jo skates

Thoughts about skating and the practice of everyday life


Ankle rocker

So after watching lots of videos from Worlds 2017, I feel a little maxed-out on skating commentary. So apart from the very brief lesson notes (double threes, navel towards the circle, open mohawks, more speed), I will just write about the very useful article that I found about improving my “ankle rocker” range of motion. Track coach Chris Korfist makes a really compelling case for why ankle function is crucial to speed for runners.

Mr. Korfist talks about how many athletes work on developing hip extension and strengthening glute muscles, but don’t think much about the way the ankle works. He describes what happens when the  “ankle rocker” (the way the ankle moves when one is in the middle of a step forward) is inhibited or locked. The body cheats by swinging the free leg around at the hip in order to compensate for this lack of motion, or the knee buckles inward, or the arch collapses.

It is this motion of the ankle that allows for efficient weight transfer and proper alignment. An athlete can be strong in other ways, but “it is proper ankle rocker that dictates an athlete’s ability. ” As I read this detailed account, I realized that my “ankle rocker,” particularly on my right side (the ghost of broken fibula and torn ligaments past) is really inhibited, and the inability of both my ankles to rock properly affects a lot of the movements I do both on and off the ice.

The article doesn’t specifically talk about skating, but I can think of many ways in which the same principles apply. Just think about the rocker of the blade as following the proper motion of the ankle!

Mr. Korfist gives a number of useful suggestions about how to make progression on developing the “ankle rocker.” He includes a video from Dr. Shawn Allen of “the Gait Guys” that has a couple of really good exercises that I’ve been doing for the past couple of days. Call me optimistic, but I think I can already feel a difference in the way in which my ankles and feet are moving. As Mr. Korfist says, this isn’t a magic bullet–but for me it’s hopefully (hahaha!) a step in the right direction.

Here’s our post-skating (post-mortem?) session!


Jo, Marc, JoAnne, Sonia



Brain matters

The New York Times came out with another article in support of adult skating: well, actually in support of country dancing for older people. The University of Illinois did a study comparing the effects of walking, gentle stretching/balance training, and dancing on a group of people in their 60s and 70s who, while all healthy, were fairly sedentary. After six months, the group that was participated in regular bouts of country-dance choreography (three times a week for hour-long sessions) was the only group to show improvement in the brain’s white matter. White matter is the “wiring” of the brain: specialized cells and their offshoots that pass messages from neuron to neuron and from part of the brain to another. This slows down as the brain ages (as I can attest to, unfortunately!)

This group of country-line dancers actually showed improvements in the density of the white matter in their fornixes (the part of the brain associated with processing speed and memory). While the other groups improved their general fitness, they did not show this increase. While six months of tests didn’t reveal changes in cognitive ability for any of the groups, the conclusions looked promising for the benefits of dance.

But what about skating? Well, between all those challenging sequences of moves and the fact that I am trying to move in ways that feel entirely new to me, I would expect that my brain is getting rewired every time I step out onto the ice. Even if I never pass another skating test, my white brain matter will just get denser and denser. And that’s a good thing. Now where did I leave my keys?

So after yet another lesson that proved I wasn’t really on a left forward outside edge when I thought I was, I have come to the conclusion that I need to set my new foot down waaaay outside the circle that I think I am making. It feels like I have to exaggerate and cross my left thigh in front of the right. When I do this (both on and off the ice), I can definitely feel a stretch in the muscles of my hip joint: those same familiar muscles that have been tight for years now.

So now I have another way of assessing my body mechanics: if I don’t feel that stretch, I’m definitely not far enough over. Practicing this the last couple of days has made me aware of (a) how much better this is than how I used to skate, and (b) how much strength and mobility I still need to develop in that left hip. My left glutes are pretty sore!

Laurie gave me another exercise that I am using to put some mobility back in my ankles as well as check my alignment. I strike out on an edge, bring my feet together (am trying to practice good foot positions with toes actually touching), do a little extra rise and bend with my ankle and knee, and then do that “bob” again just before pushing into the next edge. We started doing this on progressives, and I have been trying it with other sequences as well.

This reminds me of an exercise I got a long time ago when I was taking lessons with Bert Wright in LA. He would have me do an edge and then bob up and down on it to get the correct alignment. Laurie has added the push, which means that I have to use the motion to deepen the edge into the push. This has made me really aware of my ankle motion, which I will write about in another post.

Boy, my brain’s white matter must be getting denser, because I’m remembering all too well how much work skating is. And how tired those muscles can feel at the end of the day. Time to get out the foam roller!



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.