I love Zumba. But sometimes love hurts.

In fact, at the moment it really really hurts. Aside from the recovery I have been working on with my neck, back and leg pain, I find that after Zumba classes in particular I get very tight and sore arches in my feet. Over the last few weeks I have unfortunately not been able to give my body the break it needs so I need to keep teaching classes and just try to stretch out and do any extra recovery work to help mitigate the issue. Over the last week it has become exceedingly painful to the point of not being able to flex my foot.

While I’m working on healing myself, I have also been informed that one of my regular participants is expecting, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to share some info on basic self- care when it comes to Zumba (or any other high intensity cardio class for that matter!).

1. Don’t dance on your toes

I have to constantly remind my participants not to dance on their toes. Unfortunately, no matter how much I say it, very few people seem to pay attention to this, and I think it’s because we barely even notice. When I first started Zumba, I danced on my toes for the whole time throughout my participation and during my instructor training. This resulted in insane pain in the arches of my feet and tightness in my calves which has contributed to so many other problems. Particularly when doing Zumba moves that have a Latin dance base like Salsa or Samba, I feel like dancing on my toes because I’m used to wearing heels when performing these dances, and hearing these rhythms. Who doesn’t want to look like a gorgeous Carnival girl when a Samba party rhythm comes on? Dancing on toes or “prancing” seems like the sexy way to go about performing the moves, and I think people often forget that this is a fitness class. Try to make a conscious effort to dance flat footed, and check on yourself throughout the class to make sure you’re not doing this unknowingly. I wish it hadn’t taken me to get to physio intervention before figuring this one out!

2. Don’t throw your hips

Again, particularly with styles like Salsa, participants want to be sexy and look like good dancers- and the reaction to this seems to be to throw the hips. Don’t! In Salsa, the hip motion comes from shifting the weight between feet as we step- NOT from swaying the hips independently. Keep up with this and you run the risk of doing yourself a lower back injury, as I have done myself!

3. Engage your core

Any of those kinds of booty rolls; boxing-style roll downs and pumps are all opportunities to engage your core, and engaging your core is essential to make sure that you don’t do yourself any injuries. Other movements to think about are those such as knee ups- using your lower abdominals to pull your knees up will help keep you stable and strong, as well as providing an extra workout to tone up.

4. Keep Hydrated

I take a break every two songs or so, and I always notice many participants wait around without taking water. You might not notice because you’re having too much fun partying, but you are sweating a lot (if you’re not [and you’re not otherwise injured etc.] then you’re doing it wrong!). Your body needs to replace this water. Especially in winter time we tend not to notice because we might not feel so hot, and fans can help manage heat, but you still need your hydration. I’m not saying drink gallons, but take a few sips every ten minutes or so to make sure you are keeping safe and not putting yourself at risk of headaches, dizzy spells and other not-so-fun effects of dehydration. As a guide, I tend to find that going through a 750ml water bottle per hour long class works for me, but listen to your body and pay attention to how much your body needs.

5. Learn the basics

If it’s your first time, or you’ve always been confused by certain steps then there are plenty of options- and tripping over yourself isn’t one of them! Every class I see participants performing steps in dangerous ways or in incorrect ways that confuse them later on. Every class I make sure they know I am there early and I stay behind late for any questions, but rarely do I get taken up on my offers. Ask your instructor to demonstrate moves you don’t understand or if you really want to get the basics down pat, then do a beginners intro class for Salsa, Samba, Merengue, Bachata or other rhythms used. If all else fails then at least don’t be afraid to stop for a minute to observe the instructor and to pick it up slowly, or to self-modify. Stepping it out on the spot or marching is a good way to keep your heart up without rolling ankles or tripping over trying to keep up with complicated steps. Plus, if the steps are that complicated then the instructor is the one doing it wrong anyway! Zumba is meant to be fun and easy to follow, if you find yourself being asked to do pirouettes, fouettes or pas de bourrés then let your instructor know they need to tone it down and make the class easy to follow for all participants.

5. Know your limitations

This is especially important if you have injuries, are expecting, or if it’s your first class. You know your body best and you know what you are comfortable with or not. Yes, if you want to melt off body fat then you are going to have to work hard but if you are feeling sore; dizzy etc. then make sure you take your time regardless of what the instructor or other participants are doing. You might feel like everyone notices you not doing massive insanity diamond jumps, but your body will thank you for it…. and to be honest your peers and the instructor probably won’t remember anyway, or if they do it will be from a place of concern rather than from being judgemental.

