Here’s a dirty little secret.
When you land a jump in figure skates you’re effectively landing flat-footed on concrete in bare feet with weights attached to your legs.
If you want to get an idea of how damaging landing flat-footed on concrete is then try landing flat-footed on a carpet from a jump of a few inches (disclaimer: do this at your own risk).
If you tried that did you feel shock juddering through your body?
Imagine landing from a height of a foot or so onto concrete.
Ice, in case you hadn’t realised it, is the equivalent of concrete.
Ask any dedicated skater who’s got to their mid-20s and who has done plenty of jumps whether or not they’ve got knackered knees or hips.
The likely answer is ‘yes’.
Usually when landing from a jump in our shoes we land with our toes first, which absorbs a lot of the impact, and then land on our heels.
When landing from a jump on ice the skate blade has to hit the ice flat otherwise the skater falls over. Therefore the legs are unable to absorb the impact as they’re meant to and the knee and hip joints take far too much of the strain.
The skate also has no ‘give’.
Take a look inside any ice skate and see if there’s anything more than the most token of insoles. Feel the plastic used for the heel and sole and note how rigid it is.
Also, feel the weight of that skate. An adult’s skate can easily weigh 1.2 kg, the equivalent of our lead weights above.
Here’s another dirty little secret.
No one will tell you any of this.
Really, no one at all.
Not the person who sells you the skates, not the organisations that oversee ice skating, and certainly not the manufacturers of ice skates.
There’s a culture of connivance and complicity that seeks to overlook uncomfortable (unprofitable?) truths and an unwillingness to stick heads above parapets.
It gets worse:
- The upper part of a figure skate is horribly, primitively designed. The skate can, perhaps, be divided into two parts. The bottom part covers the foot and is meant to be a tight fit. The top part wraps round the ankle giving largely theoretical support to the ankle – theoretical since unless you’re built with the ankle bones of a horse it’s impossible to tie the rigid leather tightly enough to the ankle to give support and allow flexibility. In reality many skaters leave a gap of about one finger’s width between their ankle and the top of the skate, allowing the ankle to flex within a certain range. Beyond that range the ankle hits the leather and then gets ‘support’. It’s a bit like driving a car and having the steering wheel turn an inch either way before the wheels turn. There’s no real gradation of support over a range of movement e.g. so that the more the ankle is flexed the more support there is. Nor is there much range of movement. The ankle hits the edge of the tube of rigid leather surrounding it and stops – painfully. The skate becomes a rigid, unforgiving thing stuck to the bottom of the leg.
- The material used for the upper part of a figure skate is usually leather. This might be a wonderful material in some ways but in ice skates it’s usually used in one thickness only. And that thickness is ‘ rock hard’ thickness. There might be variations of rock hard but they’re still all rock hard. And skaters have to go through an idiotic and painful process of ‘wearing in’ their boots until there’s some slight degree of flexibility in them.
- There’s usually one lace to tie up the whole skate, meaning that it’s either unbearably tight round the foot in order to be tight round the ankle, or loose round the foot in order to be loose round the ankle. If it’s too tight it reduces flexibility, and if it’s too loose it becomes dangerous.
- The back of a figure skate goes part way up the ankle. This is meant to provide support after landing from a jump. If you’re unlucky enough to fall and land on your knees and your upper body goes backwards then your tendons are stretched to the point where something in your foot rips because your foot is unable to flex as it so desperately wants to. Been there, done that, hence this post (criminally stupid figure skate manufacturers ).
Sid Broadbent, former researcher for the US Olympic Committee and manufacturer of the ‘Incredible Edger’ skate sharpening machines has this to say:
‘While boot manufacturers agreed the Coplanar configuration involved no additional manufacturing cost, their adoption of the concept would have been virtual admittance that their current manufacture (and that for the past two centuries) was less than optimum, plainly ignoring or not bothering to comprehend the advantages of Coplanar for: the skate/blade manufacturer, the skater and the skate technician.’
Cécile Däniker Rüsch, former skater:
‘The skating boot must be conceived as an extension of the lower leg. It must adhere to the lower calf muscles like a glove. To do this the leather at this level must be supple and the boot should be laced snugly around the leg, cut high enough to allow this. There is no boot today made in this way. The skater who achieves control of the foot and ankle in school figures will only need a slightly stiffer boot for free skating. He will certainly not need the present day boot which is cut too low and is so stiff that the ankle can never take a lateral movement nor can it extend to propel correctly the jumps. This alone is presently causing atrophy of the lower leg and foot and contributing to the plethora of leg and foot injuries: tendonitis, bursitis and bone spurs in skaters of all ages. It should also be noted that young skaters who have been training in these rigid boots have feet that are totally unable to fully extend in off ice movements.’
Sid Broadbent again:
‘A major outcome of all this, as far as skating equipment was concerned, was the realization that skating boots still embodied walking boot features – a carry over from two centuries ago when the skater walked to the local pond and the skate had to fit the very boots he/she was wearing.’
