So you've come to aerial class only to find out that aerial ain't that easy, and not only that it can hurt as well! Jeez you're thinking this is not what I signed up for! Well hey guys I ain't gonna lie - circus is a challenge. Whether it’s the bar rubbing on your hands or backs of knees, a wrap on the silks feeling extraordinarily tight and squeezy on a particular body part, achey hands from gripping, bruises from certain tricks and burns from sliding on the silks, yep it’s definitely going to hurt at some point. And unfortunately there’s is simply no way round it other than to toughen up!
But it's definitely got built in badass rockstar factor...
No one said it was going to be easy. But that's why we like it so much! We get strong, we grow in confidence and yeah we gradually get a certain sense of badass about ourselves. I mean rocking out those damn cool moves - well you can’t help but feel like a tiny bit like a rockstar… (anyone with me on this?)... You probably don't get that much badass factor from your regular gym workout right?
Our body's miraculous power of adaption...
Anyway I don’t want to put you off in anyway, but circus is not for the faint hearted - it does take a certain amount of grit, determination and ability to stay head strong when it comes to the pain. However, the good news is that the more you do circus the more the pain factor goes away - as in your body does have a miraculous way of adapting and getting used to it. Yes for those of you who have tried the one leg hang or a foot lock for the first time it’s like jeeeeeeezzzz are you for real - surely this is way too painful. Do it for a few more weeks and you will be like yeah what evvvs - and what’s the big deal, and soon you’ll be moving onto the toe hangs, elbow hangs and back circles and saying gimme more!
Recognising the two types of pain...
But let's talk a little bit more about this pain factor... So first up you need to understand that there are two types of pain. There's the 'ok' acceptable kind of pain and then there's the 'no that's not ok' unacceptable type of pain.
The 'ok' type of pain (yes it hurts a bit but it's not doing actual damage)
This is the sort of pinchy, slightly ouchy but doable and bearable pain that comes about from doing most of the cool and badass tricks in the circus world. It's those one leg hangs, toe hangs, ankle hangs, elbow hangs, foot locks, single ankle hangs - the list goes on, that might get you. It's also the burning sensation in your hands or backs of your legs after hanging off the hoop for the first time, or even the weird feeling you have in your hands after gripping onto the silks. Yes the pain can be pretty intense, especially when doing aerial for the first time, but beyond a little bruise, redness or soreness you are not really going to be doing any actual damage to your body.
Here's a list of acceptable pain signals:
- Aching hands: yep after your first class of aerial silks your hands will probably be aching a bit. That’s because your grip strength needs building up. Think about it for a second - suddenly you come to class and lift your whole body weight by gripping a piece of fabric. You can’t expect your body to suddenly do what you want it to do if what you are asking of it is quite extreme. You need to build up slowly. Luckily grip strength improves really quickly - by the second or third lesson you will probably forget that your hands used to hurt at all.
- Burning hands: For those of you doing hoop - it’s another story. Your hands will probably burn. This is because the bar rubs against your finger joints as you apply downward pressure when you hang. Again this is completely normal - and the sensation will go away as soon as you stop hanging in the air.
- Blisters on hands: This is the what happens when you either have soft hands or you over do things too much on hoop. Although not pleasant this is still considered acceptable pain. Make sure you keep them clean and moisturised in between class and covered during class. Ideally the blisters should have healed up before you go back on the hoop again, so don’t over do things as a beginner. Eventually your hands will toughen up and develop a tough leathery like skin we call a ‘callous’ - not so great a look for your hands, but hey this stops the burning / blister syndrome and means we can stay on the hoop for longer. So get over it - there’s not a lot you can do about it.
- Shakes: If your body is scared to do something it will put you into fight or flight mode and release adrenalin into your system in order to prepare the body for what it needs to cope with. This adrenalin can make your body shake. If this happens make sure you take some deep breaths to calm your system. Make sure that a teacher spots you and if the shakes get really bad take a break. You will need to train the body in baby steps - the more your body realises that it is not in danger and that what you are asking it to do is safe (and that it is possible to hang off your arms or invert or whatever) - then the more it will relax and not turn on the fight or flight mode.
- Noodle arms: If you get that feeling like your arms have turned to jelly and gone all wobbly - I term that noodle arms, it’s because you haven’t yet developed enough upper body strength for your body to cope with what you are now asking of it and their is too much lactic acid build up in the muscles. Take a break and let the arms recover before you go back up in the air. Otherwise you will simply make yourself unsafe and liable to potentially injure yourself more seriously by falling out of a move. Remember it is not a competition in aerial - it is much better to listen to your body and develop at your own pace. It’s ok to skip a move and take a break if your arms are not up to it.
- Cramping: Cramps are caused by muscle spasms i.e. involuntary contractions of one or more muscles which typically go away within minutes. To help relieve the cramp massage the affected area and stretch it out and never stay up in the air if your foot or leg is cramping. If you experience them frequently or for no apparent reason, you should seek medical advice. Muscle cramps can have many possible causes. They include: poor blood circulation in the legs, overexertion of the calf muscles while exercising, insufficient stretching before exercise, muscle fatigue, dehydration, magnesium / potassium / calcium deficiency.
