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Jun. 27 2009 - 9:35 pm | 233 views | 2 recommendations | 2 comments

Preventing Pain in Figure Skating

Earlier this week, The New York Times ran an article discussing injuries in figure skating and how science is helping to better understand and prevent them. (This article in its entirety can be found in my “Headline Grabs” section.) In addition to creating a new brand of skates and focusing on how the sharpening of a skater’s blade can allow for a more body-friendly training session, the article brought up some helpful suggestions on how to cut down on injuries within the sport. Scientists and coaches have concluded that, among other things, by focusing on better jump technique, less repetition, and an awareness of one’s body, the frequency and intensity of injuries will hopefully be reduced.

As skaters, from an early age we are taught that hard work will bring us maximum results. And working hard for an athlete usually means training until our muscles have given out and we have physically reached our limit. What makes skating unique and even more taxing compared to other sports, is that most ice rinks are freezing cold, and after spending multiple hours in an ice box, falling and getting soaking wet, our muscles aren’t as loose and limber as they probably should be for performing such difficult tricks.

In the NY Times article, Mitch Moyer, senior director of athlete high performance for U.S. Figure Skating, spoke about what some coaches are doing to curtail injuries, and pointed out the growing trend in hip issues that have appeared within our sport–something I have personal experience with.

“Coaches are paying a lot more attention to these things,” said Mr. Moyer, who said some concerns were set off by a “trend of hip issues”with skaters like the Olympic champion Tara Lipinski, whose hip injuries required surgery at 18. “I hear a lot more buzz out there — ‘you need to stop jumping, you’ve done enough today.’ ”

Tara Lipinski

Tara Lipinski

I think Moyer’s belief that coaches are focusing on more quality and less quantity in training sessions is a great step for our sport. However, based on the number of injuries we have seen from skaters in the past few years, the reality may seem that this new coaching philosophy hasn’t caught on just yet. Although it is promising to hear that coaches are starting to take on a somewhat more nurturing role, a problem comes, however, when coaches aren’t monitoring skaters at all times, and these skaters are able to overtrain without an authoritative voice telling them to rest and end their training day.

In addition to Moyer, Tom Zakrajsek, coach of 2009 national ladies silver medalist Rachael Flatt, appears to be a fan of the less-is-more coaching mentality.

“I always tell my athletes that they’re going to be injured at some point in their career, so it’s more about management of that and also trying to have a minor injury instead of a major injury,” said Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches top skaters. “I have certain jump limitations and restrictions–I always have to pull back my skaters from repetition of jumping.”

Hopefully skaters will listen to their coaches and their bodies, and realize that although attempting a fourteenth triple salchow may make them feel somewhat satisfied at the time, the truth is, two or three repetitions of a jump is probably good enough for an average training session.

In the past, triple and quadruple jumps primarily took the wrath for the influx of injuries within figure skating. But now, the new judging system is proving it’s not only the twisting and pounding of jumping that can hurt a skater’s body. Under this new system there is a necessity to perform these jumps later in their routine when fatigue has set in. Spinning is no longer a time where a skater can take a quick break, and footwork offers no retreat from intensity and energy expulsion as well.

Adjustments to international judging guidelines in 2003 made skating “much more physically and mentally challenging,” said Mitch Moyer, senior director of athlete high performance for United States Figure Skating, which is sponsoring the accelerometer study and others. Each skill in a performance now receives specific points, requiring more focus. And skaters no longer have an incentive to perform all jumps early in a program before they tire–now, jumps done later earn extra points.
With every element counting towards a skater’s total score, and these totals making or breaking a placement, skaters have to be in peak condition, leaving no room for an injury to slow them down.

Although I only competed under the new judging system for a few seasons, I experienced my fair share of injuries throughout my competitive career.When I was 15 and regularly skating 2 1/2-3 hours per day, with the majority of that time spent performing triple jump after triple jump, I suffered a break in my pelvis. At the time I had just won a world junior title, and with the confidence that came from youth and the win, I was motivated to add some additional triple-triple combinations to my repertoire.

I was successful in learning these new elements, but I wasn’t prepared for the toll these jumps and the repetition would take on my body. Hurling one’s body at top speed into the air and completing six rotations in under ten seconds is quite difficult, and it proved to be more than my young bones could handle.

The afternoon my injury took place, on a triple lutz triple loop combination, I heard a pop. I had torn a piece of bone off from my pelvis and it was sticking into my hip flexor. Ouch. Unfortunately, at the time I didn’t know this was what had happened, and I continued skating through the pain for the rest of the session and for a few months following–before reluctantly visiting a doctor.

