    • I think the bonk is high universal got cyclists! It’s almost like a rite of passage 😀

      I wonder if skating is less bonk-inducing due to more even energy demands? That would depend on the terrain, of course, but mountain biking definitely tends to come with major peaks and valleys (I couldn’t resist the pun!) in energy demands.

      Interesting thoughts!

      FWIW, I do best on long or demanding rides when I eat more than my calculations suggest I need, too – it’s funny how that works.

      Kind of makes me wonder if it has to do with how the calculators I’ve used are set up – like, if they might be assuming a different body composition with less muscle mass or something, maybe, since muscle burns calories at a higher rate than fat, etc. I keep thinking that a more accurate body composition measurement than my current “vague estimate based on skinfolds and measurements” might be useful for figuring out how much I should really eat!

      • Yeah, I really think that’s a lot of it. Mountainbiking does swing through extremes in terms of energy expenditure. I skate up a lot of hills, but it’s still pretty aerobic most of the time. Mountainbiking goes from an easy aerobic cruise to anaerobically struggling with every last scrap of everything I’ve got – lots of steep hills over loose rocky terrain around here, so steep that if
        I get knocked off the bike, I’ll have a really hard time getting back on again before the top of the hill. Which is extra motivation to give it all I’ve got – but it’s intense. I skate really hard, but it’s definitely a more evenly paced activity.

        I wish I felt like I had more of a handle on the calorie calculations! I think that the apps I’m using really aren’t taking the terrain into account for those calculations the way they should. And it may be that they’re calculating for an average build at my weight, like you suggested, instead of a fairly muscle-y one, for that particular sport. That seems entirely possible. OTOH, it seems weird to me that I get as much exercise as I do and still have to keep my caloric intake as low as I do, yet I’m still struggling with putting on more weight. But that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms. Mostly I figure if all of that is true, then my body probably has a good reason for wanting it that way, even if I wish it were otherwise.

      • I was mountainbiking a l ot more than now 5 years ago, too.
        A good thing against MTB bonk is – eating during the ride. Some nut-cookies in the backback ready to grap during the move have been the optimum.
        Another biker likes his “Frog-Water” – a hideous green sirup mixture in his drinking bag, brr.

        The thing with ballet and whole body shape I can confirm. Almost 2 years ballet and I got a lot remarks how I changed.

  3. BTW – I just read my reply (which I wrote after driving for fourteen hours :D) and realized I missed some, um, creative suggestions from predictive text!

    The first line was supposed to read, “… nigh universal among cyclists.” Eep.

    Another thought – I’ve noticed that some activities seem to effect weight in unpredictable ways. I spent a long time on a wobbly plateau between 165 – 175 pounds, weight-wise, before I reduced my cycling hours to increase my ballet hours. I do roughly the same amount of exercise, but for some reason my body seems to take dancing as a cue to shed some pounds. I haven’t really changed anything else except tapering off a medication that probably did affect satiety signals, but I don’t think that’s all of it. I often eat more now than I did when I was riding more, and the only thing I can guess is that maybe having to develop muscles other than the ones in my legs has increased my burn? But it still doesn’t “feel” like it adds up. When I can, I’m going to see if either Denis or one of my ballet teachers can recommend a nutritionist or exercise physiologist or something who might be able to help me figure out what’s going on (though I’m still well within a healthy weight range; I’m just curious as all heck!).

    The human body, for all we know about it, remains infinitely baffling!

    • Yep, baffling indeed! I think one of the reasons skating is such great exercise that way is because one’s stride is really a whole-body thing – I would think dancing, even more so! Road cycling is definitely focused more on legs and butt, for sure. Mountainbiking is more demanding in terms of upper body strength, but it’s still not a great upper-body workout.

      I was thinking of you the other day; I was watching a ballet video and thinking, “wow, it must be *amazing* to be able to move like that…” 🙂

  4. Can’t believe the answer is to eat, seems too perfect to be true! 😀

    • I’ve been surprised, myself, by how essential just plain eating is once you reach a certain level of physical activity! So much of the health advice out there is calibrated for fairly sedentary people; active people definitely need to eat more (within reason, of course!) to keep themselves going.

      Doesn’t hurt when the occasional opportunity for an indulgent dessert rolls around, either! ^-^

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: