In last month's column, I discussed the benefits of cross-training and suggested several options for cross-training for inline skating. Aerobic activities that were mentioned included running, cycling, swimming, x-c skiing, machines in the gym, and so on. This month we will discuss the
other aspects of off-season cross-training, for functional sport-specific fitness, such as training the "core", strengthening exercises, balance and agility training, and plyometrics.
We have all heard of how important it is to train the "core", but how many of us know what that really means? When you hear the word "core", you kind of get a feeling that it has something to do with the central part of your body. The core is actually where the center of gravity is for the body, where movement starts and power comes from. Many people think of training their abs when they think of training their core. As you can guess, it is really a lot more than just doing abdominal crunches. Core musculature involves those muscles of the hips, abdomen, and back (mostly low back, but upper back is often included).
In a nutshell, properly training the core trains proper muscle recruitment and stability in the entire body. Core strength comes from postural awareness and an integrated training of those muscles that support good posture, no matter what sport we are doing. Why is it so important for inline skaters to have good core strength and awareness? We are often in positions that could jeopardize our low backs, if not properly protected by a stong core. Fitness/speed skaters also need to generate a lot of power, which, as we discussed above, stems from the central core.
The following are 4 suggested core conditioning exercises that should get you off on the right foot. Anywhere between 8 and 15 repetitions and doing this 1-3 times (sets) should be adequate. A lot of people use exercise balls (also referred to as a Swiss ball, Fitball, or Gymnic ball) to work on core stabilization and strengthening. An example of an exercise using the exercise balls is a "bridge" with head and shoulders on the floor and feet (and calves, if needed) on the ball. This involves a lot of the core area for stabilization. If you don't have an exercise ball, bridges can also be done with both feet and head and shoulders on the floor, then lifting up the hips and holding for about 5 seconds.
Medicine balls (weighted) are also used a lot for core conditioning. Exercises using medicine balls often involve controlled twisting and reaching movements while in a standing position, thus utilizing a diagonal plane of motion along with some rotation. An example would be a "chop" type of exercise (i.e., like chopping wood). This involves standing and holding a medicine ball off to the side and over your head. Bring (chop) it down and across to the opposite hip, knee, or ankle. You should feel your abdominal muscles working during these exercises. A cable or tubing will also work for this.
Abdominal exercises, such as crunches, are good for core training, especially if you include both oblique and regular crunches. Oblique crunches are done by placing one ankle on the opposite knee and reaching up so that the shoulder comes off the floor in a direction towards that opposite knee (i.e. left ankle on right knee and reaching up and across with the right arm or elbow towards left knee). Your hands can cradle your head for support, if needed, or one hand can reach towards the knee. You never want to pull on your head and neck when doing crunches. Regular crunches are done by lifting the shoulders off the floor and bringing the ribcage towards the pelvis and then lowering back down. These exercises can also be done with greater range of motion using an exercise ball. You would sit on the ball and roll it under the small of your back by walking your feet out away from the ball. Crunches are then performed similarly to when on the floor, except that you can lean back farther than you could when on the floor.
Finally, the lower back can be trained using the exercise ball or a device at the gym that is specially designed for working the low back. Strong back extensor muscles are very important for skaters. To use the exercise ball, you lay across the ball on your stomach and anchor your feet against a wall. You then lower your upper body towards the floor and come up to a neutral spine or a position where your back is in a straight line with your leg and not hyperextended.
Now that you have strengthened your core, how do you transfer that to your skates? Let's talk next about some good lower body exercises for skaters. Squats, lunges, and step-ups are all exercises that can be done with body weight alone or with added resistance. They can be done at home, in the gym, or even outdoors. The number of sets and repetitions depends on what you are trying to accomplish, but usually between 8 and 15 repetitions and 1 and 3 sets is sufficient). None of these exercises should be done if they cause any joint discomfort or pain. Squats are a very basic functional exercise. They involve flexing at the hips and knees and sitting back with your weight on your heels until your knees are at an approximate 90 degree bend. The knees should not go forward beyond the toes. Keeping the chin level helps with upper body posture. Pulling in the abdominals is also important for supporting the back.
Lunges are done from a staggered stance (one foot ahead of the other). For example, in a forward lunge, the person takes a step forward with one foot and lowers the back knee towards the floor. Both knees should have no greater than a 90 degree bend. Good posture should be maintained in the upper body also (i.e. avoid excessively leaning forward). Lunges can be done at a diagonal or to the side, both of which are quite applicable to skating.
Step-ups are just as they sound. Step up onto a surface (i.e. a bench, block, or stairs) with one leg, bring the other foot up onto that surface, and then step back down. You can then alternate which leg steps up. This is a very powerful exercise because you are lifting your entire body weight up with one leg. The height of the surface can vary as can the angle you are stepping up at (diagonal or to the side). These are easy to do outdoors on a bench or a set of stairs.
Balance is a key component of skating. Balance training can be done both on and off skates. On skates, one-foot glides are an example of balance training. Off skates, we can train balance by standing on one foot. Start with your eyes open and arms out to your side. Work on extending the length of time that you can balance on one foot. If you need more challenge, lower your arms, add in other arm movements, or ultimately, close your eyes. You could even work on one- foot balance while standing at the kitchen sink or while brushing your teeth! Other ways to train balance include standing on foam rollers, doing squats or lunges with one foot on a foam roller, or using a balance board. Standing yoga poses and martial arts also involve a lot of balance work.
Agility is the ability to stop, start, and move the body quickly in different directions. This is also an important component of being a good inline skater. Who knows when we might need to react quickly! Some suggested ways to improve agility off skates are to jump rope (quick foot work) or to do
various foot work drills using an agility ladder. An agility ladder is usually made of webbing material and consists of squares usually about 20 inches wide. Numerous patterns can be done through the ladders which are laid out flat on the ground. For example, you can run through the ladder going forwards,
touching each foot to the outside of the square, and then both feet touch in the middle and repeat. Inline skaters could benefit from working on drills in all directions: forwards, backwards, and even
sideways. Accuracy should be worked on first, then speed. Agility ladders can also be simulated by using tape or chalk. Basketball and racquet sports also develop agility.
Finally, plyometrics involve using the body's weight to do explosive movements that involve jumping. These are advanced types of exercises and should not be included in a program for beginners. They are used by athletes in many different sports to develop explosive and speed. One example of a plyometric drill for skaters would be bounding up stairs. Another example using stairs is to have both feet on the ground and leap sideways to the step by pushing off powerfully with the foot that is furthest from the step, landing with both feet on the step, and then leaping back down. Switch sides to work the other side of the body. Another example would be to assume a low speed skater position and leap sideways or diagonally from one foot to the other. Start small and work up with these drills (i.e. one set of 8 might do it the first time). There are many more plyometric drills, examples of which can be found in fitness books and magazines.
This is a brief introduction to other types of training for skating that applies whether you are a recreational skater who wants to get more fit and hopefully prevent injuries, or are an avid fitness/speed skater wanting to improve your conditioning and performance. I would suggest that if you aren't somewhat familiar with these exercise, that you get help from someone who is, either a friend or a personal trainer.
Next month the topic for the column will be about the basics of heart rate training.