Two-time Olympian and world champion speed skater Joey Mantia here with another episode of Skate Tips. A YouTube series dedicated to teaching you how to skate faster for longer. In this tutorial, I'm going to cover what I consider to be the most fundamental thing in skating, BALANCE!
You may think you already know how to balance in your skates or if you're looking for that secret formula to make you a really good skater, I'm here to tell you it's not going to happen overnight, but this is absolutely the best thing you can focus on to help get you there. Despite what you may think, the fundamental skill set of balancing in your skates correctly is extremely difficult. Luckily, I'm here to shed some light on what you're probably doing wrong and show you how to fix it.
How to Balance on Skates
Now your initial thought when I first mentioned balance is probably in reference to what your body does on top, outside, and inside of your skate, and how that affects your edges. But I don't want to talk about that. I want to talk about how do you balance from the front wheel to the back wheel and more importantly how do you maintain that stability as you initialize and finish your stroke.
There's no magic movement that makes somebody better than others at skating it's just their attention to detail and the basics that sets them apart from the rest of the field.
Now it's a lot easier to find that stability and balance as you're gliding but the trick is not to mess that up and disrupt anything as you go from your glide to your stroke. The goal is to keep your skate settled, and by settled I mean not moving your bodyweight all over the place and not rocking forward or back at any time. Also being able to control your ankle flexion, so that you don't put too much pressure on the ball of your foot or too much pressure in the heel. And that's really hard to do because your initial instinct is to use the ball of your foot for a powerful movement. Think about jumping, if you go jump as high as you possibly can you're going to use your ankle flexion to get into the ball of your foot and come off the ground from the ball of your foot. The reality is unless you're doing a start or a really aggressive acceleration you have to reprogram your brain not to do that because that's what causes your skate to become unsettled. The result is your body weight and your skates are no longer in equilibrium and they start moving independently of each other and no longer traveling together.
Controlling Ankle Flexion
So how do you use ankle flexion to keep stability in your skate? Well, it starts with your center of mass, and if you need a reference point on your body, your belly button is a pretty good spot to start from. Keep your belly button right over the middle of your skate no matter what you do.
The reason for that is if you're rocking your body weight from the back to the front or the front to the back as you push, it's going to be almost impossible to counteract that with any kind of ankle movement and keep your balance. It's just not going to happen. But if you can lock your belly button in, right over the middle of your skate and keep it there, then ankle flexion and controlling that will start paying dividends. It'll be easier to use that as a fine tuner to get that sweet spot right in the middle of your skate.
Now once you have your belly button locked in over the middle of your skate, then you can move on to your ankle and think about what your ankle is doing in terms of flexion. You have to really pay attention from the time your foot sets down on the ground to the time you finish your stroke. That's why this is so difficult, that concentration is very hard to key in on. It's also important to understand what your ankle does, how it can affect your skate, and how it can affect the pressure in your boot.
- The ankle can push the foot down by activating the calf putting a lot of pressure on the ball of the foot.
- The ankle can lift the toes up by activating the shin putting a lot of pressure on the heel.
- The ankle can lock the foot in flat to the surface that you're skating on if you activate both muscles at the same time.
In my opinion, having the ankle lock the foot in flat to the surface is what you want to be doing. That's what guys like Bart Swings are so good at, they are able to keep their skates settled no matter how hard they push. It's really important in the turns and that's why Bart has some of the best turns on the planet.
Now the goal is to keep that ankle flexion under control and being conscious and aware of what you're doing so that your foot stays flat to the surface you're pushing on. And when that happens your bodyweight gets in balance with your skate and starts doing most of the work for you.
Anytime I bring up putting the body weight over the middle of the skate or pushing right through the middle of the skate people always voice the same concerns. They say well my coach taught me to push through the heel or they say I just feel like my skates turn better when my weight is in my heel or I just feel more comfortable when I'm back on my skates. These are all good points and there's a reason for each. Let me explain.