I often look back and wonder why I didn’t go to the doctor or even cease jumping for the day, and why I continued to train on a broken pelvis for the following season without taking the time off to fully heal the bone. Was it because I was that motivated to continue training? Was it because my coaches were pushing me to grit my teeth through the pain? I think it was probably a combination of both, along with a mindset some athletes hold, told best by the saying: “If it’s not bleeding, it’s not a big deal.”

I feel strongly that although injuries are unavoidable in skating, stressing the fact that it is okay for a skater to listen to their body and quit when it’s told them it’s had enough for the day is going to drastically reduce their occurances. I wish that I had been able to listen to my body more during my career, and I unfortunately still suffer pain in my hip today. Hopefully this trend of coaches scaling skaters’ training back and getting the message across that less, in a sport so focused on our athletes’ achieving more, can, at times, be best.


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  1. collapse expand

    Jen,
    Great post, as always.

    What do you think a proper training session should look like?

    You trained with Evy and Mary Scotvold, Richard Callaghan and Frank Caroll. How did each of them feel about the numbers of jump repetitions and the number of run throughs one should do in a practice?

    Yourself, Naomi Nari Nam and Deanna Stellato all suffered hip injuries from jumping within a few months of one another. This was right on the heels of Tara Lipinski’s debilitating hip injuries. Sasha Cohen and Michelle Kwan have also had hip injuries. Yu-Na Kim has dealt with a hip injury for quite some time. Due to the depth in the US during the 2000-01 season and the necessity to stand out to make the Olympic Team, do you think that there is a difference in the training methods of American skaters vs. the Russians, Europeans, etc. Skaters from other nations didn’t suffer the same injuries. Do they learn jumping later on? Are skaters learning to jump before they develop the necessary strength of edging and power? Many Russian skaters typically skater with more speed and other develop more height on their jumps.

    Due to the necessity of triple-triple combinations to be competitive, at what point in a skater’s develop should they learn these? Should triple-triple combinations with a loop on the back end be avoided? Many skaters underrotate or become injured while performing loop jumps.

    Just curious about your thoughts.

    • collapse expand

      Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your comment. I think every coach has a different way of approaching training. With Evy and Mary, I generally did multiple repetitions during one of their lessons. Evy was a big fan of double and triple run-throughs, which were great for my stamina, but by the third run-through I was usually dying and more susceptible to making stupid mistakes and getting injured. I think the period of my career when I trained with them I was quite young and held a belief that I could train, and train, and train and never get injured. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

      Mr. Callaghan did a great job of making sure I never over-trained. He would only allow us to do a single run-through of our short and long programs per training day, and usually he limited the number of repetitions of a particular jump to one or two. In addition, he did a really good job of monitoring me even when I wasn’t in a lesson with him and would usually call me over to him if he felt I was over-training an element. Frank, like Mr. Callaghan, was great at keeping my repetitions under control, and he would always listen to how I felt on a particular day and catered our lesson around that.

      I can’t speak for Naomi/Sasha/Tara, but I know the addition of triple triples to my training regiment added a lot of strain on my body. I think it’s easier to learn these difficult jumps before a skater has reached puberty, but perhaps putting so much strain on one’s bones before they have fully matured isn’t the best thing.

      In terms of American’s training being different than skaters from other countries, I think from what I’ve seen there are differences in our training methods compared to some European skaters. Many of the Russian skaters don’t complete as many repetitions as we do, and they are known for practicing their programs in sections as opposed to full run-throughs. I don’t know if their training methods have prevented more injuries, however.

      I think the loop jump puts a TON of stress on a skater’s hip. For most skaters the majority of the pressure from the jump is placed on the right hip, which for a loop takes the brunt of both the take-off and the landing. Although I don’t think loop combinations will ever be avoided, they do place a lot of strain on a skater’s body and probably should be practiced in moderation.

      Hope I answered your questions!

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    I’m originally from Boston, living in LA, with a passion for the world of figure skating. During my career on the ice, I was a world junior champion, a five-time U.S. national medalist, and a three-time world team member. Since retiring from the sport, I have dedicated myself to attaining my college degree with a major in broadcast journalism. I’m looking forward to sharing my views on the ins and outs of the skating world, along with my opinions and thoughts on various issues coming from the ice. I welcome you to my blog!

    To contact me: Jeki815@gmail.com

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