jo skates

Thoughts about skating and the practice of everyday life


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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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Humiliation, skating style

I am still waiting for the moment when I can truly feel smug about skating. Oh, I have my occasional moments of major skating pride now and then. Sometimes I’m out there feeling pretty good about my edges, feeling like the flow is happening, feeling groovy. I can’t see my own face, but I imagine that some kind of insufferably self-satisfied expression passes across my otherwise blank or terrified visage.

But then reality strikes. There are basic things that I am still having trouble with! Argghhh! “This is why you take lessons,” said Ari when I told him that this week (initiated by the change of skates) has brought out everything I hate about my skating.

Excuse me, coach, I thought I was taking lessons so that I could feel smug someday.

Boy, was I wrong. Instead, I feel like a beginner nearly every time I have a lesson. The funny thing is that the more I realize that I am doing things wrong, the more I want to skate. Both Ari and Laurie have been giving me corrections, like the skinny ninja idea (gotta love that one!), that radically change the way different moves feel. So I’m going to spend some time here detailing how I am reworking basic moves and changing my posture and technique.

This is the skating equivalent of “Humiliation,” the party game played by literature professors that David Lodge describes in his academic satire, Changing Places (1975) in which “each person names a book which he hasn’t read but assumes the others have read, and scores a point for every person who has read it.” Writing down all these basic things I still can’t do correctly is rather humiliating, but heck, I can score all kinds of imaginary points just by admitting them.

 

The first few are rather big concepts, so I should get extra points.

NEUTRAL POSTURE. Both coaches are still trying to get me to skate without letting my hips go back and ribs pop forward (my anterior pelvic tilt mode).

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Ari suggested that I think about pointing my navel upward. He also suggested thinking about knee bend as controlled by the glutes and hamstrings, rather than the quads pushing forward. This helps (especially on outside-outside mohawks).

ANKLE BEND. Laurie noticed that I am not actually bending my ankles. This means that when I think I am bending my knees and try to stand up straight, I wind up sitting back on my skates in posterior pelvic tilt. But when I think about relaxing my ankles, I have a much better position on my blades overall. I will have to think (and write) more about this issue, but for now I’ll just record what she said: that if your ankles are flexed properly, you shouldn’t be able to look down and see your feet, just your thighs and knees.

USE UP THE ENTIRE LEG ON THE PUSH. This is another way of getting a full extension out of each push.

DON’T PUT THE NEW FOOT DOWN OR CHANGE YOUR EDGE PREMATURELY. I tend to be impatient about moving to the next edge before I’ve even finished what I’m doing. Just hold still and nobody gets hurt! (background music by Grace Jones)

Other lesson notes:

  • back outside-outside transitions (bring new foot in, change edge with new foot slightly in front, don’t let free side swing around to change lean)
  • back crossovers (posture and ankle bend; additional humiliation–I actually got leg cramps from doing these the other day!)
  • inside-inside mohawks (don’t let feet separate, posture, should feel like marching)
  • outside-outside (Viennese) mohawks (pattern on two count lobes, head and shoulders, look in the direction you are going on exit edge)
  • back progressives (engage left inside edge for push, changeover should happen quicker and with the blade, not by just moving upper body)
  • forward swing rolls (use the skinny ninja idea with the free leg, sneaking up behind and coming through narrowly; don’t change edge too early; maintain that edge!)

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Skinny ninja

“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”

–Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

“Dynamic quality is the pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality, the source of all things, completely simple and always new.”

–Robert M. Pirsig, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals

One of the things I love about skating is that there are these occasional moments when things just kind of click into place. I can be struggling in vain for what seems like (no, what really is!) years to get all my different body parts organized. And then one of my coaches will say something like “Bend your knee more” or “Don’t slouch forward” or “Lean into the circle” or (my favorite!) “Get on an actual edge.” Boom, the clouds part, and it’s skating epiphany time. Suddenly everything just sort of comes together.

So at yesterday’s lesson Laurie and I were working on forward outside three turns, and she told me to think about entering the three turn like a “skinny ninja.” What this means is that I have try to make my body as narrow as possible on the entering edge. The “ninja” part is that I can enter the edge efficiently, not presenting my body so broadly all over the place.

“Oh,” I said, “I’m like one of those big round targets slowly bobbing up and down at the shooting gallery. They are much easier to hit than the ‘skinny ninjas.'” “Precisely,” Laurie said. And then we both laughed, imagining the difference between skating like a stealthy skinny ninja and skating as if I were shaped like a bulls-eye or a duck or cow or clown face.

I wrote in an earlier post about Carlo Fassi’s description of doing figures as if one were in a plastic tube.  I think this is a similar idea, except there’s speed involved. The ninja moves narrowly and quickly in a poised and organized manner, not with free legs and arms dangling around like naughty bits.

So I tried to find some pictures of skinny ninjas and clown face targets, and I did find an entire web-based game that generated a whole page of skating ninjas. For the targets, nothing came up that was appropriate and not terrifying. (You would not believe the number of creepy clown images there are out there!)

So you’ll just have to take my word that skating like a skinny ninja is the way to go. There are a lot of friendly skaters who nod their heads politely when I tell them just that. But just wait until I start skating in my shinobi shōzoku!

