jo skates

Thoughts about skating and the practice of everyday life


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My free leg is my friend

It is has been a rocky road on the way to my total skating makeover, but I’ve decided that constant criticism and self-deprecation are not the way to go. I haven’t really been yelling at myself, but that snarky little inner voice (“what the heck are you doing?”) has been pretty vocal lately, to the point that I can detect it even in my highly censored little Mary Sunshine blog.

Sarcasm? Me?

I have made some pretty important discoveries this year, like realizing that I need to work on my right ankle strength and mobility, or not popping my ribcage, or shifting that right side slightly more to the right (wow!). Every time I figure something new out, it’s like I have an entirely new body part to keep in mind–and to keep track of.

This has been both psychologically and physically exhausting.  I feel like every week I discover a new set of muscles that I haven’t been using. I am constantly sore in different places, and sometimes I’m so tired at the end of the day that I don’t know what to do.  I sit down to do some stretching and I think, just shoot me now and have done with it.

And then I start laughing, because this is really all my doing. I’m the one who wanted to learn how to skate correctly–not just barrel through different motions, but really learn how to do them. And this is exactly what it takes.

I can either accept this and embrace it for what it is, or I can turn and run full tilt towards another activity. Like. . . hmmmm. . . .

Okay, let me tell you about my great discovery this week, which happened while I was having a lesson on (surprise!) forward progressives in a circle. Laurie told me that I wasn’t engaging my quads as part of my extension, which meant that I wasn’t fully straightening my free leg and I wasn’t completing the push and I didn’t have the force of the extension to counter-balance the skating knee bend.  Which is quite a mouthful, but then again, this was quite the revelation.

I haven’t been thinking much about my free leg extension at all. In fact, if I had to sketch out who I thought the main character of my skating body drama was, it would definitely have been the skating leg.  Yes, the skating leg would dominate, and the free leg would just be the sidekick, just sort of hanging out at best or at worst just dangling there while the skating leg charmed or used its spidey-sense or kick-boxed its way out of any sticky situation.

But no more. Once I actively engaged the quad of the free leg, it became its own raison d’être. I realized that this was not just about getting an attractive extension, but about a fundamental principle of balance. Without the necessary muscle tension on the free side, there is nothing to counter the awesome force of the skating side.

So instead of sitting there inadequately stretching (I’ll do the stretching later) I look at pictures of ice dancers and think about how they are engaging the quads on their free legs. After all, as Laurie said, this not only looks better, but “it’s correct.”

Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA)

Awesome use of quads on free legs!

A few pictures later and the snarky voice is silenced by the joy of contemplating fabulous free legs! My free leg is my friend!

Lesson notes:

  • head and back position, “unflare” ribs rather than drawing them down
  • forward inside edges, draw free leg through without disrupting edge by tracing half circle; arms more neutral–don’t pull yourself forward by the arms and shoulders
  • back inside edges: squirrel tail towards boards, practice doing this with two feet evenly weighted in order to learn to do it without sticking your hip out
  • progressives: tighten quad on free leg to avoid leg kicking up
  • do same thing on push into three turn; arms more neutral; try to do a tighter circle and deeper edge (learn to use rotation rather than “steering” into it)
  • practice rising while maintaining ankle bend and weight forward on blade
  • practice keeping free leg straight (tighten quad and bend ankle)
  • exercise: straight down the rink, extend back (stretch knee forward), then rise up with feet together–hold tightly for several beats

 


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I think I can

So the musical selection today is the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata #16, nicknamed “Sonata facile” because Mozart himself said this sonata was for beginners. And I chose this movement because (1) it’s the easiest of all the movements, and (2) it is “Andante” or “walking tempo.”

Both describe (1) the easy things I’ve been working on, and (2) the slow speed at which I do them. I am not ashamed to be working on these things, even though they are très facile–or at least they seem as though they should be.

