Dec 17, 2010

Off ice training: just when you thought it was safe to leave the ice rink

No, not "office." Off. Ice. In other words, what you do outside the rink to support and enhance your skating. Who does it, who needs it (both actually and sarcastically), where do you find it, how do you know what kind to do?

Off ice training is for serious figure skaters, or unserious figure skaters who are looking for a second activity. The bad news is that it adds an activity to your schedule. The good news is it's fun, and the better news is you might already be engaging in an activity that counts.

The little guys
For very young children (age 6 and under) especially if they're in learn to skate levels, the best off-ice activity is running around in the playground. This gives them energy (grown-up word: cardio workout), and encourages both courage and coordination.

Not so little
If your five to seven year old child is in soccer, or one of those other marginally organized dash fests that little kids engage in, this is also a great off-ice activity for beginning skaters. The biggest problem with soccer is that the schedule makes figure skating hard-- they tend to conflict. Again, it supports endurance, coordination, and effort. Most very young children don't need much stretching- they're pretty flexible anyway, and strength training is both beside the point, since they don't have the hormones yet that build muscle, and dangerous, because their growing bones are susceptible to stress injuries.

Serious skaters
First, how do you know you're a serious skater?

Start with how much time you're putting in. If you are "practicing" (as opposed to skating around in circles) at least 3 hours a week, you're serious. You're also serious if you're doing USFS competitions or are gearing up for either the USFS or the ISI testing tracks. For these skaters, whatever the age or level, you need off-ice training that both helps with figure skating skills and technique, and reduces the risk of injury on the ice.

The most common injuries on the ice are soft-tissue: pulled muscles, strained ligaments and tendons, bursitis, stress fractures (which in young skaters is often in the growth plates rather than the bones themselves). You need off ice activities that keep these tissues limber, warm, and strong.

Serious competitive skaters above the Juvenile level MUST do proper off-ice training, including strength, flexibility, plyometrics (jumping), and cardio workouts. Your coach will guide you in this. Kids who are learning jumps, especially once they move into doubles, should do activities that build coordination, endurance and strength, to keep them safe on the ice.

Here are some options, the good, the bad, and the unnecessary, plus some you might not have thought of:

This is the most common off-ice activity you'll hear suggested. It has the whole package-- strength, flexibility, grace, artistry, posture as well as understanding of music. You will be required to participate in the recital at most programs, but performance experience is also critical for skaters. I've seen "ballet for skaters" programs, but frankly, what's the point. Do ballet for ballet dancers and you'll know it's right. Find a reputable studio-one that's been around a while, or is managed by someone who came out of a reputable program. It should have a range of classes from beginner to dilettante to serious. The biggest advantage of ballet is that most communities have lots and lots of ballet studios so the scheduling tends to be easy. If you're taking a boy, call it "dance class" or "dance for skaters" to start and let him figure out that it's ballet once he's into it.

Ice Mom has an excellent article on ballet for skaters today, with some good links.

Strength Training
Do. Not. Take. Your. Pre-adolescent. To. Strength. Training. If you find a program for pre-ads, report them to the authorities. This type of work out, especially on machines, can be actively dangerous for young children, and besides, doesn't do them any good. Their bodies don't have the proper hormones yet. The best strength training for young children is having them use all the "equipment" on the local playlot, which is designed to work the whole body at an age-appropriate level for grade school kids.

"Off Ice Training"
Many programs offer a hodge-podge called "off ice training" ( which always looks to me like they're going to teach kids how to use the copy machine). These generally include some dance or ballet, some callisthenics, some running, some stretching, and some off-ice jumping (not necessarily in that order). They may be run by individual coaches or by the program. These are fine. If they are coach led, the instructor may or may not understand fitness, especially for kids at ranges of age, level and ability. Some facilities have fitness specialists running these, which is optimum, but my experience of these nevertheless is very positive. You want to watch for coaches who run the programs with only their own students in mind (make sure all the kids are getting instruction, in other words), and that the facilities are adequate. I've seen coaches having kids do pushups on bare lobby floors (yuk), and jumping drills with no mats (ouch). Big advantage is that they will be scheduled around the skating schedule, and in the same facility, making them easy to slot into your week.

