26 Dec 2009
The Basics of Injury Prevention for Figure Skaters
Lauren Downes MSPT
An athlete who participates in a sport, whether it be individual or team, obviously has an increase in risk for injury than the non-athlete. If the athlete participates in one sport year round, that risk may increase due to the repetitive motion and muscle dominance associated with that sport. Competitive figure skating is a sport that requires year round practice, with little time for rest; therefore, skaters are susceptible to injury in various joints and muscles. When a family enters the world of competitive figure skating, or even recreational skating, it is important for that family to be aware of the factors that cause and can prevent injury. By adhering to some basic guidelines, a skater may have a long and prosperous career without significant interruptions by injuries. Longevity in the sport is important to maintain consistent training and progress, and a skaters’ overall musculoskeletal health is important post-skating career. This article will discuss several precautions a skater can take to prevent injury.
Biomechanical alignment of the body is influenced from the bottom up, starting at the feet. An alignment dysfunction, lack of motion, or improper arch in the foot can have an effect on the knee, hip, and back. Unlike gymnasts, who have no support on their feet, figure skaters have the luxury of wearing exceptionally designed boots to support them. A skilled boot fitter will be able to match the correct skate to a skater’s level of ability, yet the correct boot is only the beginning of the process. A skater with a flat foot may need either generic or custom arch supports to prevent excessive pronation in the skate. If pronation is not addressed, it may cause a skater to twist the boot or favor one edge over the other. A high, rigid arch can be addressed with extra cushioning in the arch of the skate, to increase the amount of shock absorption in the foot, which is lacking in a high, rigid arch.
Attention should be paid to the width of the foot, the flexibility of the ankle, and the skaters’ weight. If a skater uses a boot that is too stiff or too flexible for his or her body type, it may affect a variety of joints. The ankle must bend properly for the knee and hip joints to function correctly.
Mounting of the blade in the proper position can affect a skaters’ balance on the edges and the ability to maintain control in turns, spiral, spins, and jump landings and takeoffs. An excessive angle of turn-in of a skaters’ knee or an anteverted hip (turned in) may require the blade to be moved to compensate for the alignment problem. An experienced boot fitter will spend a significant amount of time watching a skater balance, walk, squat, etc. to find the ideal blade alignment for that skater.
Padding is also essential to prevent injuries from falling. Every skater falls when he or she is learning a new jump, and those falls are not always pretty! Vulnerable areas are the hips and buttocks, and various types of padding have been invented to create a cushioning for the susceptible areas. If the padding does not provide enough cushioning, and a skater lands consistently on a certain spot, it may be beneficial to cut a hole in the pad over that spot and build up the padding around it. Therefore, pressure will not be put on the sore spot. Padding on the buttocks can also reduce the amount of shock to the spine when a fall occurs. Back injuries are quite common among figure skaters, and all necessary steps should be taken to prevent them.
I can’t stress the importance of a proper warm-up enough! In this day and age, skaters rush from schoolto skating with a few minutes to spare to put the skates and gloves on, leaving little time for stretching and warm-up. The problem is, those ten minutes of warm-up that the skater skips can quickly result in a muscle strain. Muscles should reach a certain temperature and mobility level before a skater completes jumps that require plyometric strength or spins and spirals that require a certain degree of flexibility. A muscle that is not warmed up can not be pushed past its maximum flexibility level, and will result in pain.
Dynamic warm-ups have gained in popularity in the past five to ten years, and involve taking each joint and muscle through its full range of motion in an active way. The tissue temperature of a muscles increases far more quickly with dynamic stretching than if a skater stretches statically. Static stretching (holding a muscle in a lengthened time period in one position) does not increase tissue temperature and will not effectively prepare a skater’s muscles.
Ideally, 15 to 20 minutes of dynamic warm-ups should be completed, yet even 10 minutes will provide a skater with a decent warm-up to prevent muscle strains. A skater will learn which muscles are his or her ‘problem area,’ and can create a warm-up that is most beneficial for the body as a whole.
Off-Ice Strength and Conditioning
Every skater should be involved in an off-ice strength and conditioning program, whether it be one day or five days per week. Skating is a sport that creates dominance in certain muscle groups, and over time, a skater develops an imbalance in muscle strength. This may lead to joint or muscle pain. If a skater is properly evaluated by a health professional, that person can determine which muscles are inflexible or weak, and will guide a skater toward a program that will focus on the skaters’ deficits. Sk8Strong has developed programs that will focus on skating specific muscles, yet also address the need for an overall balance in musculature to prevent injury.
Figure skating also requires a significant amount of hip stability from the gluteal and hip abductor muscles, and strength in the quadriceps. Without proper hip stability, a skater will have trouble stabilizing landings, achieving the correct alignment on jump takeoffs, and creating power for higher jumps. Gluteal and hip abductor strength (in my opinion) is lacking in many skaters, and can be the primary cause of inconsistency, injuries, and slow progression of skills. It will greatly affect the movement pattern of the lower extremity when a skater bends the knees and hips.
Core strength is absolutely necessary for a skater to prevent back injury. Skating is a sport with a high demand for core stability, and the abdominals play a large part in keeping the back and trunk healthy. At least two days of core strengthening exercise is recommended for any skater, both to prevent injury and improve skating skills.
Strength and conditioning may also involve stamina training, if a skater is at a level that demands a lengthy program. There are various methods of stamina training, including the use of a slideboard, jump rope, elliptical, or exercise bike. The slideboard is most useful, as it trains the muscles in a similar manner to skating. Why is stamina training is important to prevent injury? Near the end of a program, the muscles are fatigued. Fatigued muscles do not create as much power, and the risk of falling is increased. Stamina training will increase oxygenation to muscles, increasing the chance that the muscles will stay strong at a later point in a program. This will improve performance and decrease the risk of falls.
Flexibility: too much or too little
Since the inception of the International Judging System, there is high demand for flexibility for all skaters. Spin variations and spirals require more mobility than in years past to gain the maximum amount of points. For the lucky few that possess the natural mobility for these positions, the need for consistent stretching is not at a premium. In fact, the ‘overly flexible’ skater should do more strength training to compensate for the overabundance of mobility in his or her joints. Excessive joint mobility typically results in a lack of stability.
The muscles a skater should focus on for mobility are the psoas (front of the hip), hamstrings (back of the thigh), and adductor (inner thigh). A flexible psoas is will help a skater reach back efficiently for jump takeoffs and extend the free leg for landings and spirals. The adductors and hamstrings will also affect a spiral and camel spin.
Quadriceps (front of thigh) and ITBand (outer thigh) tightness will not directly affect most skating moves, yet play an important role in prevention of injury. Skaters are constantly using these two muscles for power, which tends to make the muscles tighter. Both will affect mobility and motion at the knee and hip, and can cause pain around the kneecap if not stretched on a regular basis.
Try Moves Within Your Range of Motion
Some skaters just aren’t meant to do a biellman or a haircutter spin, no matter how hard they try. A biellman requires a great amount of flexibility in the hamstrings, psoas, adductor muscles, and a great amount of joint mobility into extension of the lower back joints. It is recommended to consult with a physical therapist of other health professional to evaluate back mobility and flexibility of the previously mentioned muscles before trying a biellman. Forcing a joint into a position that it does not naturally reach is harmful to the joint, and a skater is setting her or himself up for injury. Find alternate ways to gain points, and your body will thank you!