High Perfomer: Misty Copeland’s secrets to fitness success

Want to achieve your fitness goals in 2018? Then follow this advice from ballet superstar Misty Copeland, one of the world’s ultimate high achievers.

Misty Copeland was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2015 because she had achieved the impossible, smashing the barriers which had kept African American women like her out of the rarefied, elite world of ballet.

Misty Copeland was named as one of the 100 Most Influential People by Time.

Not only had she broken through, but as principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre, Misty sat at the very top of the mountain, feted by people like Barack Obama and chosen by global sportswear giant Under Armour to be an ambassador for its activewear. A Barbie Doll was even created in her name by Mattel. Now, two years after the Time cover, her star continues to grow, with Estée Lauder making her the inspiration behind its latest perfume, Modern Muse.

In Greek mythology, the Muses were goddesses who presided over the arts and sciences; today, muse mostly means a source of inspiration. To many, many women, Misty is both: a goddess of the arts and an unrivalled source of inspiration.

When Misty was in Sydney a few weeks ago to special guest star in two performances of The Australian Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty at the Capitol Theatre, Fitness First magazine was given an exclusive opportunity to ask her about the secrets of her extraordinary success and her fitness philosophy.

When we told people we were writing a profile on the Misty Copeland, the response was one of excited disbelief. Not just from those in ballet and dance circles, who revere her, but even from Fitness First barre instructors and trainers.

One declared Misty was her spirit animal and immediately reeled off some of Misty’s quotes, including the one that sums up the inspiring American dancer: “break the mould, cast a new one.” Another said she kept a vision board, because that’s what Misty advises you should do.

It became obvious that Misty resonates with all women, not just because she blazed a path for diversity in ballet, but because she is a flagbearer of the movement that wants women to be comfortable in their bodies, and where strong and fit is desirable.

When Misty was appointed principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre, it was despite her big calves, full bust and Instagrammable booty — which, until then, were a no-no in elite ballet, where women were expected to be thin and childlike. Misty had changed the rules, and it was suddenly OK for grown women to stand at a barre in ballet and barre classes and not feel ridiculous because they weren’t waifs.

Photography: Rights managed, Getty Images.

But what makes Misty Copeland such a powerful influencer in health and fitness is that in her battle to make it in ballet, she had to solve fitness and nutrition challenges that are uncannily similar to those that gym goers, personal trainers, nutritionists and exercise physiologists have been obsessed with for years.

Take the big one: the goal to be both lean and strong, one of the holy grails of the fitness world.

In the hothouse of ballet, Misty had no choice but to succeed.

When Misty started ballet at 13, she was perfectly proportioned for the stage, which she says meant long legs and a willowy upper body. But it all went pear-shaped, literally, when at 19 her body changed almost overnight.

Suddenly she was heavier and curvaceous. The ballet management warned her to “lengthen”, which is another way of saying lose the kilos, or lose your position. Anywhere else it would be called body shaming, but in ballet, it was life.

“I felt helpless,” Misty wrote in her book Ballerina Body, which is her first attempt at bringing some of her fitness knowledge to the wider world.

“If I was going to lose weight, where would I begin? I already spent up to eight hours a day rehearsing and taking ballet classes. During the season I performed several days a week. How could that not be enough?”

Boiled right down, her challenge was a universal one: how to stay lean without starving herself, how to consume enough energy to get through her workouts without piling the weight on, how to persevere through the comments about her body and how to stay motivated throughout.

She approached the challenge with a rare mental toughness, but was also determined to do it her way.

First up, she wasn’t going to aim for an unrealistic body shape that wasn’t her, regardless of what the ballet ideal was.

“Being African American was definitely a big obstacle for me,” she told Fitness First magazine. “I didn’t want to pancake my skin a lighter colour to fit into the ballet. I wanted to be myself,” she said.

“I didn’t want to have to wear makeup that made my nose look thinner. I hit puberty late at 19 and it took a lot of support from the American Ballet Theatre for me to accept the curves I developed.

“The best advice I can give is to be comfortable with your best self and who you are, don’t let the outside world affect you.”

Second, she was going to prove that being both lean and strong was possible to achieve. She had to learn what exercises and combinations of foods would keep her lean and give her the stamina she needed to get through her long days with enough energy to perform her intense workouts. It wasn’t an overnight discovery — it took her a few years to get the formula exactly right.

These are some of the elements of her formula for fitness success.

1. Eat healthy fats

How do you stay lean but retain boundless energy and strength? You turn to healthy fats, like those found in fish, nuts, avocados and seeds, Misty says. Incorporating more healthy fats into your diet is pretty much what the Low Carb, High Fat movement is saying, but she arrived at it through independent trial and error.

“One of the greatest secrets I learned over the course of my career is the power of fat,” she writes in her book. “Eating it, absorbing it and burning it for energy… is key to building the muscle and providing the strength so important for ballerinas and all elite athletes to perform at such a high level for hours, day in and day out.”

We pointed out to Misty that by promoting a diet in which healthy fats were a major source of energy, she was corroborating what many nutritionists are now saying.

