Learning to ice skate

Tips for newbies, from a somewhat experienced beginner

A few years ago I learned how to swim. As an adult already turned thirty, that is. It was then when I realized how, for a skill that most people learn as a kid, it's very hard to find basic information about and "getting started" instructions. If you ask a random person how to learn to swim, they probably either answer that they can't swim, or they say they just swim as they've always done.

Ice skating seems to be similar. A couple of years ago I was starting to get desperate for where to start as none of the skate models seemed to fit me well, so I just bought some basic Bauers, the Supreme S25. I wrote an article about widening the skates to fit my feet better. That was in spring 2019. Last year there pretty much was no winter in southern Finland, but this year the winter was superb for winter sports, including ice skating. So, I finally was able to start to learn how to skate properly.

In this article I go through all the information I deem necessary to begin ice skating and try to present it so that an adult beginner would have some kind of idea what to do when picking up ice skating for the very first time.

About safety

I figured that I will fall at some point and when I do, the less danger there is the better. When learning at public ice rinks, there will be people of all age and skill levels. Not only you might fall unexpectedly but if you do, someone might hit you accidentally. I know a couple of people who have broken their wrists falling on ice. It's also not that long ago since I hurt both my wrists badly in a bicycle accident. So, some kind of protective equipment was needed.

I ended up with these protective equipment, most of which I found second hand for a bargain:

  • Hockey shin guards. I later got rid of these, as I bought UF Pro tactical pants which have pockets for knee pads. In the pockets I put a piece of yoga mat, which is enough for most impacts.
  • Hockey elbow guards. I found that elbow guards are a must and the hockey version is well padded.
  • Wrist guards. I bought a Dakine model that fits under gloves which was nice, as it was -15 °C at times.
  • A helmet. I wasn't expecting to hit my head but with others on the ice anything can happen.

I fell badly once, and that time I didn't have my elbow guards on. After a couple of months, my wrist is still hurting a bit, but no bones were broken, probably thanks to the wrist guard. My elbow's joint capsule is still swollen and sore. Had I had the elbow guards on, there would've been no problem at all. Until you are very comfortable on ice and there are no hazards around, I'd suggest wearing at least the elbow guards when practicing, for if you fall, you can take the hit with your elbows. And try to fall with your fists clenched - this helps protect the wrist and your fingers both from the fall and other people's skates. The helmet I luckily never needed, but it's really the easiest equipment to just put on, so why not. The knee pads saved be from a couple of bruises so the yoga mat strategy was very good as it was integrated to my pants, so no extra work involved.

The quality of ice

My learning season lasted for 2½ months. I spent half the time on natural ice. The problem with natural ice is that it might be of quite bad quality: it's difficult to get a good feel to the ice if it's rough. Also, that one time I fell badly happened because my skate hit some kind of dimple left by a tractor that was used to plow out the snow.

When I switched to artificial ice (still outdoors, though) the difference was crazy. It's so much easier to learn to feel the ice and the blades and everything on artificial ice, so always prefer that if you can.

Figuring out the fit of the hockey skates

So in my previous article I introduced a tool to widen the skate. It took me a few tries this season to finally get them wide enough so as not to cause too much pain. I only got blisters twice, in the middle inside of my foot. I used a foosball ball and heat gun to make a small dent to the skate there. It's apparently caused by some sort of navicular prominence - some people have the bones more exposed than others.

The skates never really fit me, but when I got rid of the pain, I could finally feel the ice. I think it was actually the first time in my life at that. After that, I could actually start to learn. As a kid I used to have mostly ill-fitting skates with wool sock, so no feeling at all. Now that I finally was able to feel what's going on, it was clear the skates were actually way too big. They are 15 mm too long, and there's just a bit too much space overall except for the width.

To make the skates tight but not hurt, I tried zone-lacing: tight, loose, tight. I used a couple of extra knots between the zones. This helped for a while but after I got the skates wide enough in the middle, I could drop the extra knots.

