7/23/2022 1 Comment
The Secret to Being a Good Figure Skater
It’s no secret that to be a good figure skater you must be a good athlete. And to be the best kind of athlete in any sport, you must include strength and agility, cardiovascular, plyometric, flexibility, psychological, and even dance training. For a great summary of some of the athletic demands of the sport, you can visit this video on the Olympic channel.
Many elite level athletes also include yoga in their conditioning regimen. In fact, Professional teams such as the USA Women’s Soccer team, the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, and the New Zealand All-Blacks, among others, have mandatory team yoga practice. Lebron James credits his yoga practice for helping the health and longevity of his career. Individual Olympians, such as Olympic figure skaters Evan Lysacek and Madison Hubbell have both been very open about their yoga practice and how much it has helped their mindset and performance.
For some reason, though, many skaters and coaches think of yoga purely as flexibility training and only want teachers to work on the fun, deep, Instagram photo worthy poses. On the flip side, they think of yoga as a rest period for low impact days.
Yes, yoga asana (the physical practice) can help figure skaters with flexibility, strength, and balance, and it can be a gentle practice for rest days, but it is so much more than that.
Have you ever thought of yoga as off-ice endurance training for figure skaters?
Endurance Training for Figure Skaters
Endurance for figure skaters is typically taught through program run-throughs, power classes with high intensity interval training, double program run-throughs, and the like. These kinds of strategies, though, only train a skater’s anaerobic systems.
For anaerobic training to be effective, the skater must have a minimum base aerobic capacity. With aerobic training, which is generally done at a medium intensity over a longer period of time (think approx. 30 minutes). The skater’s resting heart rate lowers and the lungs begin to process oxygen more efficiently, among many other benefits.
Another measure of conditioning is the VO2 Max—a measure of cardiorespiratory fitness, or how efficiently the body uses oxygen. The most accurate tests for VO2 Max are done in laboratories and can be quite expensive, but some athletic trainers are certified to use a less sophisticated test, and some smart watches can even give you a rough estimate (although I don’t know how accurate they are). An athlete’s V02 max is partially genetic but is related to fitness level and can be improved through high intensity training. It does typically go down as we age, though.
What if an athlete is doing all the training typically recommended for improved aerobic capacity, but their V02 Max number and their endurance don’t improve? Sometimes improvements don’t come because of lack of training intensity, inadequate recovery between trainings, forgetting to plan for breaths within the choreography, and maybe even performance and practice anxiety.
Or, as this yogi likes to argue, maybe the athlete doesn’t know how to breathe properly?
Figure Skaters Need Yoga
A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health titled Yoga versus physical exercise for cardio-respiratory fitness in adolescent school children: a randomized controlled trial evaluated the effects of yoga versus physical exercise training on cardio-respiratory fitness in adolescent school children. Researchers recruited 802 students from 10 schools across 4 districts. Students were randomly assigned to receive either an hour of yoga or an hour of physical exercise daily over a period of two months and then tested their V02 max. The results were very promising, suggesting that yoga “can improve cardio-respiratory fitness and aerobic capacity as physical exercise intervention in adolescent school children.”
Another study titled Effect of Yogic exercises on aerobic capacity (VO2 max) that was published in the International Journal of Recent Trends in Science And Technology studied college age students over 12 weeks of yoga therapy. These researchers also concluded that “yoga practice can be used to perk up cardiorespiratory fitness.”
It is widely known in the scientific research that yoga decreases resting heart rate and can help us breathe more efficiently. After all, everything that we do in yoga is about manipulation of the breath.
An asana (physical posture) practice involves pushing the body just to the edge of our comfort level—just far enough that we might be a tad uncomfortable but are still able to breathe smoothly, fully, and evenly.
Pranayama is an arm of yoga practice designed specifically to regulate the breath through specific techniques and exercises.
Both of these practices are very powerful—they stimulate the vagus nerve, recalibrate the nervous system, balance the hemispheres of the brain, lower the resting heart rate, and improve oxygen saturation. Additionally, specific pranayama exercises help teach techniques that can increase lung capacity and control the rate of respiration.
What figure skater doesn’t need all that?
Breathe Like a Champion Skater
There is a technique to activity-specific breathing—singers have one technique, swimmers have one, actors have another, and so on. Runners practice timing the breath with their stride rhythm, and power lifters practice using the breath to lift more safely.
