A Primer on Skating Part 1: Are You Serious?
As I mentioned in No Regrets Part 2, there is a small tradition of inline skaters successfully making the switch to the ice. I had assumed that my years skating inline (and recall that I did fairly well in my last season) would make my switch easier. Oh how wrong I was. Quite in fact, if anything it did more harm than good. My years doing things wrong would make reprogramming my nervous system that much more labor intensive. I’ll come back to this at the end of today’s installment.
As I quickly found out, my technique absolutely sucked. I mean everything I did was wrong. I was fit as hell and strong as hell but it didn’t do me any good on the ice. Without technique, nothing happens; you can’t muscle the ice.
Let me try to put the above in perspective, it’s really not me making excuses. At one point in the time I was in Salt Lake, I was able to out train Caleb in everything. In the weight room, despite being 60 pounds lighter than him, I could outlift him. I don’t mean pound for pound, I mean in absolute terms. I could destroy him during dryland and if we hadn’t ridden at different times, I suspect I’d have killed him there. And on the ice?
On the ice, he was 3-5 seconds faster than me per lap. He had come from downhill skiing and ice hockey and between knowing how to move on ice and knowing how to lean over without pissing himself, he was faster than me despite lesser fitness levels. Because he could skate well and I couldn’t. All my fitness and strength just didn’t make an iota of difference. Because if you can’t put it into the ice, it’s just irrelevant. It was very frustrating.
The same would happen with Eva Rodansky when she joined our group in my final year. I could keep with her on inlines (and on smaller wheels meaning I was putting out more power), could out dryland her, was stronger muscularly, etc. She was 2 seconds faster than me per lap because she knew how to put it into the ice better (she was a natural, having made essentially the Junior National Team with only 4 months on the long-track; she had done sporadic short-track prior to that).
There is a thing in skating called ice feel, it has to do with knowing how a blade moves on ice so that you can build pressure and generate force. Some people supposedly have it intuitively, some get it after years of training (many skaters said it took them at least 5 years) and some never get it.
It’s one of those ephemeral things: it can’t be taught, it can only be learned. Wooooooooooooo………
In many ways, skating is a lot like swimming and this is one of them. There, you hear about water feel. Good swimmers know how to catch the water, feel the pressure across the surfaces of their body, streamline, etc. Some have it intuitively, some get it after years, some never get it. It’s also a sport where, between water feel and technique, you get a situation where being strong and fit doesn’t mean all that much at a certain level (at the highest level you need both). And where little kids will hand you your ass because they know how to swim better than you.
Ice speedskating is like that. I got my ass handed to me by younger kids quite a few times, because they had been skating 10 years already and I hadn’t and they could skate better than me. I’m not ego-driven for the most part but that was tough to deal with at certain points in my career.
Amusingly I saw an interview with Clara Hughes (one of Canada’s most decorated Winter Olympians) two nights ago about her switch from ice hockey to speed skating and she said the same thing: she was 18 and strong as hell and little kids were outskating her because they knew how to speed skate and she didn’t. And it took her years to change that fact.
But the long and the short of it was that my technique sucked and all my strength and fitness was irrelevant beyond allowing me to train at full tilt on the ice from day 1 (i.e. I had an ungodly work capacity and could handle any training load).
A Primer on Skating Part 2: Basic Technique
Technically, skating is simply bizarre. The movement patterns are completely unique and nothing like anything you do in normal life. Ideally your knee is bent at 90 degrees with your back rounded like a cat. You push directly to the side while moving the pushing leg into internal rotation. While this is going on, you bring the recovery leg through to enter the glide phase, sitting on that skate for about 1 second before compressing and then pushing to the other side. It’s the only activity where you push sideways to go forwards; sailing is actually similar, you tack against the wind which pushes sideways to move you forwards. Newton would be appalled.
The picture below shows me in perfect basic position: back rounded, head down, reaching through with my swing-arm, knee at a 90 degree angle with the recovery leg hanging down (you may marvel at my gray shorts at your own leisure). Imagine pushing hard from this position. The push is actually down into the ice (it looks like the push is sideways since you’re falling away from the skate) while pushing the leg into internal rotation (carving the skate around) and essentially falling sideways. Yeah, right.
And that’s just the straightaway.
Then there are corners/crossovers which are literally all-important to speed skating. It’s an asymmetrical movement where you push through with one leg as you crossover the other leg (the right), and you do this with your back rounded, shoulders out of the corner, head turned in, while falling into the corner sideways due to gravity (this is where you get a lot of the acceleration). It looks like this on long-track and we always turn left.
The skater above is just finishing his left leg push; at this point, you begin to push with the right leg as you bring the left leg through. Corners are not only where you get your acceleration; they also give most skaters back problems. You generate huge strength asymmetries because of the differences in left and right leg pushes and are effectively round backed and twisted both out of (shoulders) and into (head) the corner. Your spine corkscrews.
Basically, if you have good corners, the rest really doesn’t matter; if you don’t have good corners, you can’t go anywhere since that’s where you get all of your speed and acceleration from. I would get straightaways figured out fairly soon on the ice but they did me literally no good at all. The only real point of the straightaway in the sport is to get a little bit of leg recovery and try not to lose too much speed before you re-accelerate in the corner. Every lap is skated in this weird interval style where you relax on the straights and then build the corners like a bear is chasing you. An ice-bear.
