jo skates

Thoughts about skating and the practice of everyday life


A marked woman

It’s been a crazy busy body week. Friday I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with a massage. My shoulders were so tight that my massage therapist suggested that I try cupping. So now I have these marks on my back that make me look like Michael Phelps going for yet another Olympic medal. Well, not really, but maybe it will make me better at a different kind of freestyle! Not that I have any plans to get back to jumping, but you never know. . . .


Thursday I had a session with PT Sarah. We checked my hip joints and she said that I still have some frontal plane issues in which the left side doesn’t quite go fully back and the right doesn’t go front. Still working on that! But most of our time was spent on the issues with my right ankle and foot.

I have been trying to get more dorsiflexion on my right side, and things have improved to where I can actually do what Chad Walding calls “womb squats” without feeling like I’m going to fall over. But this past week I’ve had some pain in my right heel. Sarah said that as I am getting more range of motion (ROM), I need to strengthen some of the foot muscles that will help me with these movements. Sarah did some mobilization of my ankle, and the heel pain magically went away. How good is that!

We talked about the way my heel bone, the calcaneus, works with the other bones of the foot and ankle, such as the talus, which I have written about before.calcaneus

Now I am trying to be mindful of my calcaneus as well. Sarah had me doing foot circles while thinking about the calcaneus rotating around, rather than just swirling my foot at the ankle. This was really effective, and I have been doing these at home. I still have some trouble mobilizing the right side, but the heel pain has disappeared. Equally satisfying were her suggestions that I try calf raises with knees bent. This got rid of that horrible ratchet wrench noise that my right ankle makes when I point my foot and/or raise my heel.

I have been thinking about my left calcaneus as well, especially when I’m on the ice. On my left side, I have this tendency to put my weight forward toward the ball of the foot. Even as my positions are generally better, I still sometimes do this. But if I think about putting a little more pressure on the calcaneus, it really helps correct this tendency.

So a little more attention to my friend the calcaneus adds stability to both sides. I particularly like this because it’s not really about leaning back on my heels, which is a risky business with dance blades; it’s more about distributing pressure through the back part of my foot.

I’m skating through, nothing to lose
Spiral away, spiral away
Thinking hard, it fills my brain
Spiral away, spiral away
Put me down and I won’t fall
I am calcaneus!
Put me down and I won’t fall.
I am calcaneus!

PT exercises:

  • Foot circles. Mobilize the heel as you do the circles.
  • Calf raises with bent knees. Variations are (1) bend, raise, straighten knees with heels raised, lower; and (2) reverse: raise, knee bend, lower.
  • Stretch 1: on side (frontal plane mobility for right)
  • Stretch 2: feet hip distance apart or wider, shift weight to left side and bend left knee, press through “inside edge” of right foot to feel activation of left inner thighs and glute, and stretch of left hip.
  • Quad exercise. Lying on bed with one leg down, raise other leg to tabletop and straighten.

Skating lesson notes:

  • Forward outside, change edge, push (skating side lead, body opens  slightly outside circle, don’t pull shoulders back).
  • Outside three turns: keep the lean continuous into the three (don’t hook the edge).
  • Push onto back outside edge: make sure you are on an actual edge.
  • Loops: start with free arm in front, make tighter circles, work on change of body/arm position in second part of loop.
  • Back to front choctaws: step behind in that Ina Bauer position, really turn body and head into the circle on the inside edge, skating arm lead, get more speed.
  • Kilian choctaws (both directions): hold inside edge in (really turn body and head into circle on inside edge), bend into outside edge, new skating knee has to bend so that your body stays in back of the new edge. Hold the back outside edge (head looks back, skating arm in front of sternum, point fingers in correct direction, free leg turned out).
  • Alternating sequence of inside mohawk, push back, back outside three. Position these so you can do a long strong inside edge after the three: the mohawk and three head toward boards, and the three happens before the top of circle. On left side, the mohawk and push back need to happen quicker; remember that the inside edge is just a touch down.
  • Inside three, step forward, cross (get the underpush here), repeat other side (speed, lean).

Bright spot of the week: Ari said my left inside threes were so much better (“Awesome!”)


Ankle allies

I have been looking through a number of websites for advice on how to improve my ankle  strength and flexibility. One site that I found particularly inspiring came from Chad Walding at “The Sitting Solution.” Here’s the video, complete with a really cute dog named Maya.

I was pleased that I’d already gotten a jump start on some of Chad’s advice. In addition to different foot exercises, I have been doing calf stretches for a while now. And I’ve always been pretty much a “barefoot in the house” kinda gal.