Pilates and Yoga
These are both terrific for strength, discipline, agility, and flexibility, but are inappropriate for younger children (say under the age of 12). They are fantastic for adult skaters however, with their slow approach, low impact movement, mental discipline, and adaptability to, shall we say, alternate morphologies.

Again, great for strength, courage, and especially flexibility. However, with flexibility a major focus of gymnastics, it can take it too far. I would not put a child who is not naturally flexible into gymnastics if their main focus is skating. You do not need unusual flexibility to skate well; it's nice if you've got it, but focusing on it is unnecessary. I also think that putting a child into two dangerous sports activities is just asking for trouble. Stick with one of the other options.

In addition to the traditional off-ice options like those above, there are other activities that can support and enhance ice skating that your child might find less boring or onerous. These can be especially useful for boys (or girls) who balk at dance, or for people having trouble making schedules work.

Theater training
Theater programs will often include some dance, lots of body and spatial awareness exercises, as well as creativity.

Karate or other martial arts
Martial Arts have many things in common with ballet-- set patterns, discipline, respect for authority and heirarchy, strength, agility and flexibility training-- and boys like it. I prefer to find programs that are stingy with the rewards (as in 8 year olds with black belts) because skating can be somewhat stingy with the rewards, so it mirrors the culture.

Specialty Dance
Speciality dance disciplines like jazz, tango, tap, ballroom, or hip hop are great options for older skaters who are looking for help with different types of expression, and are a must for ice dancers. However, it is not a substitute for ballet. Specialty dance classes without a solid classical background will just be play time for younger, untrained kids. By all means take jazz dance or hip hop. There will be other benefits, including creativity, agility, et cetera. But it's not ballet.

Let you coach guide you, but as always, ask respectful questions. If your coach tells you "you must take the off-ice class" tell her or him what other activities the child is already engaged in and see if these meet the need. You can then decide whether to continue the existing activites, add new ones, or change your schedule. Be sure to consider your budget-- don't let the coach keep piling on the costs; if you need, for financial reasons, to drop a lesson or a skating class to pay for this, tell the coach. (If the coach then says, "No. If you want to be a serious skater, you must do this", you might want to consider a different coach. A coach who doesn't care about a family's financial needs might also not be responding to your child's emotional or physical needs.)

(Thanks to Stitch's mom for inspiring the post!)


  1. Awesome. Thanks for posting this one, it's sorely needed.

  2. Don't forget us adult skaters! We are far more prone to injury due to tight muscles and the general abuse our bodies have seen over the years. We also take a lot longer to warm up that our younger counterparts. I started a little stretch and warm up session before the adult on ice class. We brought our yoga mats and jump ropes and set up in the corner of the rink lobby. We got tons of weird looks since there were three adults in skating gear jumping rope or doing splits on the mats. However, we were warmed up by the time we got on the ice. It also helped my knees a lot. I got the stretches for figure skaters out of Bob Anderson's Stretching book. We also incorporated some plyometric exercises that one of the coaches were kind enough to teach us. Most of us had danced at some point in our lives either ballet, tap, jazz or ballroom. All of which helps us even years later on the ice. I have found weight lifting to be really helpful, particularly with sit spins since they require so much core and thigh strength.

    In my humble opinion, I think strength training is excellent as long as you are old enough. While ballet helps with posture and grace generally it really comes in handy for the poise and musicality during the programs. At the lower levels it is fairly easy to spot a skater who has taken dance as opposed to one who has not.

  3. Baffled: you're right, my error! Stretching and especially proper warm up (literally, raising your core temp!) before skating is vital for adults. The difference is that adults can be more or less trusted to do it, know better than to push themselves (much) past their limits, and have only themselves to blame if they mess up. Kids rely on the prodding and knowledge of their own adults, who need to know what the options and limitations are.

