Practitioners fight for change in figure skating boots

Flexible design reduces force and may prevent overuse injuries, but many skaters and coaches remain hesitant

Published in the January 2007 issue of BioMechanics

By Jordana Bieze Foster

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A lot has changed about figure skating in the last 20 years. The compulsory figures for which the sport was named were eliminated from competition in 1990, leaving only the short and long programs. And in the wake of the 2002 Olympic judging scandal, the scoring system was overhauled so that two cleanly executed programs are theoretically differentiated based on degree of difficulty rather than on a judge's whim or a skater's reputation.

Programs packed with triple jumps and triple-triple combinations are now commonplace at the international level for both men and women, with the elite male skaters regularly including quadruple jumps as well. As programs have become more difficult, the ice time once devoted to practicing figures is now devoted to practicing jumps.

Despite all of these changes, one thing has remained essentially the same. The figure skating boots worn by most of today's skaters differ very little from those worn by the sport's legends, with no modifications to help skaters jump higher, spin faster, or land with less force.

With skating injuries on the rise, the practitioners who treat those injuries have been wondering why boots haven't changed with the times-or, more precisely, why skaters' preferences in boots haven't changed. In fact, new boots are available that have been shown to reduce loading on the lower extremities during jump landings. But the vast majority of skaters aren't wearing them.

"This has to become a priority in the skating community," said Mahlon Bradley, MD, a Peabody, MA-based orthopedist and chair of the United States Figure Skating Association's sports medicine committee, who is also a former competitive skater. "Why should we be seeing more and more of these athletes injured and pushed to the side, while we wait for the next ones to come up? We should be being proactive in helping these talented kids to achieve. And if there's something we think will help them do that, we should be doing our best to make that available to them."

I'm a senior level international skater, and I just started using the Jackson hinge boots. I have had a serious back injury for years, and skated in pain all the time. I got epidurals every month and last Feb. had back surgery. I tried skating after the surgery but was still in pain... The company had me try the hinge boots and matrix blades two months ago. Within an hour I was doing all my jumps. It was a slight adjustment when I first got on the ice but it didn't take as long as I thought it would to get used to. The best part is after 7 years of being in constant pain, I'm not anymore!

- Posted on online message board forum, Oct. 28, 2005

Documentation of injury rates in figure skaters is hard to come by, but Croatian researchers reported in the July-August 2003 issue of the American Journal of Sports Medicine that overuse injuries plagued 42.8% of 101 female junior elite skaters and 45.5% of their male counterparts. Stress fractures accounted for nearly 20% of injuries to female singles skaters, with jumper's knee reported by approximately 15% of female and 16% of male singles skaters.

Anecdotally, the list of high-profile skaters with overuse injuries is even more impressive. The poster child is Tara Lipinski, who won Olympic gold in 1998 at the age of 15 and had hip surgery to repair a torn labrum two years later. 2006 Olympic bronze medalist Jeff Buttle has been battling a stress fracture in his spine-the same injury sustained by 2006 Olympic silver medalist and U.S. national champion Sasha Cohen in 2001, when she was 17. Michelle Kwan, who withdrew from the 2006 Olympics due to hip and groin injuries, was still nursing a stress fracture in her left foot when she won a silver medal at the 1998 Olympics. Three-time U.S. champion Michael Weiss overcame a stress fracture in his left ankle to win his second national title in 2000 but missed several competitions later that year with a stress fracture in the same foot.

And those are the ones that have made it into the limelight. There's no telling how many others have only their injuries to show for years of practice.

"As skaters do the harder jumps, that increases risk of injury," said Linda Tremain, PT, ATC, a former competitive skater and member of the USFSA's committees on sports medicine and on boots and blades. "But typically when they increase their level of jumps, they're also increasing time on the ice. And there are just hundreds and thousands of kids who are training triples at very young ages, 10 or 12 years old."

If hard data on injury rates are scarce, so too are rigorous analyses of just how the biomechanics of skating contribute to injury. But in research most recently presented in September at the annual meeting of the American Society of Biomechanics, investigators from the University of Delaware estimated that peak heel forces on landing from a jump in a skating boot can reach levels up to 10 times body weight. In a February 2006 article in the Journal of Biomechanics, French researchers found that the restricted plantar flexion caused by skating boots effectively redistributed energy from the knee extensors to the ankle and hip joints. And Tremain, along with Carrie Katz, DPT, found that 27 of 35 skaters were unable to achieve greater knee flexion in a skating boot than out of it. Those findings were summarized in the May 2004 issue of Skating magazine.

"If your ankle doesn't bend, your knee doesn't bend very well, and you take out two of the most important factors for shock absorption," Tremain said.

"Dr. (Roger) Kruse, the U.S. team physician, spoke to me concerning a boot change. I had been struggling with enlarged bursas near my ankle for almost a year and a half, and he suggested that I should give the new Jackson hinge boots a try. For me to try a new boot would be a drastic change, since I have been in the same brand of boot my entire skating career, and a boot with hinges would be even more drastic! I decided to give them a try, including the new removable matrix blades...Within the first hour of adjusting to the boots and blades, I was able to do triple flips, triple lutzes and triple loops. I gave myself four weeks to decide whether I wanted to use them this season. I have been in them since then and really like them. My sister also has been using them for about four weeks and doesn't want to go back to her other boots."

- Online journal entry of Alissa Czisny, July 17, 2005. Four months later, Czisny placed second at Skate America and first at Skate Canada.

The most aggressive players in the skating-boot movement have been James Richards, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Delaware, who have developed a hinged boot design that is nothing short of radical by figure skating standards. Its two-piece construction features a hinge at the ankle joint, allowing for increased sagittal plane range of motion. The boot laces only below the hinge; the part that wraps around the ankle is secured using a knob in the back of the boot and a series of wires.