I remind myself that if I were a professional musician, I’d be working on scales my whole life. If I were a ballet dancer, I’d be doing barre every day. Somehow I didn’t expect to still be working on the basics of pushing, weight shifting, and alignment, but there you go.

One emphasis for the week has been trying to keep my weight over my pushing side longer. I realized that I was thinking about this all wrong. I would push as if I were extending my body away from the skating foot, like pushing a scooter along. This meant that some of my weight invariably remained over my pushing foot, which caused me to lean out of the circle. It really helps to think about my pushing side as first firming up  (like a wall, Laurie says), but then releasing to send both hips forward.

Another issue has been maintaining the “hips under” position on inside edges, both forwards and backwards. My inside edges tend to cave in rather precipitously after turns, and I realized that this came from the bigger problem of dropping my free side into the circle (which came from the even bigger problem of just allowing those hip muscles to release rather than staying engaged).

One more issue is my ribcage alignment.  I think that moving my right ribcage just slightly to the right helps to put me in the better place on many moves. I have to keep reminding myself to do this, though. I may have to work on this off-ice as well, since I suspect I still have a degree of functional scoliosis from that hip misalignment.

Will really have to work on these issues. Honestly, I’m not sure how many more times I can get Ari to say “don’t stick your hip out” before he has steam coming out of his ears! But it’s not my long-suffering coaches I’m worried about. It’s about what will happen when one of these days I’m actually pushing and shifting and aligned.

Then I’ll actually be going fast.

Instead of the little engine chugging slowly up the hill, I’ll be screaming with terror as I rocket around the rink! Whoa, Nelly!

But until that day: I think I can. I think I can. I think I can!

Lesson notes:

  • edges, pushes
  • think about how you’re bringing free foot in. Try bending free leg and pointing free toe down toward ice to maintain “flat hip” (relaxed hip flexors) on skating side
  • back inside three with foot in front
  • back inside three, forward inside three. Don’t worry about curve, concentrate on shifting weight from back to forward on blade.
  • three step inside mohawk pattern. Hips under.
  • forward inside 3 (top of circle, bring foot in to turn), back outside 3; forward outside 3, back inside 3 (foot in front). Work on getting half circles to be of equal size.


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Give me one more chance

Sometimes my skating lessons feel like marriage-counseling sessions. My latest one:

Laurie: Move your ribcage farther to the right, over and beyond your skating side.

Mind: You mean that I’m supposed to put my upper body over there? That feels wrong.

Body: How would you know? You should trust your coach. And it doesn’t feel right to me, the way you’ve done it for all those years. How about how feel?

Jo thinks she’s doing the ribcage-thing, but she’s not.

Laurie: Don’t stick your hip out instead. That’s exactly the opposite of what you’re supposed to do.

Body: That’s right, sticking your hip out is an old trick that you always play on me to make things feel balanced. But they never are.

Laurie: Try thinking about it like a matador’s cape that you’re waving over your skating side. Yes, that’s it.

Jo does it. OMG. Body weeps for joy.

Mind: I am so, so sorry. All those years and I never listened to you. I just kept skating, thinking everything was okay.

Awkward pause, as everyone concerned reflects on this momentous breakthrough.

Mind: I promise I will make it up to you! My ribcage will be better. Everything will be better. Can’t we just give it another try?

Okay, maybe that was a little too much. So here’s a song to bring this little drama to a close, Lake Street Dive’s sidewalk version of Michael Jackson’s “I Want You Back.”

And some pictures of folks who have my back. It takes a village! Or a Greek chorus!

Lesson notes:

  • progressives: inside hip leads, don’t crank shoulders around, just bring arm gently to front. Try holding inside edge: weight stays over the hip on the inside of the circle. When you go clockwise, make sure you are pushing back (not allowing your push to send you into the circle).
  • two edge pulls, push on inside edge to repeat on other side: keep free leg extended forward, don’t pull early, establish your edge-curve-circle first
  • inside “syncopate” with edge pull: use weight over inside hip to accentuate circle, do this with your ankle/knee bend, not upper body
  • three turn, edge pull: don’t twist into the circle after the three, instead, keep skating arm directly over inside edge. Turn out free leg–this is an edge pull, not a change of edge.
  • back outside edges: arms clasped in front, head in correct position; knee bends to counter stretch of free leg. Work on weak side.
  • back insides edges in “infinity” pattern: allow head and upper body to rotate; try thinking of the matador cape to really get your ribcage over the skating side.
  • back outside edges: correct upper body and head position
  • three turn: free leg energy goes in same direction as skating leg to eliminate separation after turn.


