Off-ice training is a much-discussed topic in figure skating circles. Many skaters do it, many coaches and trainers teach it, but how many are knowledgeable about what that training should entail and how it should be done?
A better understanding of why off- ice training exercises are important, the proper forms of exercise, how often exercise should be undertaken, and who should teach it is beneficial knowledge that all athletes need to have. Figure skaters are some of the strongest athletes in the world in a sport that puts significant strength and flexibility demands on the body.
Some skaters have natural balance and core strength that helps them rise through the lower levels of skating quickly, but the majority needs to develop each of these attributes in order to progress to the higher levels. Once skaters reach a level at which double jumps and difficult spins are required, natural ability will only take them so far.
The core strength and plyometric (jump training) demands of the sport are significant, and, at some point, a skater needs to build on what he or she naturally has.
For instance, checking out of a jump involves the contraction of the muscles in the abdominals and the lower back to resist the rotational force of the jump. Without core stability, a skater will have difficulty keeping the body over the skate and continue turning past the landing. Also, to achieve the correct height to perform a jump, a skater requires significant plyometric strength throughout the lower extremities, especially the quads and gluteal muscles. This can only be gained with functional and plyometric strengthening off of the ice.
There are certain attributes that a skater needs to develop to reach the upper echelons of the sport. Here are some of them:
Core strength and stability: This originates from the abdominal and back muscles. These muscles work together to act as a control center for the body’s balance and stability. Skaters need exceptionally strong core muscles to maintain balance, check rotation, a tight air position for jumping, spin rotation, and control of the upper body during footwork, stroking, and crossovers. Skaters need to develop a strong core to execute jumps, even if they are only doubles.
Balance: There are several factors that affect the sense of balance in the body. First, our vestibular system (the inner ear) helps us sense the body’s position while we are moving. Second, the eyes help us detect our surroundings and third, and most important for skaters, are the balance receptors in our feet and lower extremities that tell us where our body is in relation to the ground.
Strength and power: Without muscle strength, skaters have little speed, small jumps, shorter and slower spins, and tire easily during practice sessions and while performing programs. Strength creates power and improves endurance and consistency. Through exercise, a muscle’s fibers become tighter and stronger, and can withstand more repetition for longer durations when they contract. Increases in strength can result in higher jumps, more stable landings, increased energy output, and the ability to maintain the number of spin variations that skaters are required to execute.
Flexibility: Spirals, Biellmann and donut spins, split jumps and spread eagles are some of the elements that require extraordinary flexibility. These elements need a certain muscle length to be performed correctly. Muscle flexibility controls the angle of the knee, hip, and ankle joint on a jump takeoff and landing, and a small deficit in muscle length can affect the quality of a jump. Joint position and motion, controlled by the surrounding muscle length, also affects the angle of the joints in the lower extremity during basic stroking, crossovers, spins, and footwork.
Each joint in the body needs a balance of flexibility on all sides to move in the proper range of motion. If there is an imbalance of muscle length, a skater may be more prone to injury.In every sport, an athlete moves his or her body in various planes of movement, which require several muscles to co-contract at the same time. Each joint requires the strength from several muscles to stabilize it for the action it performs. Functional exercises train the body in these planes of movement to mimic the motions performed in sports.
In the past decade, sports’ training has progressed from solely using weight machines to using an athlete’s body weight as resistance in exercise. Many functional exercises incorporate the use of several muscle groups at one time, instead of exercises that focus on the contraction of a single muscle.
Off-ice training routines are different for every skater. A national-level competitor may do off-ice training five days per week, as opposed to a recreational skater who might do it one day a week. I recommend two to four days of off-ice training per week, depending on the level a skater is at.
But even doing an off-ice training routine once per week will help a skater build strength, flexibility, and on- ice consistency.
My company offers several off-ice training resources that are specifically designed for figure skaters. Sk8Strong has produced training DVDs for skaters at every level, and there are several off- ice training manuals in circulation.
It is always my recommendation that athletes consult with a health professional to evaluate the need for certain exercises and determine if they are using proper techniques. If you are working with a trainer, make sure that the person has a degree in a health related field, ideally a physical therapy degree. There are also those who have strength and conditioning certifications such as a strength and conditioning specialist and performance enhancement specialist designations.
It is important to work with someone qualified, to avoid injury and receive the maximum benefit from your off-ice training. Taking part in a program at least twice a week will help your on-ice skating skills progress at a faster pace, and help you handle the demands of jumping, spinning, as well as the performance of your programs.
Lauren Downes has a master’s degree in physical therapy and the founder of Sk8Strong. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.