West Side Story Performers: Endurance Athletes Like No Other

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Thu, Jun 1, 2023 -- Lyric Opera Chicago West Side Story Dress Rehearsal © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2023

Most of our articles have focused on the big three endurance sports – running, biking, and swimming. And sometimes all three at once! But today’s feature covers another type of athlete that is currently encompassing our City with the greatness that is West Side Story. This beloved musical is being showcased at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, at 20 West Wacker. The Lyric Opera is a landmark in Chicago, which provides a full calendar of theatrical and musical events.

“Lyric Opera of Chicago amazes, inspires, and engages audiences with powerful live performances that resonate long after the curtain falls. We strive to advance artistic excellence, to attract new audiences, to engage and inspire diverse communities with the power of opera and compelling storytelling—and to increase the gravitational pull of our art form, our company, and our city.” – Lyric Opera of Chicago Website

West Side Story is currently finishing its run at the Company, which began on June 2nd and ends this weekend, on June 25th. There are still tickets available to some of the shows, and I’d encourage you to grab them early, as it will likely sell out. There are afternoon and evening shows, so you can race in the mornings of both Saturday and Sunday, have time to clean up and enjoy some air conditioning, while appreciating the great athletic talent on stage.

While you are likely aware of the musical and theatrical talent that is displayed in the shows at the Lyric Opera, West Side Story is a dance and tumbling filled, test of endurance for the performers as they have 8, two and a half hour shows every week during the season. It is an ultramarathon that runs for a month!

I had the opportunity to chat with two incredibly talented athletes who perform in the production; Nathan Keen, who plays Action, one of the lead Jets and Laura Savage, who plays Graziella, one of the Jet girls who is featured in the big dance at the gym number. They shared their daily routines with me including how they stay fit, injury free, and healthy while tackling the highly taxing performance schedule of West Side Story.

Nathan was born outside of Detroit, which houses one of our favorite marathons, second only to Chicago of course. His parents were both musicians and performers, hooking him early to the art of performance. He began theater at the age of 5 and never stopped, beginning a professional career immediately after graduating Otterbein College where he earned a BFA in Musical Theatre with a concentration in Dance.

Thu, Jun 1, 2023 —
Lyric Opera Chicago
West Side Story
Dress Rehearsal
© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2023

Nathan performs as Action, one of the lead Jets, which requires 90 minutes of tattoo application before the show! I asked him what a normal performance day looks like for him:

“I am a NASM certified Personal Trainer, so my days start at 6:45am with virtual client sessions. Once finished with these sessions, I will make breakfast and either relax for a while or head to the gym. I like to train right before I have to be at the show, because it helps get my head ready, and preps my body for the show…I train myself every day that we have a performance (so 6x a week). I’ve been doing this since college, so my body is used to the high demands of the schedule, and is accustomed to it.”

I also asked Nathan about his workout routine and what that looks like during his season. I compared this with my workouts during marathon training and how I use them to supplement my speed work. Nathan described how he uses strength and stability training to supplement and enhance his performances.

“This show is very tough on the lower body, so when performing I tend to do more upper body work, just because of the fatigue and wear on my lower half. My current split is Upper Push/ Upper Pull/Squats/ Upper Push/Upper Pull/Deadlifts/Rest. I tend to focus on power/strength with upper body and do one heavy day and one lighter day each week. This allows my legs plenty of recovery time both from the show and from the workouts, and lets me focus each session on a specific group of movements. I always start each workout with an easy 10-minute cardio warm up just to get the blood flowing and feel out what my body needs, then do more specific warm ups before getting into working sets and accessories. I also try to make sure I train core stability at least 3-4 days a week as well.”

Thu, Jun 1, 2023 —
Lyric Opera Chicago
West Side Story
Dress Rehearsal
© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2023

Nathan went on to explain how cross training and resistance training have increased his endurance and kept his head clear for performance.

“West Side Story is, and always has been, one of the most difficult shows I’ve done. The physical demands are unlike anything else, and I can say with confidence that I would not be able to do the show the way I do without cross training/resistance training. Not only does training give me a space to clear my head and perform mental self-care, it also keeps my body strong and able to withstand the stress of doing this show (or any show) 8 times a week. Over-use injuries are very common in performing because of the schedule and how heavily one side of our bodies tend to be utilized. A lot of the work I do in my warm ups at the gym is focused on “pre-habilitation”, making sure that I’m balancing the strength and power work with plenty of mobility and stability work to protect my joints and muscles.”

Laura Savage, who plays Graziella, one of the lead Jet girls, was born in Springfield, but grew up in Las Vegas. She was always athletic and attended Las Vegas Academy for Performing Arts, and pursued musical theater and dance in college. She teaches private dance lessons and is a CrossFit Coach at Competitive Edge CrossFit in Uptown. She is also a certified yoga instructor. Clearly, Laura lives a very active lifestyle. She explained what her workouts look like on performance days.

Thu, Jun 1, 2023 —
Lyric Opera Chicago
West Side Story
Dress Rehearsal
© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2023

“Our show schedule seems pretty crazy but is typical for an equity musical theatre actor. Eight shows per week with a couple of two show days is the normal schedule for us. Yes, I make time for a workout, even on a two-show day. In the past few years, I have realized that my body does better with some type of workout before the show. I became a CrossFit athlete during the pandemic and have never felt stronger as a dancer and performer. A typical session includes weightlifting with a barbell (squats, deadlifts, clean and jerks, snatches etc) and then some metabolic conditioning (using different work to rest ratios that call upon the different energy systems so you can achieve specific goals like power or endurance). All this being said, if my body feels beat up or tired, I’m a big fan of a vinyasa flow to help break up lactic acid.”

