When I first began training figure skaters, I only analyzed the movements and energy systems associated with the sport because I figured that would be enough to enhance their on-ice performance. After I trained at least 20 different skaters, I noticed that they each had certain familiar physical tendencies that I couldn’t explain. Once I completed over 500 training hours with at least 30 different skaters, I finally understood enough about the rigors of the sport to explain the impact it has on an athlete’s body. Figure skating over time changes a young athlete’s body in many ways because the body is the instrument used to compete. There is no bat to swing, no football to throw, no basketball to shoot. On one of the most slippery surfaces on earth, figure skaters must glide on a single leg and jump vigorously in the air, rotating sometimes over 1260 degrees before landing on a single leg on the ice. There is no other sport that calls for as much single leg stability and power. Very few sports require as much rotational power. Due to the single leg and rotational aspects of the sport, skaters are always fighting some kind of injury, and the most common aches and pains are in the realm of the low back, knee, hip flexors and neck. Interesting enough, all of those areas of discomfort are related to each other in some fashion. This article will describe these common physical tendencies among figure skaters that can lead to physical weakness and possible injury if they are not addressed through off-ice training.
First, let’s take a look at the figure skate itself and how that can affect the skater’s hip flexors. Commonly overlooked is the fact that the skate has a heel that elevates the rear of the foot. The elevation is exactly one and a half inches higher than the toes. The heel lift keeps the foot slightly plantar flexed in the skate. This position alone creates “over active” hip flexors due to the body’s natural reaction to keep its center of mass balanced over the mid-foot. Just before the explosive extension of a jump and upon the deceleration of a landing, the knee will naturally track over the toes because of the heel lift. Skaters also keep their trunks in slight flexion while skating. Due to the elevated heel and flexed spine during hours of on-ice practice every day, the majority of figure skaters have tight hip flexors that pull at the lumbar spine, moving the pelvis into an anterior tilt (see Figure 1*).
Figure 1 – Anterior Pelvic Tilt
This overuse of the hip flexors can lead to inflammation as well as pain in the low back and knee. A steady dose of myofascial release for the rectus femoris and iliopsoas, as well as various methods of active isolated stretching of the hip flexor muscles, will keep the area from being as “over active.”
So how do tighter hip flexors cause knee pain? The rectus femoris, the only muscle of the quadriceps group that attaches at the hip and at the knee, is a weak hip flexor itself. It originates at the anterior inferior iliac spine and acetabulum and inserts into the patellar tendon. This tendon controls the tracking position of the patella, so hip flexor muscles have a direct impact on the stability of the knee joint. An overworked rectus femoris is the norm for a competitive figure skater, and this will cause knee pain.
Once you add flat feet to the equation, you now have excessive tension in the iliotibial band and even more in the peroneus longus due to the slight plantar flexion of the foot in the skate. It is common for a young skater’s knee to jam into a valgus position (see Figure 2) upon landing a jump. A more correct landing position has the knee tracking with the second and third toe (see Figure 3).
Figure 2 - Valgus
Figure 3 - Good Squat
Considering most of a skater’s jumps are landed on the same leg (usually the right leg), the “over active” IT band/peroneal complex is another cause of knee pain. It is the MCL that receives the majority of the strain due to internal rotation of the femur from the hip. The skater should use myofascial release on the hip flexors, IT band, peroneals, medial gastrocnemius and plantar fasciae (with a golf ball). They should also strengthen the hamstrings, anterior tibialis and gluteus medius to provide some relief for the knee.
Why do many figure skaters get low back pain? The tension in the deep hip flexors pulls at the lumbar spine, creating a lordotic back curve. This lordotic curve naturally shortens the erector spinae muscles in the lumbar region, specifically the longissimus and iliocostalis lumborum. In turn, the abdominals become severely “under active” and lengthened. Another common imbalance seen in the low back area is a shortened right side quadratus lumborum, lengthened right side erector spinae group, shortened left side erector spinae group and lengthened left side quadratus lumborum. This imbalance is caused by the skater always rotating in the same direction, and it can also happen when a skater’s landing leg internally rotates from the hip, shortening the quadratus lumborum on that side as the hip hikes. The side of the low back that will normally have pain is the side that the skater lands her jumps on. The sacroiliac joint is also jolted on every landing because it’s always on a single leg. Due to the velocity of rotating in the air and spins on ice, figure skaters are a chiropractor’s dream because of their slightly compressed and/or rotated vertebrae. There are a number of reasons for a skater to develop low back pain. Here are just a few of them.
