|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
* 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.
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
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
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
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.