Recently drummers have come to me with a common complaint involving arm fatigue during performance, ranging from minor fatigue to complete stiffness. One drummer claimed his arms had “locked up”. Arm fatigue, also known as drummers fatigue can be caused by a number reasons, including tendonitis, lack of conditioning or flexibility, dehydration, increased body temperature, a change in altitude, body pH or decreased energy from not consuming adequate nutrients, predominately carbohydrate pre-performance.
After speaking with drummers I found that the lack of energy and fatigue was commonly due to inadequate nutrition and hydration before and on the day of performance. The lack of energy is often no different then a runner “hitting the wall”, meaning they’ve run out of fuel. This fuel is supplied by glycogen, a storage of glucose in the body.
Fatigue can occur while musicians are often too busy to eat while getting ready, packing their gear, or practicing. This results in a lack of calories, consisting of carbohydrates necessary for fueling the working muscles upon entering the stage. Dehydration is the second leading component.
Carbohydrate stored as both liver and muscle glycogen are broken down to glucose, providing adequate energy to prevent fatigue while playing. Muscle glycogen is a major source of carbohydrates that function as a reserve for glucose available to working muscle cells. While liver glycogen helps maintain our glucose in the blood stream. A combination of all nutrients including protein and fats are necessary to perform. Fat is our second source of energy following glycogen but ultimately results in fatigue due to the predominate lack of carbohydrates.
The problem and complaint I hear, is what to eat pre performance? Unless you have a personal chef or someone to cook for you, you’re left alone to figure out how to fit in food. Think in simple terms of carbohydrate foods that include nutrients but break down fast for energy and won’t leave you with cramps or an unsettled stomach. This can include a light meal with salad greens or a small amount of rice, pasta or quinoa with some chicken or fish on the side for protein, to a simple peanut butter sandwich, or a fruit and yogurt smoothie if you’re pressed for time. Other foods to help prevent cramping that may lead to muscle fatigue include protein sources in the form of either meat or vegetarian. In addition to foods that are nutrient rich in potassium, magnesium, calcium, and sodium. Potassium is commonly found in bananas, potatoes, raisins, or tomatoes, while foods rich in magnesium can include walnuts. Since calcium commonly comes from dairy, incorporate if tolerable, or consume vegetarian sources of calcium. Sodium is essential to help retain fluids efficiently, especially if you tend to sweat a lot. It’s often presumed that cramping may be caused from low potassium however magnesium and sodium can actually play a larger role, especially when sodium is lost in sweat. The bottom line is all of these nutrients can help to reduce arms locking up and drummer’s fatigue. The key is to start incorporating some of these foods into your regular diet and not to consume large amounts anything, especially too much fiber for a pre-performance meal that can cause an uncomfortable feeling. It’s best to keep it simple the day of performance, consume your larger amounts of carbohydrate a day or two before performance to ensure adequate glycogen stores the day of your performance or concert. Along with small amounts of simple carbohydrates the day of the show to top off your glycogen stores to prevent fatigue. It is equally important to stay hydrated! Drink mostly water throughout the day, and while performing. If you’re going to be on stage more than an hour it may be best to consume a sports drink or diluted juice with fifty percent water and a pinch of salt to replace your electrolyte losses in sweat. Be aware that low blood sodium from too much water can equally cause fatigue. The added sugar in a sports drink or juice will ensure energy, but never consume a full strength juice as it may tend to cause cramping.
Other helpful foods include natural nitrates found in vegetables such as spinach, beet greens, and beet juice that is not only beneficial for cardiovascular health, these natural nitrate foods also shown positive results in reducing time to exhaustion in high performance athletes. This is something I recommend considering incorporating into a drummer’s diet due to their high level of performance, but like anything new, do so on a practice day first.
So when you think about it, a quick fix can easily be blended up with yogurt, fat free milk or a dairy alternative, to a protein powder with a banana, small amount blueberries, spinach, kale or beet greens, and a few walnuts will give you all the necessary nutrients you need in the form of calories, carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals, along with the added bonus of antioxidants to get you through your performance without too much bulk.
The amount of carbohydrates needed vary depending on your size, gender, age, and activity level, but in general for a drummer’s activity level you need about 2.25 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight, and 0.55 grams of protein per pound of body weight, and healthy fats are necessary to consume as well for working muscles to function properly. And much less carbohydrate is needed on the day of performance, depending on your tolerance, don’t overdue it.
Post performance it’s very important to replace your energy loss by consuming carbohydrate to replace glycogen stores, and to consume plenty of protein as well to repair any muscle damage from playing that in turn can cause soreness. The protein is most important post performance for this reason.
In addition to adequate nutrition, as most drummers know, but an important reminder is to stretch both upper and lower extremities on a regular basis and especially on the day of performance. At the very least stretch your arms, shoulders, forearms and wrist as well as back muscles, but do include your legs as well to keep circulation going and prevent any cramps or stiffening while sitting. If you want to increase your level of performance, weight training or yoga along with endurance activity such as running or cycling is beneficial for both strength and conditioning for both working muscles and respiratory function to help you perform at your top level. If you are already doing all of this and your fatigue and locked up arms or pain persists, please consult with your physician to rule out any form of arthritis or other inflammation that may need medical attention. Meanwhile stay hydrated and consume plenty of healthy carbohydrates!