She might look like the epitome of a lean, lithe ballerina now, but NYC Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns says that hasn’t always been the case. “In my 20s, I had such poor eating habits and struggled with my weight,” she tells , admitting that sweet treats were her downfall. “While my metabolism does cater to these types of foods, it took me a long time to come to terms with the realities that I was sustaining myself on sweets—[I’ve] stopped eating them altogether,” she says. “Now, I would rather eat a balanced, healthy meal than dessert.”
Making healthy food choices isn’t the only lesson she has learned over the years, thanks in part to a rigorous schedule as one of New York’s top ballerinas. “In order to have longevity in this industry, you need to think long-term about your physical health and your mental well-being,” says Mearns, who is the star of Cole Haan’s new Fall 17 campaign. “I’ve overcome many serious and short-term injuries, learned to listen to my body, and not take it for granted.”
When physical strength is at the core of your career, how do you take care of your mind and body? Ahead, Mearns lets us in on what a real day consists of in the life of a top ballerina, including the stress rituals she swears by and the foods she chooses to fuel her body with.
“Mornings are a challenge for me, especially during performance season when I don’t get home until 10:30 or 11 p.m. at night,” Mearns admits. “My morning wellness rituals are dependent on how my body feels, which can range from sore, swollen, or just plain fatigued during performance season. I use a combination of long, hot showers, a vibrating HyperIce roller for 20 minutes, and 30 minutes of stretching to increase circulation and alleviate tension in my muscles. I’ve found this is the only way to properly prepare my body for the rigorous training I put it through, which can range from six to 10 hours a day.”
BREAKFAST ON THE GO
Given how late she gets home each night, Mearns says breakfast tends to be a light meal. “I’m not super hungry in the morning because of how late I eat dinner. I leave the house with a cup of Siggi’s Skyr Nonfat Strained Yogurt ($6), which is high in protein, and I grab a coffee from Starbucks (I only drink 1/3 of a cup) on my way to the theater,” she says. “Sometimes my fiancé will get fresh berries from the market, which I like to sprinkle on the yogurt as an added treat. This will sustain me through my morning, and I drink tons of water.”
HIT THE STAGE
Brace yourself: The schedule of a professional dancer is nothing short of inspiring. “I dance anywhere from six to 10 hours per day, six days a week during performance season, which means 12 hours in the theater,” says Mearns. “Performance weeks can be daunting because we rehearse throughout the day and perform at night. My ability to find my strength and overcome fatigue is what has gotten me to where I am today.”
Given her demanding schedule, she says that off days are absolutely crucial to stay balanced. “At this point in my career, I am much more conscious of rest days and place a high priority on taking advantage of them. My body comes first, and I’m no longer shy about taking additional rest days if needed,” she says.
“Instead of sitting down for one meal for lunch, I prefer to eat small snacks throughout the afternoon to maintain my energy and mental clarity,” says Mearns. “Typical snacks include nuts, Luna Bars, bananas, yogurt, and crackers. At least two hours before a show, I go to a deli and get a sandwich with turkey, cheese, and tomato. I only eat half the bread (if at all), but I make sure I eat all the protein. This is the method I have found to be more beneficial for me and how my body delivers on stage,” she says.
AFTER THE SHOW
When she’s finished a performance, refueling with nutritious food is a must, says Mearns. “Dinner is the most important meal of the day for me, and I make sure to eat no matter how tired I am after the performance,” she says. “I view it as the meal that will fuel me for the next day and help rebuild what I’ve lost during the day. It consists of lean protein, lots of green vegetables, and pasta without too much sauce.”
Takeout isn’t off-limits, but she’s careful to always order the smartest option on the menu. “If I have an easy day around the corner, I will treat myself to Mexican, Indian, or sushi. I will order more fish and less rice to keep the meal protein-rich. Finally, I think one glass of wine at the end of the night is a must.”
RELAX AND UNWIND
Not surprisingly, Mearns has learned to develop a stress ritual that allows her to unwind after a difficult day. “The best stress relief comes at the end of the day when I can spend time with my fiancé, Josh, and my two puppies, Rocky and Ozzie. Once I’m home, I believe in work/life balance, and I leave stress at the theater. Josh and I are huge support systems for each other and catching up on the day can be the best remedy for stressors. Honestly, just watching our favorite TV shows (Game of Thrones, Modern Family, or Veep) together can relax me more than anything.”
The dancer admits that she doesn’t love baths, but adding one ingredient to the hot water makes it the perfect antidote to stress and fatigue. “Josh forces me to take Epsom salt baths because they work,” she says. “I might also do some physical therapy with a foam roller and heating pads and take Advil or Voltaren to combat muscle soreness from working out. It’s also a good ritual to get your mind and body to unwind before bed.”