I hate to say that a few of my Zumba students have complained of knee pain, so much so that they’ve had to skip class to recover. From what I’ve heard from other instructors, it’s not an uncommon problem. Zumba movements are inspired by Latin dance steps, which may include twisting, fast footwork, and lateral (side-to-side) movements. Add to that the aerobic fitness aspect that may include high-impact options such as hops, lunges, and even jumping jacks and your knee and ankle joints end up absorbing quite a bit of stress. Zumba is also an exciting class with pulsating addictive music and a slight competitiveness among members, so students may ignore their limitations and the physical needs of their bodies. The last thing I want is to cause early overuse wear and tear of delicate joints that can lead to more serious long-term injuries! So below I'm sharing five really important tips. They are applicable to all dance fitness classes.
Warm up. Spend a minimum of five minutes warming the whole body such as marching in place or walking on the treadmill—this awakens all of your muscles by increasing blood flow. Then focus on particularly vulnerable joint areas such as the shoulders, knees and ankles. Shoulder shrugs, shoulder circles, squats, plies (side knee bends) and heel lifts are examples. If your Zumba instructor does not include an adequate warm up, take 10 minutes before the class to do this.
Get the right shoes. Running shoes offer great cushioning but usually have too much traction for Zumba dance movements, which require twisting and turning. The best Zumba shoe has adequate foot bed cushioning, a smooth surface in the toe for turns, and is fairly lightweight (some moves are very fast and you don’t want your feet weighted down with heavy shoes). Zumba Fitness specifically recommends good supportive shoes such as cross-trainers, “aerobic” style shoes, or dance-specific sneakers. They provide the cushion and medial-lateral support needed for side-to-side movements, and have low traction rubber for easy sliding and turning. Avoid shoes with heavy treads. I currently wear Puma Voltaic II or Nike Lunarfly shoes—both are actually running shoes but have light treads; I like the extra cushioning they provide. On the flip side, you don't want shoes that are too slippery, as I've found with some dance sneakers. When wearing these, my legs would stiffen as my feet tried to grip the floor to prevent slip-sliding, promoting bad form and excess strain on several joints.
Cross-train. Repetitive movements of any kind increase your risk for injury. I know some people who will only do Zumba for exercise. Even if you use different instructors, the movements are similar and you will be straining similar muscle groups. Mix up Zumba classes with strength training or Pilates classes at least twice weekly and ideally at least one yoga class (or home video). These other types of exercise will actually make you a better Zumba “dancer,” promise!
Consider a knee brace. This is like a stretchy band-aid you wear over your knee. It helps support your knee especially by limiting lateral “sliding” of your knee cap. You can find them at any drugstore. They range in price from $8-$15 for one brace. I’m not sure why some of my students are resistant to these. I often display my knee brace to encourage others to wear them. I do notice less knee strain overall when wearing them during class.
Stretch. Most athletes and gym goers do not stretch enough! It’s an extremely undervalued component of exercise regimens and yet absolutely crucial for muscle recovery and maintaining healthy joints and tendons. Your muscles need to be elastic and flexible to absorb shock and perform the sometimes extreme movements of Zumba. Please, please spend at least 15 minutes after any cardiovascular or strength workout to stretch. Here is a good stretch routine that hits the major muscle groups. Also remember to hydrate before and after class as muscles are made of 70%-75% water, and water is needed to lubricate joints and help muscles to contract and relax.