jo skates

Thoughts about skating and the practice of everyday life


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Agonizing ankles

Long day at work, so I’m just chilling out by reading different websites that talk about ankle impingement. Fun, fun, fun.

Well, not fun, but at least it takes my mind off work. And puts it back where it belongs–on my current skating obsession about bending my ankles more. I have written several posts about this, but I’m hoping that one more post might just exorcise those demons (a.k.a. stiff ankles).

I have been trying to face up to another one of those bitter skating truths in the last few weeks. I noticed how much ankle flexion really good skaters had. I noticed that when I bend my ankles too, some kind of magic happened and I have a lot more stability over my skates. And I noticed that when I don’t bend them enough, the magic goes away and I am wobbly and my pushes are ineffective. Alas, woe is me!

Okay, it’s not particularly tragic even as skating problems go. It’s just one of those things that I have tended to forget about, but that has become increasingly obvious as other aspects of my skating get stronger.

My right ankle in particular has trouble both flexing (dorsiflexion) and pointing (plantarflexion). This is probably the result of a bad injury I had a long time ago; ligament damage and scar tissue now make this ankle much less mobile and much weaker. So even though my left side is weaker overall, my right ankle is definitely inhibited.

I’ve been doing lots of calf raises and foot exercises and ankle-stretching for weeks or even months now. I can tell there is is some progress, but it is slow (I was going to make some kind of joke about its being slow, like my skating, but I am trying to be kind to myself in the face of this cruel world). And like any therapy, there are times when the exercises are uncomfortable.

I told PT Sarah that my ankle was feeling wobbly and a little sore. I told her that I was afraid that if I got rid of all that scar tissue (or at least made it more mobile), that I wouldn’t have anything left keeping the ankle stable. She told me in her characteristically upbeat but no nonsense way that if I only had scar tissue there, the ankle would be totally immobile and stiff, and that ankles are supposed to move side-to-side (within reason).

In other words, snap (or bend) out of it!

Lesson notes:

  • cross rolls. Use skating side rather than free side. Practice “stop action” in which you stop the free leg just when your feet are parallel, then push under as if you were doing a crossover.
  • alternating swing rolls. Work on body placement, retrogressing the changes of edge into the push, and on bending the ankle.
  • outside loops. Push off, upper body twist with tight forward outside edges, and forcing edge to curve), strike off, twist more, ride edge.
  • inside loops. Good push off, then trace with free foot.
  • fully stretched free leg countering the twist of the torso and skating leg. This is easier to see than to write about.
  • back crossover, turn free foot in, change edge, bring free foot in, back outside three (free foot in front afterwards), forward inside three (foot comes back). Watch your head position.
  • tight outside swing rolls emphasizing the deepening edge into the change of edge (push into ice to rise and resist), inside mohawk, edge pull.
  • three step closed mohawk pattern. Where is your body weight? Draw foot in rather than step to it. Work on weight placement and lean, and place your shoulders–not your hips–correctly over the tracing.
  • inside threes (keeping skating arm over foot on three and afterwards). step forward cross.

 

 

 


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Fall fashions

Looking to maximize the “wow” factor when you step on the ice? Wondering what to wear in order to get that special edge? Shivering in anticipation of the latest skating looks for the new season? Or just shivering?

Look no further. They’re bold, they’re beautiful–and they have blades.

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Trés elegante, n’est pas? So beautiful, it makes you want to speak French. Or skate to Chopin. Or both.

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Just check out this pumpkin-colored skirt with the green stem gloves. This fresh, flirty, and fun look is as welcome as new ice after the Zamboni–and just as slick!

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Slacks + top + rolling bag = skater! A complete package for the skater on the go. These subtle shades of blue and gray can move from the ice back to the office without revealing to the boss just how many hours you spend at the rink.  And the charmingly asymmetrical pocket and button can help you identify right from left: perfect for those awkward lesson moments when you forget which is which.

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Everyone will go gaga over this sporty ensemble. The jeans and kneepads say, “I’m ready to work,” while the soft jacket (with just the right amount of slouch) and the carefree scarf say, “I’m ready to play!”

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Skating on those crowded public sessions is easier when you’ve got the look that screams, “Get out of my way!” No one will dare tell you to smile or have a nice day at the rink! The stripes reveal an unexpectedly softer side here; the rest says, “Yeah, I’m streetwise and skate wise!”

Ice dancer alert! Just add music; imagine those long-bearded, guitar-slinging guys singing. You know, those guys!

