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The subtleties and beauty of the speed skating stride



Recently a couple of comments by various friends have made me realise that few people know how complex a good speed skating stride is. These friends are all master skaters here in London and frequent Hyde Park, and are mostly keen on other disciplines such as hockey, slalom, freestyle, etc. They are disciplined and hard practicing skaters, often working on their skills many hours each week, well how else did they get to be so good at what they do!

I just found it amazing that they didn't realise that speed skating requires just as much hard work to become fast and efficient. That's the thing with this though - people don't get to see the thousands of hours of hard technical work that's put into skating smoothly and well.
Why so much work on technique?

Technique is important for all sorts of reasons, but mostly economy of motion. Become more economical, and you can skate further and faster for the same amount of effort. It can take years of practicing an incredible number of weird drills of steadily increasing difficulty to build good technique, but the results are truly amazing. You can expect things like:

* Excellent balance to the point that a skater's technique hardly changes when skating over rough pavement.
* Unnecessary motion is eliminated, making a good stride look effortlessly smooth.
* A good stride like this is so beautiful and graceful that most people who see someone skate well like this immediately want to emulate it themselves.
* The ability to take bumps and clacking of skates in the pack, mostly without falling. Racing can sometimes have a lot of contact and aggression!
* You get to skate alongside other skaters and have an easy conversation while they can barely talk, sounding like a dirty crank call. Beating the odd cyclist is pretty cool too.


The relationship between fitness and technique?

Anyone can get very fit fairly quickly, and building fitness is really a matter of knowing how and when to train. I think this is much easier than working on technique where it can take many years to build an effective speed skating stride. There's another point, in that fitness will only get you so far, whilst technique is the place you're likely to find the biggest and easiest increases in speed and efficiency.

Good technique is all about economy of motion and learning how to go faster with the same or less effort. Say you train your body to super fitness as a cyclist, and now try it out on a couple of different bikes. Put yourself on a mountain bike on a long road race, and will it go as fast as on a road bike? Let's take it a step further to a fully faired recumbent bike, and just see how much faster you'd be then! Of course a recumbent is extremely efficient, and I think the world record for an hour is something like 51 miles, compared with 35 miles for a standard road bike. Of course this is comparing aerodynamic efficiency with skating technique efficiency (since cycling has relatively little in the way of technique, at least compared with skating), but it does show the difference between fitness and efficiency. So efficiency and good technique have a massive effect on how fast you can skate.

Skate in a big marathon like Berlin, and the differences between the faster skaters near the front and the slower skaters is really noticeable. You can see the slower skaters taking lots of strides and not going as quickly, they stumble a lot and can't deal with bumps from other skaters in the crowd as well.

Your first marathon?

All the above is also the reason recreational skaters can be impressed with themselves if they do a marathon in less than two and a half hours. If you've done a marathon in this sort of time, well done! Don't be dispirited with the skaters who've gone much faster, and head back to your local skating area with the marathon experience under your belt. Now you have a bunch more time and motivation to work on your technique, and go a whole lot faster next time you go out skating.
Different ways of acquiring better skating technique

Lessons with an Instructor

The number one way is to take a series of lessons with an instructor. He or she will have lots of drills to show you and can analyse your technique with an instructor's eye to see what you're doing well, and what you need to improve. A good alternative if there are no instructors located near you is to join a speed skating club, or to skate regularly with a more experienced skater. Many clubs will take newcomers eagerly to help build their numbers, and are normally very accommodating and helpful regardless of your skill level. Don't forget to practice hard on your own in between lessons, else the benefit of lessons is much reduced.

I'd recommend an Eddy Matzger workshop, or lessons with a IISA certified instructor. Of course I'm a little biased on these since I make money from teaching skating lessons.

Practice in a group

Arranging regular practice with a group of skaters is a great way to discipline yourself to work on technique often. Even better, having others to watch you can help tremendously with feedback. So many people experience conflict between their own internal image of themselves and the actual skating motions they make not matching up, and this is one of the main reasons instructors will always have business.

Video Review

Together with practising in a group, another quality tool is video review. Get one person with a video camera and tape yourselves skating, don't drop the camera though! Then go have a social meal/drink at someone's house, and all go through the video on a frame by frame basis. Make sure you comment on the good points that each person has, and also on the things they need to improve. Take notes too, and make a resolution to go work on the biggest problems before the next video review session.

If you're able to come here to London, I offer video review sessions as part of my lessons.
Always skate as well as you can

When you're skating, make sure every stride from the very first one to the last one is the best possible technique you can do. That way you'll be laying down good muscle memory. Always make sure you're skating within your own technical ability to ensure that each stride is quality skating efficiency. When you get too tired to do this, it's time to stop skating for the day. Lots of tiredness not only degrades your technique, you loose coordination and that's the time you're more likely to have a fall.

Technique Intervals

Technique intervals are another great way of improving. A part of training for marathons is base aerobic training at low intensity, the well known long slow distance. This is an excellent time to do technique intervals. Here's how: Decide how to chop up the distance of the long slow skate into a number of short sections 2-5 minutes in length. Maybe you're skating laps of a path, or maybe you'll just time the periods on your watch. Here's what you're going to do - skate the first interval and focus on getting your knees to touch between every stride. There's no change in intensity or rests between "intervals", you stay at the long slow distance pace, it's just that you're focusing on one section of your technique at a time.

The next "interval" work on your forwards push, but forget about your knees since it's not only very hard but also ineffective to try to learn and work on more than one thing at once. For all the other intervals, keep working on a different one each time - your heel carve, having wiggly toes, outside edge set-down, recovery, etc. etc. There are plenty of bits to do that you won't get bored for the entire LSD skate, even if it's a 2 or 3 hour job, and now you get not only a good fitness workout, but much more importantly an excellent technique workout too.
Pay attention to your body

Listen to your body as it can tell you what's good and what's not, and observe the principle of least work. You'll soon notice that doing some things will really improve your speed and efficiency, and some things won't. This can help you check whether your mental understanding of good technique matches what your body feels whilst skating. Most students I teach experience this - skating principles often feel very different from the way they look.

Conclusion

Go out there and have fun skating. Keep up the drills and technique work, and in a couple of months the chances are that you'll amaze yourself and your skating friends with how much your skating ability has improved.

Even just a couple of hours of technique work will see most skaters reaping huge benefits in better and faster skating, but like any complex skill, the more hours of practice you get, the better you'll be.

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