In skating, though, few coaches but the elite of the elite really talk much about the breath, except to yell “Breathe!” across the ice at their athletes as they gasp for air like fish.
For some skaters, breath control and stamina come fairly naturally as they progress in skill and level. In fact, most people only breathe with about one-third of their total lung capacity and this functions just fine for them.
For others, though, breath control and stamina are incredibly challenging. Sometimes this is due to genetics and limited off-ice aerobic training, but other times it is related to asthma, allergies, and/or anxiety.
In times of stress, we tend to take even more shallow breaths than normal and muscles often tighten, which raises the heart rate, which makes us even more stressed. The body does not know whether the stressor is real or imagined—it only knows that the breath is shortened and the posture tense, so it sends signals to the brain to release stress hormones.
This series of responses is biological, controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, and is necessary for combating threats to our survival. It is the fight or flight or freeze response.
In an athletic situation, the threat we face in training or performance is not usually to our actual survival, even though it may feel as such. For some skaters who have a history of breathing trouble due to allergies and asthma or who simply struggle with stamina due to genetics, the fear of having an episode during a performance is enough to provoke anxiety causing even more shortness of breath.
Shallow breaths caused by whatever reason will lead to fatigue and less than optimal performance. The skater does not get enough oxygen into lungs, the stress level causes the body to process oxygen less efficiently, lactic acid builds up faster, and fatigue sets in earlier.
Under these circumstances, the process and performance are not enjoyable. Eventually, if a skater experiences this enough, they will burn out and leave the sport.
There is hope, though!
Breathing exercises can develop underutilized portions of the lungs as well as strengthen the diaphragm and intercostal muscles.
The diaphragm is a very flat muscle located just below the lungs that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. It is attached to the sternum, lower rib cage, and spine. It moves rhythmically with the breath. As it contracts, it flattens out and makes room for the lungs to expand within the rib cage. As it relaxes, it goes back to its normal parachute shape and expands into the chest cavity, creating pressure on the lungs to blow out air.
The diaphragm mostly works on its own, but we do have some control over it, which allows us some measure of control the rate of respiration and breath retention.
The Intercostals are muscles in the rib cage further responsible for expanding the lungs and chest for breathing.
Besides helping us breathe more fully and efficiently, exercises that work these muscles can also help athletes relax to ride out waves of anxiety or breathing episodes.
Off-Ice Exercises for Figure Skaters
I was not a very well-trained competitor. Due to geographical challenges, exercise-induced asthma, severe allergies, intense perfectionism and anxiety, and a late start with training, I struggled with stamina once puberty set in.
One thing I learned early on in these struggles, though, was the importance of the exhale.
When I was in middle school I attended a talk in my city by Nancy Hogshead, gold medalist in swimming at the 1984 Olympics. Meeting her and hearing her speak was very inspiring to me, and her book Asthma & Exercise was a game changer for me because of the practical tips and breathing exercises it offers. Specifically, she suggested one exercise that focuses on the strength of the exhale, suggesting readers to work towards lengthening the exhale to two times the length of the inhale.
Through this exercise, I discovered that a longer exhale can also help calm anxiety. I don’t remember any coach, doctor, friend, or mentor telling me this. My body just remembered having helped with asthma and started naturally focusing on the exhale as a distraction to whatever was bothering or scaring me—usually right before medical procedures.
Later, as I began studying yoga, I realized that this type of exercise is central to a well-rounded yoga practice and can easily be taught to skaters wanting to improve their overall quality of breath and endurance.
Below are two simple exercises you can try for yourself or suggest to someone you think might benefit.
I like to practice both of these exercises using yoga ocean breath, where you slightly close off or constrict the muscles at the back of the throat so that inhales and exhales make a slight ocean sound. Practicing this way can increase oxygen consumption and allows for a more controlled, focused exhale—like blowing up a beach ball where you expel the breath through the valve.
Conscious Diaphragmatic Breathing
1. Lie on the floor in a comfortable position—perhaps with legs extended and a pillow under the knees or with knees bent and feet on the floor. You can also do this exercise sitting in a chair or in a cross-legged position, but I like to begin practicing it on the floor with the eyes closed. I find it easier to focus on the correct movement this way.
