Saturday, June 2, 2012

New Hockey Skates, tougher than your feet?

OK hockey players, you might have felt left out when I posted about the horrors of breaking in a new pair of figure skates. We all know that breaking in a pair of hockey skates isn't a picnic either. So if you were thinking, "Hey! Where's our article? I wanna know how to make breaking in hockey skates go smoother," well, sob no more. Here it is:

Das Boots

OK, so that's probably grammatically incorrect German for boats, but hey as far as some of your feet go boats is accurate. Yeah, I've seen you out there in your size 13 skates and it's like a pair of kayaks on the rink. But I digress here . . . we're talking about that part of the skate that troubles almost everyone--the boots.

Bauer Vapor X:05 - In stock at Rocket Skate
The conundrum of hockey boots is that if they start out comfortable, they're likely to brutalize your feet for a long time thereafter. Comfortable generally translates to one of too things in skate boots: too big, or too cheap. Here are the issues: Skates have to fit tight to perform properly and they have to offer the appropriate level of stiffness.

So yes, you can find a pair of skates that feel like slippers right out of the box. However, they are going to probably going to be about 2 sizes too big for that to be the case. Skates this big will allow your feet to move around. When your feet move around in the boots, you spend a lot of money on blister pads and a lot of time using the belt sander to remove callous build-ups in odd places on your feet. I have no idea how you're going to treat your bone spurs when they develop. On top of having really ugly feet, your skating is going to suffer since a huge portion of your stride energy will dissipate in the wrenching, twisting motion of your boots as they oscillate in protest on your swollen red feet.

So, the first step in making life easier it to buy the right size of skates. If you're an adult, you need to make sure that your toe touches the end of skate when you're standing straight up. With your knees bent, a perfect fit will have you just lightly brushing the toe cap or pulling slightly off or if. Kid's should be up 1/2 to 3/4 size from a perfect fit so they have room to grow while keeping the skates from completely spinning around their feet.

Reebok 8K - Great heatmodable skates in stock
The other fitting issue is width. You should have some pressure on the sides of your feet, but you definitely don't want to have so much pressure that it feels like the ball of your foot is scrunched up. Make sure that the new skates lock your heel in place. If there is some ankle discomfort, that's not normally an issue. Most people need to have the ankles punched out and it's pretty easy to do. Just make sure you're buying a skate that can be punched out.

Any decent hockey skate these days is heat-moldable (or at least claims to be heat-moldalble). Don't try to bake your skates at home. I've seen a pair that someone melted in their oven--not only was it ugly, but they ruined the batch of cookies they were trying to bake at the same time. Odds are that you're going to get your skates too hot and ruin them, or not hot enough and waste your time. Buy your skates somewhere that fits you properly and have them baked there. Any shop worth their salt offers a free heat-fit with skate purchase. Rocket Skate offers that and lifetime boot punching. (I had a customer a couple weeks ago who would have spent about $180 on skate fitting alone if they hadn't bought their skates from me).

Punching and heat-molding aren't going to complete the break-in process for you. However, they will knock a great deal of time off the process. You should still expect at least 4 or 5 hours of skating before the boots move from mildly annoying to somewhat comfortable.

Holder and Runner

Pretty much every brand of skate has their own blade holder and runner. It doesn't sound like a big deal, but they are all slightly different. Graf Cobra Holders have the most aggressive forward pitch of any brand on the market today while Bauer's TUUK Lightspeed puts the player back on their heels more than its competitors. CCM/Reebok products fall right in the middle.  Runners vary as well with different rockers. Rocker describes the average radius of the curve on the bottom of the blade from toe to heel. The three major brands on the market all use different rockers: Bauer - 9-foot, CCM 10-foot, Graf 11-foot.

This translates to a number of issues that you're going to have to face as a hockey player. Your legs develop muscle memory (gross motor skills) that become a natural part of your skating motion. You don't have to think about how it works, you just do it. When you change the blade and holder combination, it takes some time for your gross motor skills to adjust. The pitch issue is the big issue for a lot of players, especially those moving from a forward pitch to a more rearward one. This issue is pretty easy to fix and is one of the most common customizations that I do in the shop. A pair of heel lifts between the holder and outsole of the skate have improved or flat out corrected the issue for dozens of skaters that I've installed them for.

The rocker isn't as big a deal for most skaters, but expect the performance of your skates to vary slightly with a rocker change. A longer rocker is going to glide better. A shorter one will turn and accelerate faster. None of these rocker lengths offer significant advantages or disadvantages. If you're currently the slowest thing on ice, switching from an 9-foot rocker to an 11-foot rocker isn't going to suddenly turn you into Marian Gaborik.

Insoles can make a huge difference

Sole custom insoles - $39 with
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 quick direction changes there's nothing that I can recommend more highly than a quality set of insoles. I've used custom insoles for the last 10 years personally. 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.

Alignment Issues

Alignment isn't a common problem with hockey skates. About one pair of skates out of every 20 to 30 has the blade mounted improperly. Further the vast majority of skates that need corrections are the cheapest models. Still, once in a while even a skate that is set up properly might cause alignment issues for players with um . . . unique feet (that's my nice way of calling your feet freakishly deformed).

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 might need your blade adjusted. However in hockey it's always important to put at least 5 hours on the new skates before jumping to this conclusion. If you have serious concerns after you've put some hours on the skates, it's best if the skate technician can observe you skating.

Most shops will look at you like you have carrots in your ears if you walk in talking about needing a blade alignment on your new hockey skates. I've been doing blade alignments for more than ten years. If you have an alignment issue I haven't fixed in the past I would be amazed beyond words.

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. If you decide you'd like heel lifts or major alignment work, I offer considerable discounts when the skates were purchased from me. Does it make sense to drive across town to have your skates worked on by someone with little or no experience?

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

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© 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.


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