6. Don’t over do it

This relates to the previous point, but I know so many people get excited to be on their health buzz and do a million classes a week to tone up for summer and so on. Don’t be one of those people. I have been, and you will do yourself more harm than good. If you have never exercised before, and particularly if you have health issues or are overweight, make sure that you ease into your routine with one class a week, or even half a class (let your instructor know and there will be no problem leaving early if half an hour is all you can safely manage). For one thing, you will be less likely to do yourself an injury and end up having to slow down anyway (and yes there can be too much of a good thing- trying to do two yoga classes back to back and then Zumba is not wise either). For another, you will be more likely to stick at it if you ease yourself into a routine rather than throw yourself in the deep end of something that isn’t sustainable or healthy for you.

8. Stretch, stretch, stretch

Unfortunately in a one hour class there is never enough time to stretch. While all classes should include a few cool down tracks to lower your heart rate and a good five minutes or so of stretching, if this is all you do in a day it is not enough. If you have injuries or feel some tightness you need even more. I would recommend at least twenty minutes of stretching after a one hour Zumba class if you have worked hard. There is a Yoga/Pilates class after one of my Zumba classes and I always recommend my students attend afterwards. Stretching is so, so, so important! I can’t emphasise it enough. Particularly pay attention to your calves, hamstrings and feet as they tend to bear the brunt of jumping around in Zumba, but also remember to stretch everything from your sides and back to your arms as well. Even if you don’t feel like they’ve all been worked that hard your body is all connected and all muscles need to be stretched to keep it running smoothly.

9. Build a relationship with your instructor

Your instructor is a great resource and can help you so much more than giving you something to follow in the class. Discuss tracks with them, discuss certain moves. Find out why they have included certain moves and what areas you are meant to be working and when.

Unfortunately, the nature of group fitness classes means that one on one attention during the class is not often possible for more than a split second, but I don’t know a single instructor who doesn’t like to connect with their participants. Approach them before or after class and make sure to make them aware of any injuries, pregnancy or other health-related issues so that they can give you modifications and advice.

We also love feedback! Sometimes in a big class it’s hard to pick out what the general sentiment is when there are a couple more vocal ones (usually the ones we have built relationships with!) or when no one wants to speak out. If you don’t like my choreography then come tell me. If there aren’t enough or are too many breaks, tell me. If you feel like you’re not challenged enough, tell me. Instructors aren’t mind readers and we can only tailor our classes to the feedback we get. Most instructors will also take on recommendations for new tracks or styles to be included- make your class your own!

10. Research up on your instructor

This final one is a biggee! I adore the Zumba programme, but their certification process covers only the basics of Zumba as a programme, which I do not believe is sufficient to teach people to be good group fitness instructors.  After attending the one day Zumba course and paying the fees, each and every participant is able to call themselves a “Certified Zumba Fitness Instructor”, with no tests of knowledge or assessment required. Some people on my first training day could not perform steps safely themselves, and they walked out of that training day qualified to call themselves Zumba fitness instructors, without the months, if not years of learning about health and fitness safety and technique that is required to teach most other programmes. While I really admire their enthusiasm and their courage to give this a go, I do think a good instructor absolutely requires some sort of formal education in health and fitness; exercise safety; and how the body works, and ideally should have been mentored by an experienced instructor.

If you’re an instructor wanting to upskill, there are also plenty of online courses and short courses run by Universities that can fill in the gaps. Take a look at AUT’s short courses here if you’re in the Auckland region.

For Participants, here are a few things to check out your instructor:

Is your instructor REPs certified?

In New Zealand, the Register of Exercise Professionals (REPs) is an organisation that does quality control on fitness professionals. Almost all gyms require their staff to be REPs registered which means they have up to date CPR as well as having completed a fitness qualification. REPs also takes into account conferences, and work experience to make sure that fitness industry professionals are kept up to date and fit to instruct.

Does your instructor have a First Aid and CPR certificate?

So important, I think it goes without saying.

Does your instructor have a dance background?

This obviously isn’t essential, but if the instructors have a dance background, particularly in Latin dance with the rhythms used in Zumba they are much more likely to have a sound understanding of the biomechanics and correct postures for movements than someone who has only ever done Zumba.

Have they completed other Zumba trainings?

Zumba offers specialty training for a variety of classes using different equipment (ie. toning sticks; chairs) and for different groups of people (ie. Gold for seniors; Zumbatomic for kids) and also Aqua Zumba. Check to see if your instructor has completed more than just the Basic (B1) and has done B2 or specialty trainings. These are obviously necessary to teach any of these specialties, but also tend to make more well-rounded, more safety aware instructors.

You can find all this info by searching your instructor on zumba.com.