jo skates

Thoughts about skating and the practice of everyday life


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Where did everybody go?

This summer’s skating sessions have been quite busy. Granted, I usually practice on public sessions. And it’s been a rather cold and rainy summer overall, which means taking kids to the pool (or around here, the many water parks) isn’t always an option. Even the figure skating sessions are usually busy too, with kids trying to take advantage of time off from school.

So imagine my surprise when I went to an open figure skating session last Thursday, and I was the only one there for the entire time. Yes, one and a quarter hours of just me. There wasn’t even music playing until the rink staff realized how quiet it was and put the radio on.

Just me and Adele singing her torch songs. Not that I don’t like Adele, but there is a limit to how much I can hear about love lost forever before I want to scream. (“He’s not worth it!” “Just pull yourself together already!”) As if there wasn’t enough to be depressed about these days.

After a while, though, I realized that having the rink to myself meant I could (a) pretty much tune out anything these days when I’m working on those edges; (b) actually practice without worrying about running into someone; and (c) skate consecutive patterns to my heart’s content.

I ran through my entire usual set of exercises and found I had nearly half the session left. So I added in some stuff that I haven’t worked on in a while. One of these things was starting patterns from a dead standstill. It’s always tempting for me to take a running start into everything; it’s definitely easier, especially on a crowded rink, when I can just cruise into moves rather than standing there in a T-position looking for a break in public session traffic.

When I used to test and compete, I had to make myself work on that initial push and acceleration, and it never felt particularly good. But in an empty rink, and with my newly honed pushing skills and dissolving free leg, starting felt much better–at least until I started trying to do it in reverse (clockwise).  Then I had to go back to breaking it down to figure out how to get myself moving.

Basically, I am still needing to do more to keep all the proper muscles engaged as I bend and push. As this is something I have written about at length in this blog, I’ll just say that the correct pressure through the foot, ankle bend, and glute/core/back activation all matter.

Whenever I go back to something basic, I also have that immediate reaction: “Wait, didn’t I already go over this?” I have to remind myself that drilling basics is necessary at every level. No, I’m not regressing or devolving, I’m perfecting! (Snort of laughter). If I need conformation, all I have to do is watch those many YouTube videos of speed skaters perfecting their form, just trying to get that little extra boost. It is isn’t something you can do just by changing your outfit (though some may try).

This was confirmed in my lesson, which really put the alignment issues into play. Here’s my notes.

  • forward progressives: work on glute/core stability on skating side to offset beautifully dissolving free leg.
  • exercise: hold outside edge, bring free leg precisely and quickly back and in, while engaging glutes/core on skating side so that hips don’t shift.
  • back chassés: think about angle of back push and new edge.
  • exercise: back chassés, but bring two feet together before pushing to learn where the proper set-down is for the new foot.
  • back push from inside edge: glutes/core and hip alignment.

So here’s to the new semester, off and running. Here’s the scherzo (third) movement from Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings (op. 20) to get us in the mood. Busy, busy, busy!

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Lower the bar

I just had one of the best skating sessions ever. It wasn’t because of having the rink to myself (lots of little kids EVERYWHERE!). It wasn’t because I felt particularly strong (left hip still stiff, left foot still twinges, right ankle, knee sore too). And it wasn’t because I landed that triple axel (SNORT! Almost choked on that one).

No, not even close. It was because I lowered the bar.

I’ve been lowering it for quite a while now. I think when I started this blog, I thought it would be a matter of just a few month of recovery from a foot injury, then I’d be back to working on compulsory dances. It’s now been, what, three years? Three years of working on basic turns and edges, stroking, progressives, and back crossovers. Three years of physical therapy appointments and off-ice re-training of what feels like every muscle, joint, and bone from the navel down.

No end in sight. As Elton John sings so memorably–and so many times–in “Rocket Man”: “And I think it’s gonna be a long long time.”

So my goals today?

  1. Get out there regularly.
  2. Basic positions: keep aligned through the hips, bend your ankles, and engage the feet.
  3. Remember that these positions are dynamic, not static. Move through them as smoothly and ergonomically as possible.
  4. Change up the moves once in a while so I don’t get too tired or lose focus on (2) and (3).
  5. Change the music so that I’m not listening to too many depressing songs about things taking a long long time.

And do you know what? I’m okay with this. I’ve mostly learned to be okay with it, just as I’ve learned that I’m supposed to move on an edge, not a flat (hello!). At my worst, I wish that I’d started this process earlier so that I’d be farther along in learning my way around my skating body. At best (and today was certainly up among the best), I let go of the wishful thinking and just focus on the basics of skating.

What’s been working pretty well is thinking about the movement of my joints while I’m skating. How do I make my hips, knees, ankles, feet do those motions smoothly?

Today I thought a lot about my feet and ankles, especially on the motion of my talus bone. I wrote a post about the talus some time ago, when I was having trouble with my left foot.

