Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Decaffeinating the Horror of New Figure Skates

Getting new skates is a terrifying experience for most people. Anyone who has had a pair of decent skates is well aware that they take some break-in time. Sadly, sometime after your skates become comfortable, they start wearing out and need to be replaced. High level figure skaters commonly replace their boots at least once a year. But beyond breaking in boots, there are a number of other factors you should be aware of when getting a new pair of skates, boots or blades. When you're aware of these factors, you can make the transition much less horrifying.

The boots are the worst part, get some help
Obviously breaking in new boots is inescapable. Even if you buy the same model boot you just wore out, you're going to have some level of break-in time. Heat-fitting and boot punching can help to make them comfortable in a reasonably short time. Heat-fittting helps the overall shape of the boot conform a little more quickly to the shape of your foot. Punching is especially effective in fitting of small area such as ankles, toes and ball of the foot. But even if you get the same model you've skated in for the last 10 years, you've got a bit of work ahead of you.

With a heat-fit, expect a minimum of five hours skating time in new boots before they start feeling like something you can live with. That might not sound like good news, but you can pretty much double that amount of time if your boots skip the oven. Make sure you are lacing the skates tight whenever you are on the ice. It's not uncommon to have to stop and lace them up tighter during a session until they start to form to your feet a little better.

Even custom boots costing twice as much as off the shelf models are brutal to break in. Many skaters have had a harder time breaking in a custom lasted boot than they have with name brand models like Jackson and Riedell. With long wait times, low customer satisfaction levels and exorbitant prices, it's no wonder that custom brands like Klingbeil and Harlick have struggled to stay afloat in recent years.

Stiffness is an issue you should consider carefully in selecting new boots. It takes ice time to get your skates to flex forward to accommodate your stride. If you're moving into a stiffer boot, this will take more time. Selecting the proper boot is almost as important as the fit. If you pick a boot that is too stiff it might never break in properly. A boot that isn't stiff enough will break down prematurely. Your coach and pro shop can help with selection, but the major factors weighing into this selection are your weight, what jumps you are working on and how frequently you are skating.

Lastly heel height should be considered. If you've been skating in one brand for a long time, switching is going to add new challenges. Different skate boots have different heel heights, varying by as much as a 1/4-inch. This differential changes the pitch of your skates on the ice. While a 1/4-inch might not seem like a big deal, it can be a huge adjustment. In fact I've done dozens of pitch adjustments for skaters who were struggling with new skates. A correction of 1/8-inch has almost always fixed the problem so consider what a difference twice that might make in a negative way.

The reason this heel height/pitch is such a big deal is motor skills, specifically muscle memory. When you're skating you develop muscle memory. Essentially, parts of skating become second nature, like walking. Boot flex is going to cause some issues with muscle memory as well. However, changes cause muscle confusion. It's not unlike those poor kids who grow a foot in three months and spend half a year looking awkward and off balance in their own body (not to mention that their pants are all too short). Some people adapt to skate changes in a few days or weeks. Others might take months.

Beyond utilizing your skate shop to make sure that your boots fit as well as possible, there's not much you can do to expedite the issues caused by changes in boot pitch. You can wear your skates around the house with your guards on in order to get used to the boot and accelerate the break in process. However, the biggest tool I can offer here is the knowledge that there will be some adjustment time. You might have some issues skating, but rest assured you are not losing your mind or your ability. You're just adjusting.

Insoles can make a huge difference
Sole custom insoles - $39
at Rocket Skate, including
heat molding & adjustments

Insoles can also change the way your skate feels. An increase or decrease in the arch support height may or may not be uncomfortable. However, it will change the relationship between your foot and blade. An arch that is too low can cause pronation (where the skate tilts inward). One that is too high can cause supination (skate tilting outward). Even if these issues don't manifest, we're right back to the muscle memory issue--you've adapted your skating to compensate and other things will feel odd. A pair of orthotics or custom insoles can knock a huge amount of time off your adjustment period to new skates.

In a sport that punishes the competitor's feet between the requisite tight fit of the boots and repeated impact of landing jumps there's nothing that I can recommend more highly than a quality set of insoles. When you're spending $300+ for skate that come with 10 cent insoles, this is a no-brainer upgrade.