Many figure skaters lack the necessary core stability to protect their low back on the ice. One reason for this is that most skaters are pre teenagers. Many young girls start skating at age six or seven years old, and by 10 years old, they are working on their axel. Unless they train off-ice from the beginning, they will completely skip the stability stage and move right into the power stage of training before the body is ready for it. Flexing the lumbar spine and moving the pelvis into a posterior tilt is absolutely paramount for a figure skater’s training program. Because they are never in this position on the ice, training it off-ice will develop a stronger, more well balanced core and protect against injury. Hard style compression kettlebell training is excellent for balancing a figure skater’s core because it teaches the skater to brace with the abdominals and create a posterior pelvic tilt (see Figure 4).
Figure 4 - Posterior Pelvic Tilt
Lastly, we analyze a figure skater’s neck pain. Most of the movements and positions on-ice involve an extended neck. This is the equivalent of looking up by tilting your head back. Combine that position with arms that are either raised parallel to the ice or above their head, and you have extreme tightness in the upper trapezius and levator scapulae. A skater’s thoracic spine is normally flexed while skating, creating a shortened pectoralis minor. The end result of these positions is a protracted and upwardly rotated scapula (see Figure 5). A young figure skater’s “sit spin” is a classic example of this poor posture as she will round her back and reach with her arm. Positions on-ice like this will also lead to low back pain. A more correct position (see Figure 6) shows a retracted and depressed scapula.
Figure 5 - Protracted Scapula
Figure 6 - Retracted Scapula
A skater’s sternocleidomastoid muscle is usually lengthened (see Figure 7) and fatigues quickly, especially during cervical spinal flexion against gravity. This will normally cause neck pain because the movement is fighting against those tighter muscles in the back of the neck. Skaters need to train off-ice with the head in a more correct position (see Figure 8), keeping the ears directly over the shoulders. This position will strengthen the front of the neck and help alleviate some of the posterior tightness created by on-ice forward head carriage.
Figure 7 - Forward Head
Figure 8 – Good Head
During a normal overhead squat, many skaters have a forward torso lean and their arms fall forward (see Figure 9). These skaters will absolutely develop pain in the low back, knee, neck and hip flexors without a correct off-ice strength program. The proper overhead squat position (see Figure 10) shows only a slight forward lean and arms at ear level. A skater should not begin training with Olympic lifting techniques like the power clean and power snatch until they master this overhead squat position. Olympic lifts are a very important training component for developing speed and power for on-ice jumps. For figure skaters to correct their forward lean and falling arms, the thoracic spinal erectors (specifically the spinalis), rhomboids, subscapularis, infraspinatus, middle/lower trapezius and anterior tibialis all need to be strengthened.
Figure 9 - Forward Lean
Figure 10 - Good Overhead Squat
Figure skating has more positions of imbalance than most sports because it is performed in the “least optimal positions of strength” for the human body. Skaters train their bodies on the ice every day with techniques that put themselves into positions of physical weakness. Skaters need to create a loose-tense-loose relationship with strength so they can learn to relax their muscles faster. Without off-ice strengthening and corrective exercise techniques, a skater’s body will continue to break down at a more rapid rate due to the less than optimal positions of strength on the ice. The number one purpose of any off-ice training program should be injury prevention. It is very easy for off-ice training to cause even more pain if a step-by-step training approach is not followed. For figure skaters aged seven to 10 years old, core stability training will always be the best way to begin, creating a foundation of strength to build on in the years to follow.
- Gray's Anatomy: The Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice, 39th edition (2004), 1627 pages, C.V. Mosby, the U.S. version.
* The girl in the photos is 12 year old skater, Lynette Carroll. Photos were taken at the Fairfax Ice Arena in Fairfax, Virginia.