Lesson notes:

  • Alternating back progressives. Work on back position (natural curve in spine), don’t initiate the change of edge with your shoulders and hips.
  • Back cross, change edge, push to cross in front. The power comes from (1) being low enough on your back inside edge so that you can push into the ice on the rise; (2) pushing under into the cross (work on these separately in crossovers); and (3) pulling into the change of edge.
  • Inside mohawks. Remember that the heel comes in first, and that you have to open both hips (from the back, not just turning out your feet); draw the new foot into position rather than thinking of transferring weight over (you have to be aligned correctly over your entry edge to do this).
  • Skinny ninja three turns. This idea works for a lot of things.


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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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Stop action

So happy for my skating friend Joe who just got back from Adult Nationals 2017. It was his very first competition and he got a gold medal in his event! Hooray, hooray!

Here’s my selfie with the AN 2017 Men’s Bronze 1&2 Gold Medallist.

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Joe the Champ!

I have been just getting back into the groove myself after taking some time off for a work-related trip. Always good to take a break, even if it means my skates feel very strange when I put them back on.

Another thing that I realize is how quickly I lose those skating muscles even if I am doing off-ice exercises and using that hotel gym. My hips and glutes are sore today! It might be because I’ve had a couple of lessons that really focused on body positions and actions that are particular to skating. It’s hard to work on this properly off the ice.

I have three of these ideas that I’m excited to work on in the coming weeks. The first is to keep my hips in a more neutral position so that my knee and ankle bend happens more easily and I stay on the optimal part of my blade. I’ve been working on this in power pulls, and it really makes a difference in how much I can control the blade.

The second idea is to focus on my skating side being more mobile, and to reduce the amount of swinging or flinging that happens on my free side. This is particularly necessary on my back pushes and edge pulls. Instead of just turning out my heel and pushing, it’s like the Highland Fling takes over. Not efficient and not safe.

The third and titular idea is to stop the “stop action” skating that I’ve been doing. This means all the little pauses and sub-curves that happen because I don’t transfer my weight, maintain my lean correctly, or trust my edge. Chickens came home to roost today when Ari gave me a new exercise: back edge pull, change edge into a double three (back inside, forward outside).  I kept getting stalled out before the double three. The problem was my back inside edge; I wasn’t really on an edge and thus couldn’t turn my body in the correct direction to continue the rotational energy.

Some of this “stop action” has to do with the “imposter edges” that I have relied on: when I am not actually on an edge, but just sort of perched precariously over my skate. I eventually get on an edge, but not immediately, and by then it’s too late. So my skating feels (and probably looks) like there’s little pauses everywhere, moments when I stop moving and just sort of hang there.

Not a great thing for flow. And flow, as you know, makes us go. Especially when our names are Jo(e).

Lesson notes:

  • power pulls (settle into neutral position, don’t clench thighs).
  • outside 3 back inside 3 (don’t let hips come around to far, isolate push, turn foot out and push to send weight back; don’t push around).
  • cross strokes (leave some ankle bend in reserve for after you’ve brought your foot in, then push under and get a full extension by pushing your foot away).
  • back power pull into double 3 (back inside 3, forward outside 3).
  • just try double threes if this is too frustrating!
  • three step mohawk pattern outside-outside and inside-inside (strong positions, get on an edge right away, more speed, placement of new lobe is not diagonal).
  • inside mohawk, back outside three (placement along circle, check inside edge).


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Bone skates, anyone?

A poem by Jane McKie, “Viking Horse-bone Ice Skates“:
The horse won’t know how its metatarsal
can be whittled by friction with the lake,
how the act of skating is part halting
glide, part planer blade; or how thick ice melts
back to health, its grooves, its scuffed ‘v’s, softening
to fill their own wounds. And the horse won’t know 
how the skating boy, who opens his mouth
as he flies, will lose three blunt teeth, two milk,
one new; how these teeth, also, will be found.

From Kitsune (Blaenau Ffestiniog:  Cinnamon Press, 2015)

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This photo is of a pair of bone skates that were discovered in Dublin 11th/12th century AD. There is also an interesting webpage out there about Viking-age ice skates, complete with photos of the brave author who tried to reconstruct and actually skate on a pair of these.

Thankfully my skates, however old, are not made of bone and there is no loss of teeth to report here! I have had enough challenges on my relatively high-tech Reidell-MK combo.

Since I don’t have equipment issues to contend with, I have to up the ante a bit. I been trying to make myself work more on things that are out of my current comfort zone. This week, this has mainly entailed skating with my arms in different positions. Laurie has me doing progressives with my arms in fifth position: up over my head, and with my thumbs touching. This makes me much more aware of how used I am to leaning slightly forward and have my shoulders raised. Similarly, I have been doing back outside edge push backs with arms in first position, thumbs touching; again, this makes me realize how much my shoulder and torso have been distorted.

Since my edges are getting stronger, I have also been trying to work on getting better positions in and out of turns. I tend to flatten out edges just before I turn (don’t know why, since it makes the turn much harder).

Still hard at work, but at least my blades are nice and sharp (got them done last week) and made of metal, not bone!

Lesson notes:

  • progressives with arms raised in fifth. Head lifted too. No bobbing!
  • push back with arms in first. Watch that you are not setting down your left foot too far forward.
  • inside edges and forward inside threes. Be really clear about the edge and starting arm positions. Control rotation.
  • mohawk push back, back outside three. No delay on second edge of mohawk.
  • alternating back crossover, change edge. On back inside edge, turn in free leg (top of thigh turns in). Knee action to gain speed on the change of edge.
  • back to front choctaw, counter. Don’t change over and do a three turn instead of a counter.
  • swing roll with edge pull, change edge to quick mohawk step forward. Keep lean into circle, especially on right side.


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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!

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Jo, Marc, JoAnne, Sonia