Protecting the joints
The most pressing problem is the damage that jumping in ice skates does to the joints, mainly the knees and hips. The impact of the landing needs to be absorbed so that this damage doesn’t occur.
- A stop-gap measure for individual skaters until the ice skate manufacturers get their act together (after forever) is to use a couple of gel pads underneath each foot. It feels like skating on marshmallows for about six weeks but you get used to it.
- Wedge-shaped gel pads might work, where the thin end of the wedge fits under the ball of the foot and the thick end under the heel. If the heel is made of a softer gel than the toe then it might – possibly – create a slight toe-heel movement on landing.
- Another alternative is to have gel pads that soften under specific impact loads (depending on the weight of the skater). Under normal conditions the gel pad is fairly firm. When landing from a jump it momentarily softens and absorbs the load. Bear in mind that even when not jumping the normal bumps and holes in an ice rink are transmitted directly through the ice skate and into the joints. A firm gel pad under the foot should be used by all skaters at all times as a bare minimum.
- The sports bodies governing ice skating should make a certain level of absorption of impact by ice skates compulsory for anyone competing. Skaters would feel compelled to train in boots that conformed to these rules in order to familiarise themselves with the boots. Manufacturers would have to wake up from their comas. Different grades of competition would have different levels of absorption of impact e.g. at lower grades (usually children and teenagers) the boots would absorb the most impact so that growing bones and joints aren’t damaged (as they almost certainly ARE damaged at present).
- It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of ice skate manufacturers (well, theoretically …) to devise a blade that’s on some sort of absorbent bed e.g. a leaf spring or a hydraulic piston. When the landing impact exceeds a certain level the blade retracts slightly.
Reducing the weight of skates
Figure skates are heavy. Really, really heavy, given that skaters are meant to jump in them. ‘Modern’ figure skates appear to have been built in the 1940′s. They’re made of thick, heavy leather with a blob of steel bolted on underneath.
What can one say? Please, figure skate manufacturers, try some different materials. Just about ‘good enough’ isn’t really good enough, not any more. Not in 2011. And start drilling holes in everything. Holes in the blade, holes in the heel, and why not holes in the leather (if you still insist on using leather)?
Increasing the flexibility of skates
- The idea that skates have to be ‘worn in’ is something out of the dark ages. If we have to buy primitive skates made of leather (you might have noticed that trainers are no longer made of leather) then put them on a machine and wear them in for us.
- Use materials other than leather so that different parts of the boot can have different strengths and different flexibilities. Boot manufacturers appear to cut costs by using one sheet of rock-hard leather for the whole boot. No more – purlease!
- Have two laces, one for the bottom of the boot, one for the ankle support. That way the skater can adjust the tightness of the bottom of the boot and the ankle ‘support’ separately and get the flexibility that she or he wants.
Making boots safer
Skis have release bindings to prevent injury during a fall. Figure skates that have high rigid backs should literally burst apart at the back if the force on them exceeds a certain level. Even the most witless manufacturer can cut a slit down the back of the figure skate and attach the two sides together with replaceable plastic ties that break under a certain load. Duh!
Creating ankle support
What a skater needs is ankle support that increases gradually the further the ankle is flexed. And the ankle should be able to flex within it’s full natural range of movement (which it can’t in the present dinosaur generation of figure skates). When the ankle is in danger of exceeding safe limits the support should be at its maximum. That support should also be variable in different directions. Sideways support, for example, might be less than backwards support. Ideally it should be possible for the skater to adjust the ankle support as they wish. Skaters have different body weights and different muscle strengths.
One way – just to throw in an idea – could be to use modern materials that allow vertical metal or plastic rods to be inserted into tubes or channels in the fabric of the skate. Different grades of plastic or metal rod could have different flexibilities, allowing the skater to choose the flexibility that they want in any direction.
Some of the old-style ‘calf boot’ skates were also possibly a better design than ‘modern’ skates. A soft leather boot extended up the calf. I’ve never worn one, but perhaps the calf section of the boot provided support for the ankle. And soft leather … hey, what were they thinking of ?
An answer to the question
Why are figure skates so badly designed?
Because the designers of figure skates are moronic.
And those in the upper echelons of ice-skating are too afraid of repercussions to rock the boat, presumably because at the very top there are weasel-minded vindictive committee men and women, just as there are in most sports’ governing bodies.
That’s my guess.
A brief history of ice skating
What is left of the art of skating? The judging system, meant to eliminate cheating judges (not competitors) is a disaster.
Ice skating boots and blades
Skaters want change (2007)
Incidence of stress fractures in skaters
The Jackson Proflex ‘Stormtrooper’ boot, official page here (it’s an unbelievably dire site for a major company). Fashion-conscious teenage girls stayed away in their millions. The boot was discontinued with the manufacturers blaming customers for not supporting them rather than themselves for not meeting market needs.
Technical skills and jumps have replaced choreography and artistic interpretation.
Skating injuries (PDF, slow download)