One thing that helped with tying the skates tight at the ankles to cut extra leeway was an anti-lace bite padding. This is actually integrated to the tongue in the higher quality skates already. I used a shaped piece of plastic I just taped to the tongue. If the skates would be a better fit, I wouldn't have to tie them so tight all the way up.

To alleviate the extra size, I put in some toe box inserts to keep the foot better in place. There are actually commercial products for the same purpose, although they are made to fill just the toe box - my skates had a bit more to fill. First I tried to fill mainly the toe cap and do it length-wise, but then realized it doesn't exactly help. I needed to fill it in depth, like the commercial products. So I made a couple of iterations. The idea with the (commercial) inserts is that you wouldn't have space to curl your toes, but all the force you exert would go to your skates and be then transferred to the ice. I do like the idea, and it's worth a try even if you have very well-fitting skates.

With these mods I skated most of the season. Now knowing what I actually would need I went to a professional hockey store and tried out some of the more expensive skates. The CCM JetSpeed FT490 EE, size 7 (my current skates are size 8) felt otherwise pretty good, but the toe box was a tad bit too narrow, pressing my bones. Last year Bauer introduced their new fit system, where there are just Fit 1/2/3 and no more letters to describe the width. I tried some expensive Fit 2 Bauer skates. I don't remember if the size was 6.5 or 7, but somewhere in the ballpark. The store staff told me that the new Fit 2 corresponds pretty much to the old EE, the extra-wide. However, it hurt my feet like hell - it was way too narrow, just like my skates originally, but worse. It now made sense why I had such a hard time finding skates a couple of years earlier: even the widest models would've probably been too narrow for me out of the box.

Having gone through all this hassle of trying out pretty much everything, I think I finally know how hockey skates should fit:

  • Forget wearing thick socks to "make the skate fit better" if it feels a bit too big. The skate should fit well with no socks.
  • You need to loosen the laces and open the tongue a lot to fit your foot in. If you don't have to, the overall skate fit isn't probably tight enough.
  • With the tongue out, put a pen across the eyelets, about three eyelets down. The pen should approximately touch your foot and the eyelets without rocking on your foot. That way you know the depth is good. For example, Bauer used to have three series of models (Vapor, Supreme and Nexus) corresponding to three different depths.
  • While sitting or standing, your toes should just touch the end of the toe box. This one is important - otherwise you'll be me and end up buying too big skates.
  • After tying the laces, take the skating stance, i.e. knees slightly bent. This will bring your foot backwards and your toes should not touch the toe box anymore. Your heel should be locked, and there should be room for barely maybe a single finger behind your ankle. The less room, the better. Note that this solely doesn't tell if your skates are not too big: my skates felt locked in the heel and seemed a snug fit in store when I bought them, even if the toe box had 15 mm of empty space.
  • For the skate size they usually tell you to buy one or two sizes smaller than your shoe size. This I don't agree with. I was quite mislead as it made no sense when I was buying the skates. This depends totally on your shoes. I normally wear Ecco, size 42, which corresponds to size 7 skates, which seemed to be quite fine. Size or two smaller were never going to fit me and hence this general rule just caused confusion originally. My advice is to just pick the skate size based on your toes touching the toe box as described earlier and forget the numbers.
  • Remember that hockey shops have boot punches and you can use heat gun and DIY tools to modify some specific spots if the culprit is anything other than the toe box.
  • The widths run from narrow (C or N) to regular (D or R) to wide (E) and extra-wide (EE). Bauer now has just Fit 1/2/3, where Fit 2 corresponds to EE apparently. You really want to buy wide enough skates, but do not compensate by buying a bigger size. Also, too big a skate might actually feel even narrower than a smaller skate, as the skate begins to widen further away from the heel.