 

 

Today’s talus spotlight is on my right side. PT Sarah and I have been working to mobilize my right ankle (did a post on that side too), which has a lot of scar tissue and swelling from an old injury. Basically, my talus seemed to be stuck when I tried to flex my foot downward (as in pointing my toes). It is much more common for the talus motion to be limited in dorsiflexion, so I am a little bit strange in that way.

 

I will skip the gory details of Sarah trying to get me to where I could actually point my toes without a lot of cramping and a crackling, popping, crunching accompaniment as various tendons howled in agony. At least I didn’t cry. We’ll leave that for the skating lessons (just kidding, I don’t cry that much).

Instead, I will triumphantly say that I have much more mobility this week on the right side. Thank you, Sarah! I was also able to identify immediately what I was doing with my feet and ankle bones, and think about this while I skated. It is amazing how much easier skating moves are when you can actually use your ankles.

So here’s some notes about my off-ice exercises for my right ankle as well as skating for the week. Let me end with a triumphant song and totally trippy video from Elton John (just substitute “skating” for “standing” and you’ll get the idea).

Ankle exercises:

  • Stretch and mobilize big toe joint.
  • Point foot while thinking about creating more of a transverse arch. Then move toes up and down while keeping foot pointed.
  • Place foot on exercise ball, and use plantar flexion to move ball up and down the wall.
  • Practice walking through your big toes.

Skating:

  • Cross rolls with hands clasped in front so that you don’t use your shoulders at all.
  • Mohawk, back three. Work on continuous motion and pushing.
  • Swing roll, change edge, mohawk, back three, forward inside three, repeat on other side. Make the motion continuous.
  • Alternating chassés, hold the inside edge for almost a full circle before doing the final stroke. Work on hip position (flat front of skating hip) and leg extension.
  • Alternating progressives, and hold inside edge for a long time. Work on hip position (flat front of skating hip), leg extension and really good pushes.


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I hear voices

How can it be mid-June already? Wow, it has been quite a while since I have posted here. I had to go back and re-read my last entry just to remind myself what I wrote there.

No real excuses–I haven’t left the country, or done anything really exciting. And I am still skating, so it’s not like I have nothing to write about. But as they say, life gets in the way. Family events (son graduating from high school, yay!) Yard work (weeds, boo!) Work projects (hiss!) Gorgeous weather that makes it hard to stay inside (double yay!)

Thankfully the rinks around here remain open, though hours have been cut back and I have to drive around more in search of ice time. Some of my regular sessions have been quite busy, since all the avid skaters are doing the same thing. Last week I was witness to one terrible collision between an adult ice dancer and an adult free skater. Thankfully no serious injuries, but scary. Still, I did find the occasional session that turned out like this:

That’s right, empty ice. Okay, so it didn’t last and soon I was joined by several families with small children. But for the first twenty minutes I was queen of the rink.

So what have I been doing on that empty and not-so-empty ice? Same old, same old. I keep thinking that I should get bored soon, spending so much time on basic things, but in fact maybe the opposite is (too) true. I feel alarmed when I can’t spend the first half hour doing progressives and chassés and back crossovers. Sometimes I come back to those things at the end of the session as well.

Maybe I am too easily amused, but I actually find lots of things to work on while I am doing those basic things. And I talk to myself (not out loud, and I don’t let my lips move, so as not to creep out the toddlers). Sometimes that voice sounds like Ari; sometimes it sounds like Laurie; sometimes it sounds like Justin Bieber (not really, but that song is catchy!) Here’s what I say:

  • Bend your ankles (keep pressure into the ball of your foot, and into those laces). Let gravity help you.
  • Where is your hip joint? Oh, there it is!
  • Really use that inside edge for the push.
  • Underpush means your skating hip draws back underneath you.
  • Don’t pitch forward. Don’t contract your core for those turns.

Sometimes I wonder whether I am going crazy, but who cares? I’m happy, so it’s all good. And when I get tired of talking to myself, there are other friendly folks to talk to. Sometimes we even wear stripes together.

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Jo and Sonia in all our striped glory!

Lesson notes:

  • back crossover: bend further into the push, lower pushing hip, don’t transfer too early
  • forward outside edges: shins pulled forward as if with a stretchy band
  • always move hips over your engaged ankles (don’t release back)
  • back push, turn foot out, short push from heel, activate quad
  • outside edges strike down with foot angled in
  • outside three: strong transfer with ribcage over into circle, rise (don’t lose hips) into one big skating leg, feet parallel if need be
  • bend ankles
  • exercise: three crosses, then hold strong edge in circle with free leg strongly extended and turned out. Forwards and backwards.
  • inside and outside mohawks: don’t contract core (or break at hips), think elongated skating hip, look and lean in direction of free leg
  • try this sequence: inside mohawk, step forward, outside mohawk.