This is part of why short-trackers like Shani Davis are so good on long-track; amazing corners. In that vein, the Korean skater who took silver in the Men’s 5k in Vancouver had only been on long-track for something like 3 months; he had skated short-track his whole life and having great corners got him a medal on long-track.
It’s also why indoor inliners (whose sport is all corners) often transition to the ice better than the outdoor guys (whose racing is mostly about straightaways and endurance). I actually saw one world class indoor inliner skate one of the fastest flying laps ever (24.3 seconds which is about 37 mph) on the big oval. And he had no straightaway technique at all, his feet were turned out about 45 degrees. That’s how important corners are. And how irrelevant the straights.
This would be another source of frustration about the middle of my career: I’d see skaters who I could outskate on the straightaway, my technique was better than theirs. But it didn’t matter, they had better corners than me and I couldn’t keep up. On sprint laps, I could even stay with Caleb on the straightaways. And he’d drop me like a bad habit in the corner.
So that’s the basics of speed skating technique. It’s like no other human movement, you push sideways to go forwards and corners are just completely bizarre. One coach I demonstrated them to said “That’s the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” Another I had asked “How would you train someone for this?” said “I can’t do anything with that.” These are guys that have trained athletes in every sport; speedskating just made them go “Huh?”
And that doesn’t even get into the odd physiological demands but I’ll save those for either a later part or another full article if readers are really interested.
Inline to Ice: Part 2
I mentioned in No Regrets Part 2 that there is a small tradition of inliners switching to ice succesfully and specifically mentioned KC Boutiette, Derek Parra and Chad Hedrick. It’s worth looking at their backgrounds in terms of making the switch from inline to ice.
KC is claimed to have made an Olympic team after only 2 weeks on the ice but this isn’t entirely accurate. Not only had he spent some prior time on the ice, he worked with an athlete that my coach had taught to skate. Meaning that he had been taught classical ice technique already; he also had a huge endurance motor from his years racing pro inline marathons. As well, and this is not meant to take anything away from his accomplishment (he’s an amazing skater and just a super nice guy who was always friendly to me), but the qualifying standards were lower and, at the time, there was one US skater sort of qualifying for the 10k by default. So KC jumped in and took the spot based on his fitness and having already developed very good technique.
Derek Parra started skating indoor inline at a young age and also raced outdoors on the track. This gave him a lot of corner exposure even if inliners do some things differently (due to differences in wheels on pavement vs. a blade on ice); then he raced pro outdoor inline which gave him a motor. But he had no previous ice experience. It took him 8 years to break through and win his Gold medal. Because that’s how long it took him to get ice feel and really perfect his corners.
Finally there’s Chad Hedrick. Chad’s parents owned a skating rink and Chad probably knew how to skate before he could walk. He skated indoor inline which means tons of corners. He played ice hockey his whole life (a little known fact is that he invented the double push, a different skating technique used by inline racers, while playing hockey) so he had ice feel (and starts). And he dominated outdoor inline so he had a huge motor. As I said, he had the full skill set to go from zero to World Champion on the ice in 1.5 years.
Basically, all three had previous skill-sets that allowed them do make the switch to ice and succeed.
And Then There’s Me
I had assumed I’d be in a similar situation to the above guys (going from my final year competition results) but I was utterly wrong. My 8+ years of inline did nothing to help me on the ice. If anything, they hurt me.
I think I had ice skated like twice in my 20’s (home from college and wanting to ‘train’ for inline in some fashion). I’d skated indoors once when I was about 8 and actually touched an indoor racing track for the first time 3 nights ago in Austin, Texas. Rather, all my race experience was outdoor 10k’s; while there were some corners, it was mostly straightaways.
And my technique on everything was simply awful.
On the straightaway I skated with a flat back, stayed in-between my skates (no outside edges), and pushed back instead of sideways. It was awful and whatever power I had didn’t push me forwards very effectively. How I skated as well as I did in my 20’s is beyond me: I guess I got by on youth, strength and stupidity. Inline is also a bit more forgiving as a sport, you can bypass some technical issues by just being strong. But that doesn’t pay the bills on the ice.
Most inliners have bad corners (they tend to look in since you never know what’s around the next corner when you’re skating outside) but mine were flat-out awful. I turned my shoulders in, flattened my back and would step in with my left foot to come into balance, I was never falling into the corner or letting gravity help me pick up speed.
And I thought I could make the jump in 1.5 years. Yeah, right. It would take me until February of my next to last year to finally get anything approaching decent corners and really lock-in perfect straightaway technique (which again, doesn’t really matter). Sadly that wasn’t long enough to get good/efficient at them.
As I mentioned above, if anything my inline experience made it worse rather than better, I had burned in a staggering number of bad habits that I’d have to break. And that takes time. But Rex was a technical master and I was an attentive and obsessive student; he would give constant feedback and I’d work like hell to get it right.
It was going to be a long 5.5 years.
To be continued in No Regrets Part 5.