I’m definitely going to add to my daily routine what he calls the “womb squat” (at 8.07 on the video). I used to do these back in yoga class, but haven’t worked on them for a while.  Happily enough, when I tried one tonight my initial position was already better than it was a few years ago: I feel like my ankle flexibility is definitely better than it’s been in years. I was not able to hold it anywhere near ten minutes (even a minute was a bit much) but that was encouraging.

After watching the video, I have been thinking again about how important it is for me to keep working on that ankle mobility. After having had a number of ankle sprains as well as fairly severe ligament damage, I think I tend to err on the side of immobilization, trying to stabilize my ankles by locking them. It’s also easy to forget about them when they are encased in heavy boots.

Definitely my skating has suffered by neglecting those ankles. Not only do stiff ankles make it impossible to bend my knees adequately, but it’s really hard to shift weight properly without ankle movement. Something both my coaches have reinforced is that skating is not about just hitting a position and staying there; you dynamically pass through different positions. And it’s hard to do that unless all the parts of your body are working together.

So maybe between doing these squats and calf raises, I will develop ankles that can do this! And this!

Luckily, these lesson notes from last week were much more practical.

  • Exercise: back-to-front choctaw, inside counter, change edge, little touch down/push to back edge, repeat on other side
  • Exercise: tuck behind, mohawk, change edge (bend knee), step forward and repeat
  • Forward outside threes in a circle. Bend and push on inside edge (elongate push)
  • Alternating outside threes. After the three, free foot is outside circle and skating arm inside. Put the three at the top of circle. Really use your core to twist–not just arms.




Complicated feet

Did you know that one-quarter of all the bones in my body are in my feet? And that my each of my feet contains more than 25 bones, 30 joints, and 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments?

I had no idea I was so complicated!

While the multitudinous anatomical aspects of my feet and ankles are awe-inspiring, some are also presenting major obstacles in my road to skating glory. On my left side, I continue to have some foot pain at the ball of the foot and tightness around the ankle. On the right side I have limited range of motion: when I try to point my toe, I have to work really hard and there are some strange clicking and popping noises that make my ankle feel like a ratchet socket wrench.

I’ve been trying to figure out exactly where these things happen (first metatarsophalangeal joint? around the navicular bone?) and why, but as I said, my feet are complicated. Looking at all those different diagrams of foot and ankle anatomy can be quite daunting. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I just need some basic principles to follow. Rather than trying to put Dumpty back together again (or identifying pieces of Dumpty), I’ll just imagine the egg-shape and go from there.

One goal is to retrain my walking and skating patterns so that I am more balanced evenly over my feet. On my left side, I tend to walk on the outside of my foot (avoiding that sore ball of the foot, no doubt). Similarly, I have to work on making sure I am using my entire foot actively while skating. It takes some remembering to engage the skating ankle and foot to get the best glide, and to prepare myself so that I don’t just flop (or pound) onto the new foot when I transfer my weight. I have been working on this in my turns as well (trying to initiate the turn with foot and ankle pressure, rather than with the rest of my body).

Another is to continue with my off-ice regime of exercises, like my steady diet of calf raises, toe pointing and swiping (I found a really good video of these by Maryann Berry), and short feet. I need to be more mindful of my ankle and foot alignment and movement when I do other exercises, like my single leg deadlift.

With both goals, I need to be patient. Like my hip issues, progress on my complicated feet is going to take a while. The good thing is that learning to use my feet and ankles properly is going to make a world of difference in my skating. It’s like discovering a whole new set of tools (25+ bones, 30+ joints, and 100+ muscles, tendons, and ligaments) that I can use in addition to my ratchet socket wrench ankle!

Lesson notes:

  • cross rolls. Again, do these slowly: stop with feet parallel, turn free toe in, then push and cross.
  • your push creates the extension. Count those pushes in the Paso!
  • back progressives. Back inside push is better but think of sending weight back to outside edge and continuing to load the new foot rather than rising. Free leg extends assertively to counter balance force backwards. Work on toe point and getting free foot parallel to ice on right foot; it’s okay to bend knee slightly to compensate. Arms really hugging circle (forward arm in front).

Okay, fun picture time. Here’s Janey on her first day back on the ice in a while. It’s so awesome to see her!




Break it down

Following up on my binge-watching of the Grand Prix Finals, I discovered a video interview with Scott and Tessa from last month. It’s part of a series of interviews with Dave Wilson called “The Skating Lesson,” and there are all kinds of interesting folks on there.