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Poppin’ fresh Jo

So in my Pilates class, I’m always being told not to “pop” my ribs. This is when the lower part of the ribcage releases forward, allowing the back to arch and the shoulders to pull back. Or in the scary description from this Pilates website:

Imagine your torso is a cylinder. Your rib cage is obviously pretty sturdy and so is your pelvis, but what about that whole center section? As far as bony structure in between the ribs and pelvis, all you have is your spine. That leaves the window open for your body to create a dumping scenario, like it is dumping your organs out of your body cavity. The rib cage flares open, the lumbar spine curves, and the pelvis tilts, allowing your whole belly to fall forward.

Lovely, huh? For the past couple of years, I’ve been working hard on trying to keep my organs in my body cavity for at least an hour each week. Since this is related to anterior pelvic tilt, it’s a priority for my off-ice postural work.

So I guess I should have anticipated Laurie’s admonition this week, which went something like this: “Don’t pop your ribcage.” Luckily because I’ve heard this so many times from Sarah, I knew exactly what this meant. Engage the core muscles! (Keep the pod bay doors closed! Don’t release the Kraken!)

Laurie wants to add an additional dimension to this, which is that I pull my latissimus dorsiflexion muscles (lats for short) down at the same time so that I don’t hunch forward. This is not the same thing as pulling my shoulders back, which only accentuates the ribs popping, as in this scary picture from “Physio Detective.”

bad-posture

Squeezing the shoulder blades together and pushing the chest up and forward may feel good (at least it does to me) but it produces really problematic skating. The upper body becomes balanced incorrectly over the blades, spilling out forwards and then compensating by pulling backwards.

Contrast this with the gorgeously cylindrical bodies of these ice dancers. This position is really quite delightfully stable. I’m not 100% there yet (not even close) but already I can feel the difference!

Now I know the doughboy is cute, but do you really want to skate like him?

This week’s goal: to keep my ribs from popping so my coaches don’t have to poke me in the tummy!

Lesson notes:

  • edge pulls: think about ankle pressure and the rise in the knee creating the change. Don’t force or dig the pull, let it happen naturally.
  • swing roll, change edge: allow the free leg and side to move over to the correct position on the inside edge.
  • back cross rolls: start with a good edge. Bend free leg into place (not a swing roll!!!) and think about when you need to load the foot for the push/extension.
  • forward three turns: don’t pop your ribcage!

 

 


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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. This bone actually

 

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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Ms. Stiff

Okay, I know that sounds like a tongue twister. But it’s really the only way to describe how I’m feeling these days on my forward power pulls, especially on the right side. Laurie said today that it looks like I’m trying to skate with my hips locked in one position, which means that basically I am in the skating equivalent of a straitjacket.

There is only a fine line between refined and restrained. I have been so focused on trying to keep my body positioned in a certain way over my hip that I’m not allowing the proper movement in the joint. Laurie had me doing power pulls with my hands clasped behind my back so I couldn’t use my shoulders to pull my body around. After the initial terror wore off, I was able to do some tentative edges. But it felt completely weird.

This got me thinking about how much of skating is controlling one’s every move, and how much is going with the flow. It is so hard to know when I can just be loose-goosey, especially when I feel like certain body parts (arms! head! free leg!) are constantly flying about in unexpected ways.

But too much control is not good for the mind or body. For one, it’s exhausting to try to control everything all the time. Brain gets that fried feeling, and finally gives up. For two, body can’t handle all those different commands. Muscles clench and stumble. I may as well have smoke coming out of my ears.