With the coaching comment, generally speaking, the biggest problem skaters have is not finishing their push with their skate balance. So they end up moving their weight to the front of their skate they get really heavy on the ball of the foot and they finish either really aggressively on the front wheel or over the top of it. Most of the time beginner skaters or kids are really bad at this and it's most notable in the turns. So the easiest and quickest fix for that is to tell people to push on the heels. And it makes sense if somebody is doing something wrong by being too far forward or pushing too far forward at the end of their stroke and you ask them to do the opposite go to the other side of their skate. You're probably going to get the result you're looking for as a coach and it does work.
Every coach I've ever heard tells people to push through the heels and this is why. It is much easier as a reference point, internally as a cue, to sit back in the heel and lock that out versus asking somebody to put even distribution of weight across all four wheels especially when they're a beginner. So this is the go-to move, to sit back on the heels and the reality is, it is the lesser of two evils. If you have to be too heavy on the back of your skate versus too heavy on the front it is always better to be too heavy on the back because oftentimes you'll still skate pretty well. But the problem is you're still too heavy on one part of your skate. As a result, you are loading up these wheels too much and you're giving up grip and roll. Ideally, you want to be evenly distributed amongst all four of your wheels.
In terms of feeling like your skate turns better for you when you push harder in the heel, that is absolutely true. Because you're relieving pressure from the front of the skate giving you better turnability and you're loading that up on the back which is bending the wheels more. That manipulation of the wheels will 100% make your skate turn more aggressively. The reality is though if you stay balanced on your skate and use ankle flexion to keep everything flat, then your skate will turn with you and stay with you as it's turning. Also if you put your foot down in a line that it should be traveling it shouldn't need to turn very much or very aggressively to be effective. And that's true in the corners or the straightaways. It's only when you put your foot down really wide or you get this whippy motion with your under push that you have to self-correct to get back to a point where you can push and that's not what you want.
When it comes to feeling safer being back on the back part of your skate that makes sense. Because anything you hit in the road, cracks, pebbles, and things like that you're more likely to hop over them versus to dive into them or have them stop your skate and crash. So this is safer, but it's not the best bang for your buck. You're not gonna get as much as if you evenly distribute your weight over all four of your wheels and find that balance point right in the middle using the ankle flexion to keep a flat foot. You want to stay in the sweet spot of your skate letting the equilibrium between your body and your skate actually do the work for you.
Tips to Help
So now you know what you're supposed to do, let me leave you with some visualization techniques that can help you get there. Because the reality is your skate gives you almost no feedback. You have four wheels or three wheels all in a flat line, skating across a flat surface. So if you rock forward a little bit or rock back or push forward or push back your skate tells you almost nothing. It just keeps on traveling just a little less effectively, and it's really hard to pick that out if you haven't been skating your entire life as I have. So here's a few things you can think about to help you get there.
- Single Giant Wheel - Think about one giant wheel that's mounted right in the middle of your frame and you have to have perfect balance otherwise you're obviously you're going to tip forward or tip back as you skate.
- Ski Mounted Under Boot - You can think about a ski coming off the front of your skate or the back of your skate, so a flat platform to the front and back of your skate. So any movement back or any movement forward from that center point of your skate is going to cause the front of the ski to into the ground or the back ski to do the same thing and dig in and give you some kind of feedback. Hopefully, thinking about it this way will help you get that ankle flexion and your bodyweight right where it needs to be.
- Single Middle Mount: If those two things don't really work for you, you could think about having your skate mounted only in the middle. So only a single mount in the middle and you have to be perfectly balanced on that mounting point all the time and it's very delicate. If you rock forward or back it's going to crack and break. You need to be thinking about that in your head to try to keep that balance always.
In conclusion, there's no magic movement that makes somebody better than others at skating it's just their attention to detail and the basics that sets them apart from the rest of the field.
About the author:
Joey Mantia is an American speed skating Olympian, 28-time world champion, and a world record holder. He also won two gold medals at the 2003 Pan American Games and a gold medal at the 2007 Pan American Games. He won the American Speed Skater of the Year award three times in a row, in 2005, 2006 and 2007, and the 2007 Elmer Ringeisen Sportsmanship Award. In October 2010, after winning two world titles at the inline skating championships in Colombia, he was ranked second among male competitors in the USOC Athlete of the Month competition.