I really enjoyed hearing Scott and Tessa talk about what it’s like to train with the best ice dance teams and coaches in the world and  win the Olympics. Much of it is undoubtedly what my fellow skating blogger George has referred to as “unobtanium.” (Another fellow skater/blogger, Mary of FitandFed, pointed out that this is from the movie Avatar, not that particular element on the periodic table that was named in honor of adult figure skaters!) But one thing that Tessa described did resonate with me personally. That was when she described what she did to avoid a third surgery after she was diagnosed with compartment syndrome in her calves.

She describes re-training her body to analyze her body mechanics and what she was doing to cause the pain and numbness. It is really amazing to hear someone who is much closer to skating divinity than I am talk about having to re-learn movement from the bottom up. That means breaking it down: not just skating technique but even standing and walking.

“Recruiting different muscle patterns.” Whoa, is that ever familiar! I’ve been reading Katy Bowman’s Every Woman’s Guide to Foot Pain Relief: The New Science of Healthy Feet (2011) this week, and realizing that I still have some pretty fundamental work to do with alignment, strength, and flexibility. Time for more off-exercises!

Going back to basics on my last set of skating lessons as well, stressing two related ideas on progressives, cross strokes, and the entry edge on turns.

First, I still tend to flatten at the end of edges, rather than bending my ankles and deepening my edges. The correct accentuation of the edge will make the edge accelerate, and allow for more speed. This bend will also make it possible for me to make smoother transitions, since I will be pushing onto rather than just stepping on the new skate.

Second, I need to use the energy of the push to propel the free side as well as the skating side. Laurie and I worked on that last push in the progressive before the series of cross rolls; that push onto the forward left outside edge also moves the left leg forward and across (like a grapevine step).

What I’m finding is that I do not always allow enough motion to happen in the hip joints, especially in places when I have to cross or scissor my legs. I will have to give this more thought, especially because I’ve gotten so used to trying to keep hip movement under check. Hmmm. . .

While I ponder that, I’m going to share some fun pictures of Chris and Lisa. I noticed that they were wearing the same color scheme one day and asked them to model their new pairs program for me. Since they are both into singles, modeling is about as far as their pairs career goes right now–but who knows?






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.





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):


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!


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.


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.




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!


Déjà vu

Usually taking a few days off after a hard week of skating is a good idea. Last week I had a couple of rough sessions, including one in which an out-of-control kid knocked me over and I got another bump on the head as well as a bruised elbow. Not fair! I had some knee pain towards the end of the week as well. Nooooo!

So I was happy to take a few days off to meet up with some good friends in Chicago, sans skates. I did absolutely nothing except for a few half-hearted attempts at stretching. Not much walking, either, but a lot of sitting and talking in the Windy City.

I thought I would come back all rested and refreshed. But instead I have felt really, really stiff since I got back. It’s as if my hips are out of whack again. Skating Monday was all over the place, Tuesday barely better. While in Chicago I saw a show at Second City entitled Déjà Vu. This week reminded me of all the tortured positions I used to do when my hips were really out of place. It’s remarkable that I survived!

I had a session with PT Sarah, and she noticed that my left side was tighter than it has been–not just my hip, but my entire side. We went through a series of stretches designed to put things back to rights. I have to work on keeping my lower left ribcage as well as my hipbone from popping forward. We also worked on foot positions (short foot on the left,  slight roll in and spread toes on the right). Sarah did some manipulations on my hip that made me feel more aligned, but also more than a little sore. Gumby I am not!

The bright side is that I think that this is actually a good thing, another reminder not to take alignment for granted. Today I was ultra careful about making sure that my femur was over the middle of my foot. And I worked on not letting my left ribcage (and shoulder) pop forward. Applying some of Sarah’s ideas (getting that left kidney back, using what she calls the muscles of the “underbum”) to my edges has been really helpful. Still working on basics, but everything is getting better.

All this alignment work has made me really appreciative of those balanced and muscular bodies at the Olympics. I know this sounds weird, but I have been totally inspired by those incredibly strong feet that those divers have! My feet now have role models!

Some skating highlights even this week. The first was that two different people asked me about my forward outside and forward inside loops; this means that they are actually recognizable as loops, rather than as wannabe circles! Hooray! The second was that my feet have been pretty much pain-free on the ice. And third, I feel really focused on the ice these days. Even when I’m not necessarily doing things well, I still feel like I’m learning a lot about movement.

So even if this is a bit of déjà vu, I am never going back again!