2. Place one hand on the belly and one hand on the chest.
3. As you inhale, try pushing your belly out using the diaphragm. You will notice the movement by feeling or seeing the hand move up. The hand on the chest should stay as still as possible.
4. Then, when you exhale, imagine you are blowing up an enormous beach ball by blowing air out forcefully through your nostrils, with the back of your throat acting like the valve. Gravity helps relax the diaphragm to begin the exhale, but you must activate the abdominal muscles to speed up the exhale and complete it fully.
5. Begin by counting to a slow count of 3 on the inhale and 3 on the exhale for a few rounds of breath. If that feels good, try lengthening the exhale to a count of 5. If that does not feel good, go back to the 3-count for both.
6. Breathe like this for 5 minutes, at least once a day. After several days of practicing, you may gradually work your way up to 10 minutes, perhaps placing a light book on your stomach for added effort.
Note: You won’t breathe quite this way when skating—the inhale will be more natural and automatic during most of the activity because of the way the brain asks for oxygen and the lungs have a spring-like reflex. In other words, you won’t need to think about taking a belly-full, diaphragmatic breath.
However, since it is not effective to relax the core as we are skating, the diaphragm has a hard time flattening on its own… this means we often have a hard time expelling the stale, used air (aka excess carbon dioxide). If we use the abdominal muscles to forcefully exhale as in this exercise, we can effectively create room for more new air to enter the lungs.
Also, we can use the abdominal muscles to control the length and timing of the exhalation, which can help lower the heart rate. It’s a win-win!
To begin the transition to the ice, you can practice this exercise exhaling through pursed lips—like blowing bubbles in your drink through a straw—or maybe even smiling and blowing out through the teeth.
Conscious Rib Cage Breathing
1. Stand with the feet a little wider than hip distance apart and knees soft.
2. Place the hands at your sides, cupping the bottom ribs. Thumbs will be towards the back side of the body and the fingers towards the front.
3. Breathe normally for a few rounds of breath, noticing whether your hands move in and out on the inhale.
4. Then, begin to breathe deeply, trying to push the hands out to the sides. Try to fill the lungs completely—all the way out to the edge of the shoulder blades and up to the collarbones.
5. Gently contract the abdominal muscles to give yourself a slow, long exhale.
6. You can begin by keeping the inhale and exhale the same length. I like to use a slow count of 4, but you may prefer to count to 3 or 5—do what feels best for you. Begin practicing for 30 seconds, gradually working your way up to 2-3 minutes.
7. Once you get comfortable here, you can try to implement the ocean breath, and maybe switch to making the exhale a little longer than the inhale.
I love this exercise because it brings awareness and mobility to an area of the body that is often overlooked—the intercostal muscles—and as a result, helps us breathe more fully. When I practice it, I still find nooks and crannies of the lungs and chest cavity that I didn’t know existed!
On the ice, I find the most benefit from this exercise when trying to take deep inhales, as it will help you take in more air.
Putting it All Together on the Ice
Practice the two exercises described above back-to-back to really feel the difference between the functions of the diaphragm and the intercostals.
Then, to put them together: exhale as you did in the first exercise—blowing out into the beach ball—and inhale into an expansive rib cage (another good reason to keep working on that pesky upper body carriage 😊). Repeat.
My favorite way to practice this combination on the ice is to swizzle and fan the arms overhead on the inhale, glide with the feet together while finishing the inhale. While still gliding on two feet, fan and press the arms back down to the sides on the exhale. Take a couple of laps this way, really focusing on how the breath feels with the movement.
If you have never done any breathwork and are having an episode asthma or anxiety, you should wait until you are feeling better, as you may have difficulty with these. If you experience any dizziness or lightheadedness while practicing, discontinue the exercise. Also, it is generally not a good idea to practice immediately after eating.
There are more exercises to share, but these are two of my favorites to begin with. If you try them out, comment below to let me know how it went for you and if you liked them, please share with someone you think might benefit.
Author // the skating yogi
My name is Sarah Neal. I have been immersed in the world of figure skating for over four decades. I have seen firsthand the abuse that happens at the higher levels of our sport and experienced how that trickles down into unhealthy training practices and habits at the grassroots. I have seen this play out in the operations of the very institutions that control our sport. Whether for a profession or hobby, pursuing skating should be a joyful, rewarding process, an opportunity for athletic and personal growth, and a place to build lasting friendships.