“It was a lot of trial and error to get to the diet that works for me,” she told us. “Eating is so extremely important when you have a non-stop schedule like mine.

“I like to keep it really light with nuts and fruits, salads, quinoa, sushi, things like that during the day.

“I stick to just water to hydrate, unless it’s during a performance period where I might drink something with more electrolytes, but
I like to stay hydrated in a natural way.

“Post-performance is when I get to have fun with cooking, and that’s when I eat the biggest meal of my day, it helps me unwind.”

2. Make it a lifestyle, not a diet

Sometimes we turn to strict diets to try to get the body we want, but Misty points out in her book that dieting is a quick fix, rather than a long-term solution.

“You can carve out the physique and lifestyle you want without limiting yourself to a handful of foods or severely restricting your calories,” she writes.

“The healthier way to achieve your goals is by adjusting your lifestyle bit by bit, incorporating subtle changes that you can then commit to and live by.”

The same goes for exercise. A gym workout should not be seen as a chore you have to get through, or the only time to get endorphins surging, she writes in Ballerina Body. Instead you should learn to hone your physique when you’re at work, at play or in between, climbing the stairs whenever possible, parking the car far from the store and walking briskly there and back.

3. Have goals

Goals are essential, says Misty. “If you don’t have clarity about what you want to accomplish, you can’t plot how you will get there,” she points out in her book. “And all of us need a spark to keep us energised and on task when we have those inevitable moments of feeling weary or discouraged.

“A strong emotional foundation can keep you invigorated, while having a finish line in sight, a target to aim for, can help you harness the mental energy and focus you need to reach it.”

However, Misty adds that it’s important to remember that you don’t have to achieve your goals in one mighty leap. That attitude is unrealistic. Instead, move forward in the direction of your ultimate goal, one small step, one tiny victory, at a time.

4. Write it down

In Ballerina Body, Misty suggests you write down your biggest challenges and your smallest victories.

“If you’re struggling some evenings to stay on track with your meal plan or workout, write it down. Then pull back, think about the roadblocks, and write those down too.

“Putting pen to paper proved cathartic for me. Seeing my goals, my thoughts, my experiences, jotted in vivid detail helped me to gain perspective on all that I was going through, as well as chronicle my life’s journey on and off the stage,” she says in book.

5. Visualise it

Visualisation, a mindfulness technique in which you see yourself achieving a particular goal in your mind’s eye, is one of the most powerful tools that we have, says Misty, pointing out that top athletes often tap into that strategy.

In her book, she writes: “Your mind’s eye is truly powerful. Envisioning that you have already arrived wherever you want to be can elevate your confidence, enhance your concentration and help your muscles to fire on all cylinders.”

6. Don’t fixate on numbers

Forget the digits and focus on how you feel instead, Misty advises. “I actually think fixating on numbers, whether they appear on the tag stitched to the back of your blouse, the scale that sits on your bathroom floor or a sheet of paper where you painstakingly track the calories in every meal, is not the most productive path toward your healthiest self.

“The fit of your clothing, the vibrancy of your complexion and the intensity of your energy are all, in my mind, better gauges of whether or not you’re boosting your vitality and performing at your peak.”

7. Get mentors

Misty argues there’s a critical element in your toolbox for success that most people ignore: mentors.

It’s OK if you don’t think you can do it all by yourself, she says. Someone with more experience than you can dramatically shortcut your path to success.

“I have many great mentors. This also really helped me to build confidence, courage and, in-turn, motivation,” she told Fitness First magazine.

“You need to have people around you that will be honest, trustworthy and who give you the feedback you need, while still guiding you when it gets tough.”

Two people she gets a lot of inspiration from are Barack and Michelle Obama, who invited Misty several times to the White House when Barack was president.

“The Obamas are such a positive influence on being different and being ‘other’. It’s been so incredible witnessing Obama’s presidency and working closely with the two of them,” she says.

“I feel like that’s what we stand for and that’s what we should represent: acceptance and diversity and progression.”

Misty has blazed a brilliant trail in ballet. Now she’s setting the example of what a healthy body can do; the fitness revolution is all about being real and true to yourself.

“I encourage all women to feel comfortable in their own skin. I’m a huge advocate of looking after yourself — push yourself hard, but listen to your own body too. We all need a rest sometimes!”

The Under Armour connection

“A healthy body to me is lean but muscular, feminine but also strong, lithe but also curvaceous,” Misty says.

Under Armour has pounced on this message and let her influence the shape of its latest “Inspired by Misty Copeland” activewear collection, which Misty is wearing here.

“For this collection, I wanted to ensure that each garment reflects my personal style too (bright, glam and flattering), but still provides the performance benefits needed for training,” Misty explains.

“The collection includes styles that I love to have in my closet and wear, whether I’m out on a date with my husband, to and from rehearsals or with my friends out on the town.

Get more of Misty Copeland’s fitness and health philosophy from her book, Ballerina Body: Dancing and Eating Your Way to a Lighter, Stronger, and More Graceful You. Published by Grand Central Life & Style, distributed in Australia by Hachette Australia. RRP: $45.00.