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Why are figure skates so badly designed?

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.


Let’s qualify that a tiny bit. When landing from a jump in ice-skates we land toe-first very slightly. But the blade, the boot and the bottom of the foot are rigid. The pivot point is ahead of the toes whereas when we land from a jump bare-footed we land on the ball of the foot (which is also the pivot point) and the rest of the foot is roughly at 45 degrees to the ground.

This means that when wearing ice-skates there’s hardly any distance for the foot to move to absorb the shock of landing and a major structure of the foot that’s meant to absorb that shock doesn’t come into play.

This has the effect of trashing male and female jumper’s knees. Ask former professionals from their mid twenties onwards what their joints are like (‘knackered but if I keep moving I’m okay’). In pairs skating where the woman is thrown it has the effect of trashing female hips. You might want to think about this when you next see your teenage daughter being hurled across the ice.

In what other sport are athletes’ feet encased so rigidly and treated with such disdain? Ice skates are effectively walking boots with lumps of metal stuck to the bottom of them.

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.

The secret is that no one will tell you any of this, 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 wraps round the foot and is meant to be a tight fit. The ‘top’ part wraps round the ankle and gives 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: ‘rock hard’. 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 compares current ice-skates to walking boots, ‘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’ and says that manufacturers don’t want to admit ‘that their current manufacture (and that for the past two centuries) was less than optimum’ whilst distributors’ dominating concern ‘is understandably continuity of livelihood, new models are a hazard to their inventories, would it become obsolete, money locked up in unwanted stock’.

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.’



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 AND CAUSE DAMAGE TO THE JOINTS even if professionals are conditioned not to notice it and young children are unaware of it. 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 two hundred years of coma and stupidity. Different grades of competition would have different levels of absorption of impact e.g. at lower grades (usually children and young 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 one can only hope …) to devise a blade that’s on some sort of absorbent bed (e.g. a leaf spring or a hydraulic piston) or better still to come up with a blade that flexes at one end. When a certain load is exceeded the blade retracts (in the first example) or flexes (in the case of the second example, images below). Different blades for different body weights and skill levels – think of the marketing opportunities! Think of the money! (How DO you wake organisations from their comas?)


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, wakey wakey. Try some different materials. Just about ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough any more. Not in 2013. And start drilling holes in everything. Holes in the blade, holes in the heel, and why not holes in the leather (if you MUST 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 – please! Wise up!
  • Have two laces, one for the bottom of the boot and one for the ankle support. That way the skater can adjust the tightness of the bottom of the boot and the ankle so-called ‘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. Well 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 because skaters have different body weights and different muscle strengths. Nike, if you’re reading this there’s a whole market here ready for your trainer-style marketing!

One way to achieve the above support – 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 adjust 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.

Soft leather … hey, what were they thinking of ? 🙂

Oh – and the high heels that skaters are meant to wear! WTF? Try walking in high heels never mind jumping on ice in them! Yes, they make legs look longer and more elegant but why not raise up the front of the skate as well as the heel?

An answer to the question

Ah, yes.

Why are figure skates so badly designed?

Because the designers of figure skates are frighteningly moronic.

And those in the upper echelons of the sport of ice-skating are too afraid of repercussions to rock the boat presumably because at the very very top there are narrow-minded vindictive committee men and women just as there are in most sports’ governing bodies.

Just a guess.


Further reading

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 and shows how completely out of touch they are with reality. Slow loading  screenshot from 2014, it’s actually quite sad ). Fashion-conscious teenage girls stayed away in their millions. The boot was discontinued with the manufacturer 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)

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4 Comments     0 Pings

By Geoff ED**** Fri Aug 11th 2017 at 12:35 pm  

Interesting article. I used to use SP Teri Super Teri boots but can’t afford them now 465 GBP! I think that they are well designed, there is an article on the design somewhere on the web. The lining of boots is what absorbs and allows some movement. I am 75 and can still do a ring of three jumps around Swindon Ice Rink and used to be able to be able to do a ring of backwards tee pots around the rink as well. Although I don’t do double jumps I weigh 87kg, my knees are still soft and hips ok.

My issue is with the lack of a service to get expensive boots relined. I would have thought that the sides of the boot need to be rock hard as skating is different to walking in that the skater uses edges and the body leans whereas walking and running dont.

By Hilda Wed Jul 11th 2012 at 2:18 am  

Ice hockey skate boots are made of different materials and they look something like a cross between basketball trainers and snowboarding boots – both sports which need ankle flexibility yet support, shock absorbption, etc. Some changes would need to be made to account for figure skating’s jumps and spins but the technology is obviously there. And I can’t see a reason why figure blades can’t use titanium or titanium alloy, like some hockey skates. They’d require less sharpening too. Boggles the mind. Imagine how light and comfortable a skate made with a mix of gels, carbon fibre, polyurethane and nylon for the boot and titanium for the blade would be.

In the meantime, for breaking in hard leather boots, do what cyclists who use old-school leather saddles do to speed up the process. Warm up the leather with a hair dryer, soak in some Proofide or Dubbin, then wrap a hammer in a towel and start bashing (carefully), checking every now and then for how the leather is going.

By admin Wed Jul 11th 2012 at 1:01 pm  

Nice tip about breaking in the boots.:-)

Agree with everything else you said. Boggles the mind. This is a niche industry asleep at the wheel. Probly ‘cos the various bodies in charge of ice-skating are also asleep at the wheel, conditioned into group-think.

By Lucy Mon Oct 16th 2017 at 2:49 pm  

I agree this is definitely a niche industry, I am putting together a theoretical project for my final year at university and this article definitely helps I would love to talk to you guys further on this if you are interested in being a part of my project please feel free to email me at ******, maybe we can change the world who knows! I get this article is a few years old now but worth a shot

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