All the other information could eventually be found by doing enough research, but the last point was the one that really got me. It was impossible to find good information about proper width and how much pain new skates should cause. Almost everyone just kept saying that yeah, new skates should hurt, just get your skates baked, or just skate through the pain, you sissy. Now that I've actually went from too narrow skates to wide enough I am much wiser. The pain of too narrow skates is such that you cannot keep the skates on for more than 5 minutes, let alone put your weight on them (i.e. stand up) or actually skate with them. No, you should be able to feel your feet, even after fifteen minutes of skating. You shouldn't even be having excruciating pain while skating. It is normal to have a blister or two, and a bit sore feet for a few times skating with new skates. But if completely overwhelmed with pain that is only relieved by taking the skates off, your skates are too narrow, and no amount of baking or breaking in is going to help it. I wasted quite a bit of time in the beginning trying to skate with too narrow skates. It was just painful and I couldn't concentrate on learning at all. And when I thought I had them wide enough (like when I finished my previous article), they actually weren't even near the proper width and I had to work on them many times still. But once I finally got the skates wide enough, everything changed, I started to learn and skating for two hours wasn't that big of a deal anymore.

That being said, also make sure your skates aren't too big overall or in length. Once I started to learn stuff and could actually try out different drills it became apparent how much more difficult everything is if the skates aren't a really good, snug fit. More on that at the end of this article.

About the blades and sharpening

When I bought the skates, they were sharpened at the sports store. For this season, I took them to a shoemaker for sharpening. At first I thought I had "good, sharp blades" without thinking much about it. Oh, how wrong I was. After starting to feel the ice and getting the hang of skating, I realized my skates were slipping quite a lot when trying crossovers for example. They felt somewhat unstable even just gliding forwards.

Then I took a closer look. Turns out that on the blades, the left edges were a bit higher up than the right ones. So, on my left skate, the outer edge was higher than the inner edge, and on my right skate, the inner edge was higher than the outer edge. And the skates weren't exactly sharp, either. Searching a bit it turns out sharpening ice skates is quite an art itself. It's really hard to know beforehand what the results will be: at a sports store they might just ruin your blades, and a shoemaker might actually know what they are doing. Or sometimes it's the other way around. Anyway, I read about this Flat Bottom V (FBV) sharpening technology and noticed it was available at a hockey store nearby.

Normally the edges are made with a round/hollow groove running along the length of the blade. The depth of the groove determines how much grip you have on the ice. In FBV technology, as the name suggests, the bottom of the groove is not round, but flat. The depth and angle of the edges can be also determined to a high precision. This gives the skates very good and consistent grip but also very good glide. And what's the best part: it's made by a machine, so it minimizes the human error and skill-requirements from the equation. I opted for the beginner-friendly FBV 90-50 sharpening.

Besides the sharpening, there's also the shape of the blades when viewed from the side. That too can be modified in a process called profiling. When I got the FBV sharpening, I also got a blade profile with 13' curvature, which again should be quite beginner-friendly. The smaller the radius, the bigger the curvature, and more agile the skate will be. 13' is apparently quite a big radius, but it's good when learning how different parts of the blade work and feel. I might try 11' next time, though.

The difference between my old crappy blades and the new profiled, FBV-sharpened ones were night and day. It was a game-changer similarly to wearing skates that don't actually cause you pain. Suddenly I could trust my skates won't slip when doing crossovers. I could glide easily. I could actually feel if I have the weight on the back of the blade or in the middle. The first couple of times I was a bit scared to brake, as the blades were gripping the ice so much, but you get used to it very quickly.

I won't sharpen my blades any other way in the future. This isn't paid promotion, it's just that FBV simply works. It's really hard for a beginner to know what kind of profiling and sharpening to get and especially from who, but FBV solves that problem as you can just pick a good general purpose option as a starting point and trust the sharpening machine brings you expected results. I would imagine also experienced skaters benefit from this greatly, as they can now describe their blade specifications quantitatively, no need for that old man at the shady hockey rink corner who knows what's best for you. It's also usually cheaper than manually sharpening the blades, so it's a no-brainer in my opinion.