  4. I am entirely self-taught on the subject of off-ice training. I/Mom cannot afford off-ice classes, gym membership or personal training- all the money goes into skating itself, or in my case, goes towards boots/blades/dresses.

    My equipment is ankle weights, a stability ball, and some bits of wood to use for calf raises. I found the weights and ball at Target for very cheap- spent less than $20 for both. I plan to buy a resistance band, too, after Christmas when I will have giftcards for Target.

    I've spent hours Googling exercises. My rule of thumb is to believe something (i.e. effectiveness of a certain exercise, safety rule etc.) only when I've read it on many different sites. I have specific exercises for each muscle group to avoid imbalance. As they get easy, I make them harder. Ex., recently I've added ankle weights to my criss cross crunches and have begun holding squats for 2 minutes.

    I know it's a bit dangerous to not be professionally taught. But since I have no other option..
    I have achieved some goals, so it is working. I've gotten a 90 degree sit, I want to someday be able to get up off one leg from a butt-on-heel position. My spiral is high unweighted. Weighted with 2.5 lbs, it's just above hip. I have been researching plyometrics for a while, and I already do low key plyo such as Russian twists and jump-rope. I will not do anything other than light plyo without professional instruction.
    I also stretch. I researched this very thoroughly- I would be so upset if I injured myself and couldn't skate.

    I took one off-ice jumping class over the summer. Was going to take two more but then my coach broke her foot. I still jump on my own & update coach. I also use a spinner courtesy of my coach.

    I am not yet Pre-preliminary level (but will be competing it early next year.) Serious off-ice needs to be done way before Juvenile.

    I've been doing consistent off ice since around the time I was making flip consistent and learned sit spin. I was already naturally strong but now the effects of my home training are showing up in my sits, camels and double jumps.
    I went from single loop to double loop in under ten weeks so it's critical that my strength level be appropriate for doubles.

  5. Anonymous above -- are you me?! Have you asked your coach what you should be doing off ice? Mine gives me a small amount of free instruction on this.

    My off ice is mainly stretches, off-ice jumps, crunches and squats. And standing in a spiral position, sometimes with ankle weights (if you can't afford ankle weights, put a skate on the raised leg!). I'm getting a spinner for Christmas.

    I also recently took up rollerblading for fun. Some people say this is bad for skating but my coach doesn't think so -- at least not if you're only a beginner skater. I wouldn't do it right before ice skating. I think it actually made my backward stroking better, but that might just have been because on ice, I was grateful not to have a heel brake to trip over. :D

  6. "Do. Not. Take. Your. Pre-adolescent. To. Strength. Training. If you find a program for pre-ads, report them to the authorities. "

    Best. Line. Ever. You tell 'em Xan.

  7. when you say machines are you including stationary bike, treadmill and eliptical machine? Would you consider those appropriate for pre-ads? My kids go to a JR fitness gym at our health club and do those "machines"

    1. I'm talking about bench presses and weights. Treadmill and eliptical is fine, but for kids under about 12 or 13, they should not be using any sort of machine without close supervision. In a junior fitness program, they are probably getting this, although frankly it seems silly to me to spend money on running when they could just be running around the neighborhood.

  8. Thanks. 3 of my kids participate in this program while I take my own fitness classes. The fitness center we belong to offers this for kids ages 8-12 as a way to stay active VS watching TV while their folks work out. The fitness room is just one of many activities they do with the kids during the week. Glad to hear your response. Thank you!

    "Do. Not. Take. Your. Pre-adolescent. To. Strength. Training. If you find a program for pre-ads, report them to the authorities. "

    As an aside I have hired a personal trainer to run through my 10yr old daughters off ice program with her a few times a week. This is after she wound up in a cast and off-ice for several weeks and then needing several more weeks of PT for an injury(that happened when she was running her own(off ice) practice and tore ligaments). Id rather have her supervised. The monthly cost is no different than what we'd pay for Ballet and shed much rather do this than ballet(which she found to be so.boring.) ;)