Is figure skating the toughest Olympic sport?

figure skating
Chinese team competing in pairs mixed figure skating at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics; photo by Kishimoto/ media center

Sandwiched between the ferocity of ice hockey and the adrenaline-laden ski jump, the Winter Olympics’ figure skating seems, well, mild. But pull back the curtain and you’ll discover a sport that demands not only pinpoint precision, flawless execution, and a heightened sense of showmanship, but also a grueling training plan constantly overshadowed by the very real threat of injury. For the athletes headed to Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Winter Olympics figure skating competition, behind all the sequins and smiles lies years of dedication and grit—all culminating in just a few minutes on the world stage.

Olympic ice skaters participate in a “short program” and a “long program,” with the short program lasting two minutes and 50 seconds, and the long program lasting four minutes and 30 seconds for men and four minutes for women. These programs are weighted by jumps, spins, lifts, and a host of nuances that help the skater gain points from the judges. According to Kat Arbour—a renowned and sought-after figure skating coach who has been honored with the Sport Science Coach of the Year award by the U.S. Olympic committee—just 30 seconds into the performance the skater’s heart rate is above 90 percent of its maximum capacity, a level of intensity he or she must then maintain until the piece is over. “It’s like running a choreographed four-minute mile with a smile on your face,” Arbour says. (Try running at any quick pace for four minutes and see if you can smile the whole time—just try it.) The lactic acid burn sets in early, so to be successful, skaters must train in a way that helps them tolerate it for a long period of time. On top of that, the skater also has to be able to execute perfect spins, jumps, and lifts, which helps explain why training for competition is a multi-year process.

Training with Ice Dynamics (left), German skater Maxi Herber practives her jumps; Photos courtesy of Dynamics and FPG/Getty Images
Training with Ice Dynamics, left; German figure skater Maxi Herber practices her jumps. Photos courtesy of Ice Dynamics and FPG/Getty Images

The top-notch physical fitness required to be an ice skater is part of the reason Arbour founded Ice Dynamics, which offers full-year, off-ice training programs for competitive skaters. “Interval training is a huge part of the competitive process to help beat the lactic acid, and it takes months to get to that point,” she explains. Week by week the skaters ramp up the intensity of their workouts until they can manage exercise that will make your heart jump out of your chest for up to five minutes, mimicking the time it takes to finish a show piece.

A skater’s strength, power, aerobic/anaerobic conditioning, balance, and flexibility also have to be developed off ice to match the on-ice needs demanded by figure skating—skaters only refine their technique when they strap on their skates. “Last spring, most skaters were taking a break from pounding on the big jumps to work on choreography,” says Arbour of the skaters headed to the Olympics this year, explaining that the break is a much-needed dip in intensity that allows for some mental and physical rest and relaxation. “But by late spring and early summer, skaters are ramping up training gradually.”

: (L-R) Sasha Cohen of the United States, silver medal Shizuka Arakawa of Japan, gold medal and Irina Slutskaya of Russia, bronze medal pose on the podium after performing in the women's Free Skating program of figure skating during Day 13 of the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games on February 23, 2006 at Palavela in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
Sasha Cohen, left, of the United States, silver medal, Shizuka Arakawa of Japan, middle, gold medal, and Irina Slutskaya of Russia, bronze medal, pose on the podium after performing in the women’s free skating program of figure skating during the Turin 2006 Winter Olympics. Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images/ media center

Still, grueling training doesn’t always prepare skaters for the very real risk of injury. “Many skaters still develop overuse injuries,” says Arbour, citing the most common as stress fractures and tendonitis of the feet and legs. “Jumps land backwards on one foot, so the sides of the skate boot need to be stiff to prevent the skater from spraining or breaking an ankle every time they land a jump.”

Arbour, who analyzed the takeoff and landing impact of jumps as part of her Ph.D. in biomechanics, explains that the downside of rigid footwear is the amount of friction inside the skate, which can lead to foot and ankle issues that can put a skater out of the game. Repeated landing on the same leg can lead to shin splints and knee problems, which can spread to the hips and back. “We educate skaters and coaches about the need to limit the number of jumps per day, maintaining an extra pair of shoes, and most important, trying to get skaters to recognize the early signs of overuse and to back off before it progress into a full-blow injury,” says Arbour.

And we thought wiggling into the costumes was the tough part.

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