For Kari: “She’s got legs, she knows how to use them.”

For Marc: “They come running just as fast as they can/’Cause every girl crazy ’bout a sharp-dressed man.”

I am so lucky to have friends who are willing to indulge my desire to be the Bill Cunningham of the ice rink. Thanks to my gorgeous skating models: Lisa, Sonia, Jan, Marianne, Kari, and Marc!

 

 


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I’ve got the power (almost)

First things first: I got a notice from my friend Shihoko about a “step and spin” adult skating camp that is happening October 6-7 in Sheffield, England. Here’s a link to the information, in case any readers are interested:

https://www.facebook.com/Hanretty-Skate-Camps-185063314886928/

Videos and pictures from their earlier camp made it look like great fun; wish I could be there! Instead, I will be trying to put my skating body back together here at home, a process that is both exhilarating and painful.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past couple of seasons thinking and working on specific anatomical areas. The good thing is that I now have a much better understanding of particular parts of my body: the muscle groups that make my hips go, for instance, or how ankle bend works. But the danger is that I miss the integrated nature of skating movement. By fixating so much on my left hip, for instance, I tend to forget what my right side is doing. And all the progress I’ve made in strengthening the lower half of my body won’t do me any good in learning how to keep my head up.

So this season I will try to think and hopefully skate a little more coherently. I’ve started up fall lessons, and in a moment I’ll post my notes from this past week. But I wanted to spend a little time today writing about the bigger issues that I am working on, most of which I’ve touched on before.

First up is weight transfer. This came up on my lesson with Laurie on basic stroking. I still tend to spend some of my time in between my skates instead of fully committing to the skating leg and then completely shifting my weight to the other leg. Monica Volkmar at the Dance Training Project has an excellent post on weight shift for dancers that has been really inspiring for me. She does the anatomical explanations and exercises much better than I can.

In order to get to that full transfer of weight, I need to work on ankle and knee bend, especially as I shift onto that new skating side. I tend to put my weight down on the new skating side, bend just enough to absorb the weight but not enough to allow for the full transfer of momentum. Then I compensate by breaking at the hips and leaning my upper body forward. Needless to say, that does not work so well.

The ankle and knee bend is something that I have been working on off-ice, especially since I feel like that motion is limited on my right side. When I bend my knees, there’s a point at which my right ankle stops moving in a relaxed way, probably the result of scar tissue. I have to really think about a smooth action in the ankle joint. Sometimes these things are not just in your head!

The down side is that my right ankle is a bit sore this week from all that additional exercise and mobilization. The plus side is that I’m finding all kinds of cool videos to watch to inspire me to keep this process up. This first one is anatomical (and pretty technical, I warn you). It illustrates the motion of the ankle and lower leg when the foot moves freely (open chain), as opposed to when it has to move against the ground or ice (closed chain).

The second, one of many fun slow motion videos of skaters, shows how a smooth ankle motion can help me do a spectacular quad toe into a nice spread eagle.

Okay, that was a fun fantasy! But back to reality: as my ankles are bending more fully, I’m beginning to be more aware of how I distribute the pressure of my foot over the blade, whether front to back or side to side. I became acutely aware of this yesterday during my lesson with Ari, in which I experienced the agony of foot cramps (the horror, the horror!) doing back power pulls. Ari was trying to get me to do them by using my blade pressure and knee bend and rise (rather than swinging shoulders) to change edge. Ouch!

Two more big-picture goals are to keep my head up and to get more speed. Laurie stresses how looking down at the ice is essentially another form of misalignment; similarly, Ari keeps emphasizing that doing moves slowly means that your body never learns to use speed and momentum properly. That is probably a polite way of saying that my lack of speed is driving him (slowly) insane.

I have to acknowledge that this is true. Even in slow motion, Yuzuru skates faster than I do. A slow motion video of me might well look like I am standing still. Better get cracking!

Lesson notes:

  • stroking: practice weight shift; really get over each skating hip
  • alternating progressives: timing (don’t spend too long on inner edge)
  • outside-outside transitions: practice bringing in free foot toe to instep in parallel while deepening edge (knee and ankle bend)
  • posture, head up
  • 3 turns: skating side lead, don’t put too much effort into free side
  • forward outside three, edge pull (on axis), forward inside three edge pull, then do these with two edge pulls
  • edge pulls: first third is ankle/knee bend, the pressure into the ice happens 2/3 through, then more knee bend, then rise, then knee bend. Use blades, not shoulders.
  • outside back threes: get good push into them, need much more speed. Turn head (and upper body) much more.
  • inside back threes with free foot in front. Again, turn head and upper body to look in direction of travel.