Six tips for dealing with the 'ok' acceptable type of pain:
1. Know what you are getting into: your aerial teacher will tell you and warn you before you try the trick that the pain factor can be intense. That way you are prepared and you have the choice as to whether it is something you want to try or not.
2. Know your own pain limits: some people love pain, some people can't stand it - everyone has their own pain tolerance edges. Know and understand your limits - if you are the type of person who hates pain factor then don't feel you have to do that move just because everyone else is. You can take a rest and join in on other moves. Or work your way up to it - take baby steps and move at your own pace.
3. Have a badass attitude: as Winston Churchill said "Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference" - going into aerial class with a winning, upbeat, positive attitude can really help when the going gets a bit tough. This means your mind set will be in the right place at the outset to deal with things such as pain factor (and will even help with the scary stuff like doing your first drop).
4. Breathe into it: as you move into the ouchee part of the trick breathe deeply. This will firstly make you relax so you won't be so fearful, and secondly bring your attention to your breath which will hopefully take your mind away from the feeling of pain and more onto the sensation of air filling up your lungs.
5. Understand that even though it hurts - it won't hurt forever: realise that although it hurts now it won't be like this forever. The more you practice the move the more your body toughens up and the pain becomes more tolerable. Once you start to toughen up you also get an increased feeling of body confidence. You feel stronger, more invincible, like you are more able to take on the world! I think this is why doing circus can be such a great buzz. The more you are able to conquer a move - the more badass you feel.
6. A note for all the ladies: just a quick mention about PMT - this can make you extra sensitive to pain, so if you know that's you then perhaps remember to skip that toe hang you were going to practice during that particular time of the month. Why give yourself a hard time when the day is probably hard enough as it is already. When I'm premenstrual me and aerial don't mix. It's a totally bad idea - best case scenario my brain goes into a bit of a fuzz - worst case scenario I'm an emotional mess for 24 hours and the best thing I can do is rest up while this happens and get back to aerial when my mind is calmer and more rational! Again it's about tuning into your body and knowing your own limits.
The 'not ok' type of pain (damaging pain - the kind you need to avoid)
This is the kind of pain that tells you of actual damage to your body, ie injuries such as sprains, strains, torn ligaments, breaks, burns, bad bruising, tendonitis and so on. Obviously this is the kind of pain we want to avoid as much as possible.
However you must realise that this type of pain is not always unavoidable - the very nature of hanging ourselves upside down in all sorts of weird positions and manoeuvres in the air means that you have to accept that the possibility of injury is part of this discipline. Yes we take safety precautions but things can go wrong and injuries can occur. If you can't accept this possibility then you are in the wrong sport - you need to go take up swimming or pilates or something a little less dangerous.
Injuries fall into three main categories including: accidental injuries, previous injuries and overtraining injuries so let's talk briefly about them for a moment.
Accidental injury occurs when a move goes wrong and you slip or fall out of it and land weirdly or as you fall you injure yourself. Most injuries like this happen either because the student is very tired or mostly due to lack of attention and their mind being elsewhere. If you know you are getting tired best not to try that new and very technical move - safe it for when you are feeling more on top form.
Previous injuries need to be treated with care as the body may have a weakness here or be using the body in ways to compensate for the weakness. Proper rehabilitation needs to be done on the injured part to make sure it is back to normal strength before training on it again. Or at least go back into training slowly and with a lot of care so as not to aggravate anything that will prevent full recovery. Better to rest an extra week or two than launch back into training and then be out of action for weeks on end.
Over training injuries occur when you are over doing things. You may not even realise that you are doing it, as in our fast paced goal driven culture we are always pushing ourselves probably that little bit too hard. We are training lots but not listening to our bodies - if you start to feel tired or run down and start to get small niggling injuries that don't seem to heal, this could be a sign that you are over training, and it's time to back off and get some good quality rest and relaxation. See blog post here on Over training.
Three tips for dealing with 'not ok' type of pain:
- You must listen to your body: develop a relationship with it so that you know how far to push yourself and what moves you should or shouldn't do. Only you can do this for yourself. Yes tell your teacher if you have any injuries or limitations so he or she can also be aware of this and advise you on what moves may possibly be unsafe for you. However only you know your body best. If for example you know you have a weak back then make sure you go into back balance very gently. If you have experienced a shoulder injury in the past be very careful about hanging full body weight on it or landing a certain trick on it. You can feel sore in the days after a class (especially early on), but you don’t want to feel broken etc. It's basically common sense plus awareness of your body. Listen to it's signals - go hard when you are on form, back off if you're not and be especially careful when dealing with an injured body part.
- Finding the sweet spot: at the end of the day, you’ve got to find that sweet spot in between pushing your boundaries so you can grow, and taking care of the only body you have. You have to KNOW your body, and circus is an amazing place to learn that.
- Pain is your body's warning signal: it's like there is a warning - ouchee, twinging or burning sensations and then there's the no-go zone - omg not ok this really hurts sensations (like grinding, sharp or tearing pain). It goes without saying that you want to avoid damaging pain whenever possible – you don’t get a gold star for injuring yourself. It can take some time to discover exactly what the warning signals are for you, so until you’ve got a good sense of it, play it safer and back off if you need to. Always better to be safe than sorry.