 

 


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Fresh perspective

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Sure sign of spring!

We have had some beautiful spring days this past week. It’s hard to believe that last week there was actually snow and sleet coming down. Neither last long, but today I noticed that my hostas have lots of little brown spots, perhaps due to those icy pellets damaging those tender new leaves.

I can remember when that kind of thing would have bothered me more. Every season of gardening brings imperfections and disappointments, like rabbit-eaten green beans or the zucchini that grows big only to suddenly develop some sort of rot. My tender-hearted son told me not to call squirrels “spiteful.” But I know better: they will take one bite out of the biggest tomatoes I have and then leave them on my fence as tokens of revenge for my trying to scare them off with the hose.

As the school year winds to a close, I start to fantasize about summer skating. Not that I will be able to spend hours on the ice; the sessions I usually practice on actually get cut back to a few hours a week. But what changes is the amount of brain energy that I can dedicate to dreaming about how much better I am going to be. It’s like those pictures of gorgeous flowers and vegetables on those seed packets.

I dream big, even though I am now resigned to the fact that improvement will take much more time and effort than I always think it will. There are slugs aplenty in my skating world, and this doesn’t just refer to the fact that I need to skate faster. I have lots of physical reminders of the challenges ahead.

For one, the foundations of my skating continue to need rebuilding. I was just re-reading a post I wrote in Oct. 2015 that reminded me of some of the things that I am still trying to get control over. And this past week, in the wake of Laurie’s comment that I still am not really bending through the ankles, I watched Oleg and Kseniya #73. (Miss their making new videos, but I am grateful that they made so many. There is certainly a lot there that I need to watch again!)

For two, I still continue to work to get mobility and strength in different body parts. Two target areas continue to be my left hip as well as my right ankle. I’ve been reading a lot about how injuries and scar tissue cause other misalignments as well as limit range of motion. One particularly detailed article from “Running Reform” (this version is for clinicians, but there’s a link for a patient version here as well) talks about the ways that limited ankle flexibility restricts the knee motion:

Imagine lowering your body weight in a squat with ski boots on. . . .We would certainly see less knee flexion occur because the ankle dorsiflexion is limited.  Since forward progression of the tibia is limited, more knee flexion would result in a posterior displacement of the body’s center of mass.  Since the subject would fall backward at that point, knee flexion becomes limited.

This explains why I’ve had a lot more trouble with my right knee, even though my left side has been weaker overall.

Okay, shots fired! But I am going to take a cue from my son, and not think of any of these frustrations as the work of spiteful skating gods (who treat me like those #%#*!!! squirrels do!)

Rather, I will simply defer to the wisdom of the real skating deities! Here’s a great interview that Charlie White did with Scott and Tessa after their free dance this year:

“It gives you purpose, it gives you life, it gives you energy.”

“A big part of our return has to do with our fresh perspective.”

“Taking a step back and appreciating what a great ride that was”

“We didn’t want to take ourselves too seriously coming back.”

“It’s a sport, it’s beautiful, and we love it.”

Here’s to having a fresh perspective on skating: whether you’ve taken two years off competition, or had a few extra weeks of vacation, or are just thinking about a fresh start to the summer season!


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Brave

Okay, I am giving myself a pat on the back for two reasons. One is that I am actually posting twice this week! It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do that.

Two is that I did a session with an entirely different pair of skates and blades. And even though it was excruciating, I stuck it out until the bitter appearance of the Zamboni.

I have been meaning to do this for a while. The skates that I’ve been wearing are now just about six years old, and getting really worn. There’s a hole inside one of them and the tongue on the other one cuts into my ankle.

Instead of going for a new set of boots, though, I thought I’d try to go back to an older pair that I wore for about three years and then put aside. I really liked how this pair fit, and I don’t really want to break in a new pair right now.  I put the old ones on a few weeks ago for a trial run. They seemed to have life in them still, and plenty of support. The dance blade on them was fairly worn and had some rust spots, so I couldn’t really skate much then. But the fit was promising.

So I had the old blades sharpened, and tried this different set up tonight. I brought both pairs, just in case. Changing back to these used skates was very different from getting a new pair. This used pair of boots felt really comfortable, and I could immediately bend my knees and ankles much better than I have been. This meant that I could get into a much more aligned position on most of my edges. This was a real plus.

On the down side, the blades were both very sharp and much more worn than the ones I’ve been using. This meant I spent the first half of the session fearing for my life and skating in an uncharacteristically timid way (even for me!)

But here comes the pat on the back part. I didn’t give into the urge to change back to my other boots. By the end of the session, I felt much more comfortable. Even though it will still take some getting used to, I think I will officially switch over this week. I’m not going to change blades yet, though; I will wait until I’m sure that the used boots will still work.