 

 

 

 

 


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Bye to summer!

It’s not the official end of summer, but for some of us, the happy season comes to a close after the Labor Day weekend. Not much ice to be had (sigh). So instead of cleaning up my edges, I spent some time cleaning up the yard.

Man, it’s amazing how many weeds can grow while you’re paying attention to other things, like swing rolls and outside-outside edges. And how many mosquitos can bite you while you are preoccupied with pulling those weeds out. And how much ankle dorsiflexion it takes to get a good angle on those ones that are stuck in the cracks.

The good news is that there is a kind of instant gratification to be had from all that work. Hours and hours later, there are seven (count ’em, seven) lawn and leaf bags filled and I am feeling pretty virtuous, though tired.

And though it’s sad to have the summer end, I am ready for the new semester to begin–for along with it comes the new skating season! Hooray for quieter public sessions, reuniting with old skating friends, and welcoming some new ones. And let’s not forget the benefits of regular exercise in a mosquito-free environment!

 


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Ankle adventures

Enough with the hips already!

I am happy to say that my hip alignment is good enough these days to deserve much less attention. My side planks are things of beauty, even on my left side. And while I sometimes feel less confident or tighter on my left side, it’s nothing a good Ashiatsu massage can’t beat out of me. I know that now.

So does that mean I can just smile deeply and roll up my yoga mat (or use it for yoga?) Nah! It’s just time to turn my attention to some other joints and learn about their cool anatomical features and exactly what I can be doing to improve my quality of movement overall.

Take my ankles, for instance. I have been thinking and writing here quite a bit about the hip and some about my feet, but only in a really vague way about ankles. Why is that?

Maybe it’s because up until fairly recently I’ve taken my ankles for granted. The legs and hips take up more space and the feet, while relatively small, are pretty vocal when something’s wrong (lots of nerves in those size-6 babies!). I’ve sprained or rolled my ankles lots of times, but largely treated these incidents as minor setbacks. And when you stick your ankle into a skating boot, you don’t think about it too much. Who knows what’s inside that armor?

Now that I’m starting to figure out how ankle bend actually works in skating, I am sorry that I neglected these two incredibly important joints ‘o mine. As it turns out, I have quite a bit to gain from developing more strength and mobility in the ankles.

Let me say that this is not the fault of my coaches. Ari could say “Think of bending your ankles rather than just your knees” and “You should feel your shins press into those laces” until the cows came home. But there I was, the stiff-legged one.

The problem is that I have had limited ankle mobility, probably due to a history of those injuries. I didn’t really realize this until I started trying to do more squats off-ice. I found that I was having trouble getting down, not because of my leg strength but because of my stiff ankles, like in this picture (from this useful posting at the “Invictus Blog” (love that name) about ankle mobility):

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But they were stiff not only because of scar tissue and inactivity, but also because trying to squat in this position was really really hard–which led me towards trying to lock my ankles even further in an attempt to get stability. So working on correcting this movement is definitely a good goal and not a lost cause.

This is how the ankles should bend. Nice and soft. And I can do it!

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My lack of attention to ankle stiffness has haunted my skating as well. No wonder I’ve always had trouble with lunges, and gave up a long time ago on shoot-the-ducks. Even without aspiring to those special moves, ankle mobility is really important to basic skating. Look at the amount of ankle flexion on these edges, as illustrated in Swedish figure skating master Bror Meyer’s 1921 instructional manual, Skating with Bror Meyer.

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A quick anatomical note: as the ankle flexes (dorsiflexion), the talus bone rolls forward and slides backward. The Achilles tendon engages and the calf muscles tighten to stabilize the joint. The tibia (leg bone) slides forward.

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I wrote on an earlier post that I needed to add an additional knee bend (Swoop!) on many of my edges. Another way of thinking about this is that I needed to add ankle bend, which has the incredible benefit of stabilizing the ankle as well as deepening the edge. It also helps with posture, since the movement of the leg bones forward also allows the hips to move forward. Ha, another mystery solved!

So here I go on my skating ankle adventures. Those cows are coming home!


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Post-Ashiatsu

So today I didn’t make it to the public session, but instead did a walk-on open session later in the afternoon. While I’m glad I did it, it was a bit of a challenge.