It’s the skating equivalent of a tongue twister. Speaking of which, here are my two favorites (especially the second):

The sixth sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick.

Miss Bixby licks mixed biscuits.

And just for fun, I’m going to put in this video that my son told me to include. I was going to save it for an other post on falling down, but that seems like jinxing myself. So here it is now.

Oh, for 16.6% of Earth’s gravity!

Lesson notes:

  • swing roll, change mohawk, change of edge, step forward (work on just the change of edge to get control over the flat part, try with foot in front, then behind like in Fiesta tango)
  • inside brackets (work on turned in position)
  • three turn, change edge, cross in front, step forward and repeat (work on better curves on change edge part)
  • inside mohawk, back outside three (make sure you are always pushing immediately from inside edge to mohawk)
  • forward progressives (don’t twist too much, awareness of hip position, work on loading feet)
  • back crossovers ( weight inside, real push, real transfer, don’t let arms get too high)
  • forward power pulls (don’t lock hips, allow for movement of hips and ribs, arms down; do these with feet, not with rest of body)
  • backwards power pulls (eyes 75 feet ahead, use free leg on edge to define direction)


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Bunny ears and turtle Jo

So Mary of  Fit&Fed told me that she had not heard the term “bunny ears” to describe the tracing that mohawks make. I wasn’t aware that this isn’t common usage until I tried searching for the term as associated with figure skating and couldn’t find anything except my last blog post and a reference to an iCoachSkating lesson. Since I haven’t looked at the iCoachSkating series, I’m wondering whether this is actually a term that many folks use, or if I’ve been the victim of a vast etymological conspiracy (“let’s tell Jo that this tracing is referred to as “bunny ears” and people will say “aw, how cute!” when she uses this expression”).

Anyway, here’s the picture from the Ice Dance Analysts:

And here’s my version with bunny-eared outline (I swear I’m not the only one who uses this term):

Anyway, when I said in my last post that I was successfully making “bunny ears,” what I meant was that the tracing of the entry edge crosses the tracing of the exit end, making for an even transfer of weight and continuous circle.

Bunny ears are part of the master plan that I’ve been working on to increase my speed. Both my coaches have been pointing out that this is a major challenge for me. I start with little speed and then slow to a crawl as I move on down the ice.

Many many years ago I took some figure tests (yes, I am that old) and one judge said that I was skating the figure too quickly (he passed me anyway). Those days of being the “rabbit” are long gone and now I’m at turtle-speed even on my peppy days.

Slow and steady may be okay for learning, but you do need a certain amount of speed to skate on actual edges.  Without at least some speed, you can’t lean. And without lean, you are constantly having to fight for balance.

So a two-pronged approach:

  1. With the help of both coaches, I have been identifying places where I fail to push. These may be place where I feel like I’m pushing, but I’m not really digging into the ice, or releasing onto the new foot too soon. Common problems happen with pushing off the back inside edge (which unfortunately means a lot of skating backwards) and pushing under the back outside edge (crossovers).
  2. I have been trying to get rid of anything that causes a glitch, bump, gap, or other loss of flow in my skating. Beginning skaters getting in my way on a public session are not the problem. What happens is that I may be slightly off my hip or out of position on my blade, and am not efficiently transferring from one edge to another (turns) or fail to get an additional edge pull when needed.

That’s the overall picture for the week–here’s a couple of notes from my lesson:

  • two-footed rocker warmup: make sure these are actually rockers rather than three turns (jump the turn if necessary) and look in the proper direction (change head on the change of edge).
  • alternating inside mohawk, back outside threes: more speed, don’t use hip to do back outside three turn (use upper body twist instead, look into direction of new circle), emphasize inside edge after the back outside three
  • alternating inside mohawk, back outside three, forward inside three (do these on the first part of the circle), push (and check) onto a forward outside cross; step and repeat on other side

Fast and furious, Jo!