I used to hear Sara Bareilles’s song “Brave” at the rink a lot, and it always inspired me to get out of my comfort zone. So here goes my soundtrack for the week:

 


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Rest

I just finished a book that I would recommend to anyone who is trying to juggle skating with professional work commitments, and who needs ammunition against arguments that skating cuts down on “productivity” or is “a waste of time.” It’s Alex Soojun-Kim Pang’s Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.

Pang’s basic arguments–that “rest” is a skill we need to cultivate in a culture when we brag about our overloaded work schedules and multi-tasking and that rest is not just sitting around staring into space, but can be creative and athletic activities that we put lots of effort and time into–are pretty obvious to anyone who has been working in a high-pressure job for any length of time. But he makes these argument more than just wishful thinking, giving lots of thoughtful examples for why we have to do this so that we can be better at what we do and avoid burnout.

This includes all the work we do at home as well as at the office. Though many of Pang’s examples are men, he does take care to talk about the added responsibilities that many working women face–their other responsibilities of caregiving, homemaking, and other life maintenance don’t end when they get back from the office. Wish I’d read this years ago–not so I could make different life choices, but so I could simply tell others to read it rather than just pressuring me to add yet another soul-sucking task to my to-do list.

I’m sure this applies to folks who are pretty much full-time figure skaters. Everyone needs  some encouragement towards the “less is more” side. But with a physical activity, there is hopefully a point when your body reminds you that you are overdoing things. A lot of my work time is spent on the computer, and it’s tempting to keep working even after regular hours evenings and weekends.

Thank you, Alex Pang! You’ve definitely hit my “recommended” list.

Okay, time to report on skating now. Now that reading Alex Pang’s Rest has made me feel totally virtuous about blocking out time to skate on my (admittedly long) lunch hour, I am happy to say that I’m back to a regular practice schedule. Laurie and I continue to have great (though humbling) lessons about the fact that I am not preserving my lean when I do swing rolls. That feeling of having my skate edge run outside of where my body is still baffles me on some deep level, and I fight it with all kinds of strange contortions. Still, it is deeply restful and now I can gloat about how it’s making me more rather than less productive at work!

Lesson notes:

  • Exercise for deep back inside edges that curve immediately. If you do this correctly the tracing starts to resemble an “infinity” sign. Don’t drop your hip out, and pretend you have a squirrel or fox tail that moves freely along the circle.
  • Progressives. New foot encounters the ice outside of your body. Imagine a theraband stretching across the hips that allow the skating hip and leg to turn out slightly to counter the stretch of the free leg.
  • Swing rolls. Don’t come up on top of skate and lose your lean into the circle.


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No matter how you slice it

That opening could be followed by any number of positive and negative things. Bread. Baloney. Good news. Bad news.

And then there’s the César Franck violin sonata in A major, which I keep hearing in bits and pieces, thanks to my younger son the cellist (now a teenager) . Much of what he has to say to me these days involves “Have you heard this?” or “I love this piece!” or (most humbling) “Guess which composer this is!”

Life is good, at least on the music front. Here’s the final movement (Allegretto poco mosso). There are a lot of recordings out there!  Here’s an article by Caroline Gill that talks about some of them. She describes how the piece was first played at the wedding of Franck’s friend Eugène Ysaÿe (a Belgian violinist who was known as the “King of the violin”) and then officially premiered in Brussel’s Museé Moderne de Peiture in light so dim that the piece had to be performed from memory.

Vincent d’Indy, a devoted supporter and pupil of Franck, who chronicled his experiences with him and was present at this performance, described the fading light of the scene: ‘The public was requested to leave, but…refused to budge. Ysaÿe was heard to strike his music stand with his bow, exclaiming “get on, get on”. And then, unheard-of marvel, the two artists, plunged in gloom in which nothing could be distinguished, performed the last three movements from memory… Music, wondrous and alone, held sovereign sway in the darkness of the night. The miracle will never be forgotten.’

Nothing miraculous about my skating, but no matter how you slice it, it’s still pretty cool (hahaha!). Yesterday I missed my regular session so I went to a later session. I was working on my back pushes at one end of the rink, looked up and realized that the other skaters on the ice with me included two competitors from Nationals (one senior and one junior) as well as two coaches who had medalled multiple times at World competitions. I’d better step up my game!

Or maybe just find a game. I’ve been trying to figure out a good balance between working on basic movement and pushing myself to skate hard so I can build more stamina. Even a couple of minutes of stroking right now is quite a challenge. It would probably be a good idea to just pick a song I like and try to skate hard for the entire time it’s playing.

Not Franck, since I will probably collapse halfway through! Don’t want to ruin this beautiful piece by associating it with a coronary.

Had to miss or postpone a couple of lessons this week. Arrggghhh!!! But I did get to catch Sonia the birthday girl on the ice.