Drills and progress so far

YouTube has a lot of good videos about basic beginner exercises, so just pick some and try to practice them. It took me some time to actually be able to perform even the most basic drills, and when I did, the ill-fitting skates became apparent. For example, you should be able to transition from inner to outer blade edge smoothly. For me being on outer edge is mostly a binary state, as my foot has a bit of room to twist inside the skate, so it'll twist until it cannot twist anymore, after which it kind of snaps to the other extreme position. Doing forward crossovers isn't that difficult as the skates are on the same edge all the time. Doing slalom feels hard as I need to alternate the edges. Getting the balance right is also trickier if your skates are too long. I noticed I'm usually a bit too forward heavy, and pressing against the ice is harder if the blades are longer than your feet.

Some super basic things I'd advice to learn before moving on to the "basic drills" videos so as not to get depressed when failing the simplest of them:

  • Learn the stance, i.e. knees slightly bent. If the laces bite your ankle badly, try some padding.
  • Glide forwards on both skates and squat deep down while doing so.
  • Glide forwards in a straight line on one foot. This isn't actually trivial at all if you're a complete beginner. Good-quality ice helps a lot.
  • Learn how the edges of the blades feel, especially the outer edge. Step on the edges, like really take some exaggerated steps and land on the edges. Also find neutral position for gliding nicely. For this, it is absolutely essential not to have too much pain because of too narrow skates etc. as you have to trust the tactile feedback.
  • Don't look at the ice when on the move, it will mess up your balance. Again, you need to know how the skates feel. You usually want to keep your eyes on the horizon. For visuals, try recording a video.
  • When turning, guide with your hands, or point your chest to the direction you want to go. Your legs will follow naturally.
  • If you have access to those skating aids (a thing you can hold on to), don't be afraid to use them. For example, if you know how to stop on one side but the other side melts your brain, try breaking the mental barrier using the aid. You will progress quicker.
  • Try to dive or fall a couple of times, so that you know how to do it without hurting yourself. This will also boost your confidence so you won't even end up falling that easily.
  • Use the protective equipment at least when learning new stuff. Few new hobbies are worth months of recovery from broken bones.

As with learning to swim as a kid, if anyone who learned to skate when they were young stumbles upon this article, they will probably just shake their head in disbelief and be like, why am I making it seem such a big deal. It's simple physics. My center of gravity is over a meter higher than it was as a kid. I also have around 50-60 kg more mass. I am also faster. The kinetic energy when skating is around tenfold to that as a kid, and thus the forces involved are much, much greater. Adult bones don't bend much anymore, they break on impact. But the ice is as hard as always. Falling is thus actually dangerous and scary. I'm somewhat on the athletic spectrum, but still find skating relatively hard - i.e. a couple of months certainly isn't enough to learn but some basics. Skating just requires a lot of specific fine motor functions and balancing skills, so don't be sad if it takes a lot of practice even for the simple things. Skating also requires good equipment - for future seasons, I have to find myself better fitting skates as I am starting to get limited by my current, non-optimal ones.

And finally, some practice videos. The first one is me after 2-3 weeks of skating. At this point I still have mediocre ice, bad blades, bad technique, bad most things. But I'm starting to get the hang of it. Note: I have skated a bit as a kid, so in lifetime total that's a lot more than just a few weeks.

The next two videos are taken 6 weeks later. In the first one I'm jumping on my left foot while gliding, no problems keeping the balance and filming at the same time. In the second one I take a quick tour around the skate rink. The camera was taped to my right thigh.

The progress so far has been really nice. For future seasons, on my mind I already have a lot of skating skills to learn: figure 3s, simple jumps, single leg C-cuts and slaloms, single leg backwards glides and C-cuts, backwards crossovers, stopping from high speed, stopping on the weaker side, sharp turns, mohawks...

I hope this article shed some light on skating for absolute beginners and encouraged you to learn new skills!

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Creative Commons License  This article by Olli Helin is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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