Shock Doctor insoles - $25 at Rocket Skate. These are a nice upgrade from stock  insoles.

More things change with Blades than you might expect
There is one "no-duh" item when switching blades--a bigger toe pick is going to increase your odds of face planting. But do you know there are three other major factors that will take adjustment in a new blade? These are: rocker, bulge and toe lift. You might not have a lot of control over these factors when you're moving to a new blade, but at least you can feel a little better about knowing what's going on when you have a few tough days.

The rocker of a blade describes the average radius of a blade from toe to heel. A shorter rocker will make the blades feel less stable from front to back . . . more rocky if you will. A long rocker is more stable. Most figure skate blades feature either a 7-foot or 8-foot rocker. However, while the average radius might be the same as your old blade, the areas where it is most curved may vary. Changes in rocker will require slight muscle memory retaining. Which brings us to the bulge . . .

The bulge is the raised area about two inches behind the toe pick. This is sometimes also referred to as the "sweet spot." The bulge is the area you balance on while spinning. While the rocker of two given blades might be the same, the aggressiveness of the toe pick can significantly change the bulge. A bigger toe pick tends to make the bulge much smaller, while a smaller toe pick offers a bigger area for spinning. The exact placement of the bulge will also vary slightly from blade to blade changing you center of balance slightly on a new blade.

Toe lift can be a big adjustment as well. Toe lift describes how far forward the blade can lean before the pick contacts the ice. It is measured by tilting the blade forward on a flat surface until the pick touches. With the blade in this position, the measurement from the flat surface to the heel of the blade is the amount of toe lift. Toe lift will vary with the length and model of blade. Further than that, most brands of blades are at least partially handmade and the toe lift vary slightly even within the same model and size (sometimes you will even find two different measurements on the same pair). Eclipse is the only blade band I know of that has standardized this for each of it's blade models. So, if you buy the same size and model Eclipse blade, the toe lift will always be exactly the same.

Alignment Issues
Alignment can be a tricky issue. In most cases the blade is simply put where the center of the skater's foot will be in the boot. But all feet are not the same. I've looked at enough to tell you that if yours are normal, that's an anomaly. While 95% of the blades that I mount don't need any adjustments, you might be a five-percenter. That doesn't mean you're weird, it means your special.

A blade that's out of alignment can cause several issues: supination, pronation or yawing (slipping sideways).
If you're experiencing any of these issues you should have your blade adjusted. It's always best if the skate technician can observe you while skating, but if that isn't possible, your coach should be able to give you enough information on what is happening to get adjustments on the right track.

Most skaters who are proficient enough to require separate boots and blades will adjust for a small variance in center of gravity on the skates almost immediately. Larger issues will require an adjustment (this is why we always start with a temporary mount). Extreme issues might require some sanding of the boot to adjust the angle of the blade to the boot.

Bottom line
Breaking in a good pair of skates is probably the most unpleasant thing about skating. Keep plugging away at it and they will get more comfortable. Most skates will take at LEAST 5 hours of skating, but the time frame may be significantly longer with a skater's skill level, aggressiveness during break-in and weight. I generally recommend minimal boot punching and fitting until a couple hours of break-in are completed, but if you are having severe pain, you should have your skates worked on sooner than that.

Most importantly, buy your skates somewhere convenient to have them worked on. If you have to drive an hour to get your boots punched you might as well be on your own. Any good shop will offer free boot punching at purchase. I personally offer free boot punching for life. Expect to make a minimum of three trips to the pro shop for your skates, one for fitting and ordering, one for pickup after mounting and one for your final mount. Between blade alignments and boot punching, it's not unlikely to make six visits.

Hopefully understanding better what's going on when you are skating in a new pair can contribute to a less agonizing experience.

Stay in the loop with other cool people who know what's happening by liking us on facebook

Find us on the web at
Authorized dealer for Jackson, Riedell, Klingbeil, Eclipse, MK, Wilson & more.
© 2013 Scott Noble
All Rights reserved. Reproduction of this article in whole or part is strictly prohibited without the author's prior express written permission.