Thu, Jun 1, 2023 —
Lyric Opera Chicago
West Side Story
Dress Rehearsal
© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2023

Laura went on to discuss the benefits of cross training on her performances.

“I believe that cross training is extremely beneficial for all athletes. Often times female dancers (and women in general) are discouraged from lifting weights for aesthetic reasons, but body function is what is most important. If you want to jump higher, you should lift heavier and do plyometric training. If you want to find more ease in a lift, squatting will up your core stability and overhead pressing will develop your upper back and shoulder strength. Increasing strength makes performing easier so that you can focus more on the story telling. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the benefits of injury prevention that strength training also provides.”

Both performers advised on the importance of sleep and recovery. “Eight hours of sleep and plenty of water is truly the key to recovery,” stated Laura. “It is hard to wind down after a show, especially if you go out with fellow cast mates or friends. You find yourself having to make choices to not always go out post show because you have to prioritize your body’s needs.”

Nathan agreed and went on to state that sleep “is the magic ingredient to EVERYTHING. My magic number is 8hrs, and it can be tough to get that with evening shows, and my early start of day with clients. I use my commute from the theatre to home to decompress and start to wind down. I have a whole routine that I do each night to get myself ready to sleep as quickly as possible. I also really prioritize rest and self-care on our one day off each week.”

When it comes to recovery, all athletes agree that it is essential. Both Nathan and Laura have used compression boots, massages, foam rolling, bands, sticks, cryo, ice baths, and all of the other tricks we have all tried. However, Nathan tends to stick to basics. “I foam roll before/during and after the show, I try to make sure I get between 7 and 9 hours sleep, eat enough (doing a show is not the time to be on a calorie-restricted eating plan), and manage my stress.” Laura’s favorite recovery trick is “to wake up and drink a large glass of cold water with electrolytes, magnesium, and collagen in it while using my foot compressor/massager for fifteen minutes. It truly sets me up for a full day of wear and tear.”

Unlike runners, ok, me in particular, both performers make time for stretching. It is a priority that is woven into their daily routines and helps with their flexibility and injury prevention. This is definitely an area that runners could take some guidance from dancers on.

I also asked Nathan and Laura for their one piece of advice for athletes to keep in mind before a big race. I shared with them that no matter how many marathons I have run, I still feel the nerves rise when I toe the line. As they perform so frequently and have had to learn to manage stress, I knew this would come from their own experience.

“Treat race days like any other days. A good training program will have you prepped and at your peak right when you need to. Nerves are a great thing, as they can give you that extra boost to push yourself; however the trick is to learn what YOU need to do to not let the nerves CONTROL you. For me that means breathing, staying grounded (I like to listen to music), and having radical trust and acceptance of myself and the work that I have done. There is always a chance that something will happen on a race day that is out of your control, and the only thing you can do in that instance is accept it, and let it go. There will be other race days, there is always another chance.” – Nathan

“Find your pre-race routine of rituals and stick to it. Eat your favorite energy bar, do the same 20 min dynamic warm up etc. Our bodies respond more calmly to a pattern they know. Also, deep breaths and positive affirmations go a long way! “Safe, clean, fun!” Is my favorite reminder before a show.” – Laura

And, finally I asked both of them for their favorite spots in Chicago and if they’d be up for joining us at the Shuffle, Chicago Half, or our pinnacle race, the Chicago Marathon. They didn’t say no…

“I LOVE Chicago! There are so many amazing restaurants and museums here it is hard to pick. I am definitely a Lou Malnati’s fan, and Do-Rite donuts for some treats. Roka Akor for sushi is sooooo good! You can’t beat the Art Institute or MUSI. I have not ran any of the major races here, but I’d like to do the half marathon. I ran the half in Disneyland and it was a lot of fun!” – Laura

“I love Chicago. Thanks to touring, this is my 6th time here, so it’s a place I feel very comfortable. The schedules do not allow a lot of time for exploration, so there is a lot of the city that I have not gotten to explore. That being said, I love the area around Humboldt Park. I love the 606 for walking/running, as well as the running paths along the lake around Navy Pier! Chicago is such an amazing food town, that it is difficult to try all the great restaurants here, however I do have a few MUSTS: Amaru, Le Bouchon, and Spacca Napoli, as well as Girl and the Goat.

I have run a few half marathon distances, and while I am glad I have done it, my body does not love running like that as I get older. I’ll happily cheer on everyone running though! Long distance runners are such impressive athletes and I have so much respect for how HARD that is.” – Nathan

I want to thank both Nathan and Laura for taking the time to speak with me and Chicago Athlete Magazine. It was a pleasure getting to know both of them and learning about how much goes into a production like this. It is not often that we think about the overlap between the musical arts and endurance sports, but an overlap sure exists, and it’s a big one. I also want to thank the Lyric Opera of Chicago for the opportunity to collaborate on this story featuring your inspirational athletes.

So Chicago Athletes, what do you say? Let’s hit the Lyric Opera this weekend! After a run of course. And a shower, please.

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Mandi has been running for over 25 years and has participated in the Chicago, Detroit, and Boston Marathons. Mandi regularly competes in regional events and enjoys being a part of several running groups including CARA and the Badgerland Striders. She is a co-host on the Ten Junk Miles podcast and looks forward to hosting the Chicago Athlete Podcast. An RRCA certified coach and Les Mills certified instructor, Mandi is also a coach with Chicago Athlete Coaching. Mandi is a local government attorney by weekday and race warrior by weekend.

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