First of all, the ice was sort of beat up already; it was clear that the free skaters as well as the young boy having a lesson in hockey skates had been working hard. Second, every skater but me was jumping, even the boy in hockey skates, who alarmed his coach by doing impromptu leaps in the air. There was a young man trying triple axels in a harness, and a young woman working on triple something else without a harness. And there were double jumps happening everywhere.

And then there was me, working on adding more knee bend to my basic repertoire of edges and turns, and realizing that my newly sharpened skates had become my frenemies.

Luckily, I have had enough years of free skating to know how to stay out of everyone’s way (mostly), and I knew some of the kids out there well enough to have them stay out of my way (mostly). Still, when the Zamboni doors were opened, I was relieved.

So beat-up ice, trying to stay out of the triple-jump flight paths, extra-sharp blades, and the humbling attempt to bend my knees more (which I will write more about in another post at a less whiny moment in life). What else could be wrong?

Oh yes, and I was sore all over. That’s because I had an Ashiatsu massage yesterday. That’s  the kind of bodywork where the massage practitioner uses their feet as well as their hands. They are hanging from bars fixed to the ceiling, not really walking on your back. I tried to find a picture of this that didn’t make it look like a form of torture, but I think I will just go for some massage-themed cartoons that I found online.

The aim of Ashiatsu is not so much relaxation (although you feel a great sense of relief when it’s over) as it is to improve flexibility and circulation, especially to injured areas. I thought this would be a good thing for my tight left side. So now my left and right sides feel equally worked-over, which is generally a good thing (except for the temporary loss of skating ability).

All temporary skating disappointments and joking aside, I actually feel pretty good overall. I think the massage did help to loosen up some of the tight muscles and scar tissue. And as much as I felt a little less peppy than normal on the ice today, I also felt more aware of my alignment. This means that I could tell when different parts of my body were tracking or traveling over my blade, and when they were pulling off to one side or another.

Is this is the effect of the massage, or the sharp blades, or the extra bit of knee bend that’s happening now? Not sure, but I’ll take it! My Ashiatsu-reformed body will report back later!

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Swoop!

So one of the reasons skating never gets boring is that there are always discoveries to be made. There are body issues (like misalignments) and technique issues and technique issues that turn into body issues. And then there’s always that chance that I’ll discover something that, wow, I’ve been doing all wrong. Okay, that may be depressing (how long have I been doing this wrong?), but at least it is never boring.

Here’s the most recent discovery: I don’t bend my knees enough at the right time. I have figured out this from working on forward outside edges, but I think it true on all my edges.

Let me explain. On forward outside edges, such as the ones that Kseniya is doing on this video, there are actually two movements on the first part of the forward outside edge alone, even before the rise and changeover for the next push. One is the push into the initial part of the edge, with the skating knee bent and the free foot extended. Next is the  skating knee bending more as the free leg comes in to deepen the edge. 

This is the part I’m missing. Instead of bending more, I’m rising up as the free leg comes in. This means that I’m not deepening my edge (and getting less power). It also means that I am rising up at a really inopportune moment. And I’m confusing my body.

So I broke down what I need to do on these outside edges into these distinct movements:

  1. Push into initial position.
  2. Deepen knee bend as free leg comes in.
  3. Rise up on skating side, changeover to inside.
  4. Re-bend on skating side to push.

I suspect that I haven’t been doing  (2)–the deepening of the edge–on a lot of other moves (like those outside-outside edges in the Kilian). It’s not for nothing that Andrea, one of my coaches way back, once joked that I was popping up “like a toaster.” So today I worked on this additional knee bend and boy, did that ever feel different! It is especially evident on my right side, and after practice my right glutes felt really worn out (meaning that I’m not used to this!)

This is good for me, not boring, and hopefully will help with a lot of different moves. But how do I make this deepening of the knee really automatic? By the time I’ve told myself, “Not the toaster! Don’t do the toaster!” it’s already too late.

Instead, I think I’ll think about the “swoop” that this movement makes. Maybe it’s more like a “swoosh” but I’m not sure whether Nike will come after me if I make that the title of this post. Whether “swoop” or “swoosh,” this movement feels good. As the knee bends and the free leg comes in, the body accelerates; it almost looks like Kseniya is flying into this move.

A new idea? A little poem? I thought you’d never ask.

  • Push.
  • Swoosh. 
  • Rise up, change edge.
  • (Will this never end?)
  • Did you push? Did you swoosh?
  • If you did, then re-bend.