The researchers had previously negotiated with skate manufacturer Bauer to produce an earlier version of the boot, but that deal fell through after Bauer was purchased by Nike in 1995. It was a smaller Canadian company, Jackson Ultima of Waterloo, ON, that ended up taking a chance on the hinged skates, introducing them to the market in early 2005.

As part of its marketing strategy for the hinged boots, called ProFlex, Jackson Ultima has worked hard to get them onto the feet of as many elite skaters as possible. Alissa Czisny, who won Skate Canada in 2005; the pairs team of Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, who placed fifth at the 2005 U.S. nationals; 2006 U.S. Junior Nationals champion Jonathan Cassar; and fan favorite Rohene Ward are among the highest profile early adopters.

Meanwhile, Richards, a professor of health and exercise science at the university, and graduate assistant Dustin Bruening, a former skater, have been extolling the skate's biomechanical merits on the conference circuit. Their most recent findings, in a group of nine skaters, indicate that the hinged boots decrease peak heel force by nearly 25% in jump-landing simulations conducted off the ice. They also found that the hinged boots were associated with significant decreases in time between toe and heel strike and in loading rate, in addition to increases in ankle angle and boot contact angle. However, they found no significant differences between the hinged and conventional boots in on-ice jump landings, suggesting that the accommodation time allowed for the study (which ranged from three days to three weeks) was not long enough for the skaters to effectively make use of the greater range of motion provided by the hinged boots. Those findings were most recently presented in September at the ASB meeting.

I think the judges will think they are hideous. They look so clunky.

- Posted on message board forum, March 28, 2005

Despite the efforts expended on its behalf, the ProFlex boot has been slow to catch on. In September, Richards estimated that about 50 skaters were wearing the hinged boots.

The sources of resistance, for the most part, have been twofold. Experienced skaters, particularly those who have had competitive success, may be reluctant to go through a relearning period. Although the hinged skates don't require the same type of break-in period as a traditional boot, skaters used to a stiff boot may not have the muscle control to remain balanced during a jump landing, for example, if they can't rest the shin against the boot.

"People would rather let others try it first," Tremain said. "If a kid gets their double axel in a particular pair of boots, then it's hard to get them to wear any other pair. And if you're an older skater and you've essentially had your foot in a cast for years, it's going to take more time to adjust."

But the greatest challenge facing the hinged boot, Richards said, is its unconventional appearance.

"The biggest concern is the way it looks," he said. "The new judging system is supposed to be less focused on aesthetics, but in figure skating it is the way it is. If a judge doesn't like the music or the costume, then you won't get as high a score."

Some skaters who have aesthetic concerns about the ProFlex boot have opted for a less-radical flexible boot model from Calgary-based Graf Canada, the F-4000. Its boot-within-a-boot design, low-profile backstay and strategic stitching allow for more flexibility in the sagittal plane than Graf's more conventional boot, the Edmonton Special.

"The whole concept is that it allows for full range of motion, from knee bend to toe point, but still has enough resistance at the back to click in your balance point again," said Greg Jorawsky, vice president of the company's figure skating division.

Graf considered the possibility of a pin-based hinge design like that of the ProFlex, but opted against it, Jorawsky said.

"Your ankle bones are not across from each other, so a pin system is forcing the foot to go in a different way than it wants to go," he said.

A third flexible boot option is in the pipeline that may prove to be as innovative as the ProFlex but with a more conventional silhouette. Red Wing, MN-based boot manufacturer Riedell has been working with longtime coach Bill Fauver on a patent-pending design that uses pistons to absorb force at the endpoints of the range of sagittal plane motion allowed by the boot.

"These are hydraulic pistons that anyone can buy," said Fauver, who is based in Nashville, TN. "The strongest of them can absorb 500 pounds of pressure. So if you put two on a skate, theoretically you can absorb 1000 pounds of pressure."

Key to the design, Fauver said, is that the pistons can be individually adjusted to provide different levels of resistance on the medial and lateral aspects of the foot.

"You can have an asymmetrical design to the boot itself. And depending on the skater and the conditions, that could be important," he said.

The (ProFlex) boots I think I will like. I need to figure out how to control all the ankle mobility-the bending forward is great. It's a little (ok, a lot) weird to also be able to point your toe and have your ankle bend "backward." It's particularly odd on things like getting into a spin. Though there were a few times when I hit an edge and it just FLOWED-there was none of the usual "fight" to keep my knee bend against the pressure of the boot in front.

- Posted on message board forum, Oct. 29, 2006

Practitioners, while maintaining that a change in boot design will help prevent overuse injuries in skaters, remain unsure just how that change will ultimately unfold. The USFSA has acknowledged a need to address the issue, with the formation of the boots and blades committee three years ago, but to date has not provided funding for studies.

"Science has to be more productive in predicting less injury," Bradley said. "We have to be able to say, 'These are the things that will prevent injury in a figure skating athlete.' We have a lot of people who would be willing to spend the time to figure it out, but it comes at a cost. That's where we've been frustrated."

Tremain believes the best opportunity for change may lie with the sport's youngest participants, those who won't need to go through an adjustment period.

"I encourage especially new skaters to go straight into hinged boots as soon as possible," Tremain said. "All the little kids should be going in them now."

But after years of frustration, Richards takes a more cynical view.

"I think what's going to happen is some kid will get hurt and end up suing their coach for not letting them wear a boot that might have prevented the injury," he said. "That's what it's going to take."

Jordana Bieze Foster is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and former editor of BioMechanics.

Copyright 2008 Jordana Foster – 24 Kirkland Dr, Stow, MA – Email: – Fax: (815) 346-5239