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Off-ice training programmes for figure skaters have become a definite requirement lately due to lockdown, but they are part of your normal schedule as a skater outside of the ice rink.  What is this all about?   An off-Ice programme for a figure skater is just as important as your training on-ice. Your mind, fitness, strength conditioning, and general nutrition is key to maintaining optimum skating performance.  These off-ice practices combined with warm up and cool down techniques assure an injury free skater with continued rink time.

Who better to ask for their knowledge and authority in this area, the gorgeous Lulu Alexandra who has agreed to write for Skate Perfect.  Before we begin, you can follow Lulu on Instagram here for constant motivation. We have an action packed article, with 3 Exclusive training videos for you to enjoy.

An Introduction to Lulu Alexandra

My name is Lulu Alexandra, and after enjoying a professional career as an international performer, I studied to become a Level 4 Fitness professional with a specific interest in working with up and coming athletes, and children’s fitness specialisms.  I’m also the current Winter World Masters Games Artistic Champion and Freeskate silver medalist.

As well as working with ice skaters, I also work with some Team GB skiers, top 10 nationally ranked athletes and netballers.

I continue to study and learn as the world of fitness evolves all the time so there is always something new to learn and share, and I’ve been lucky enough to train three times each week for 10 weeks with Aljona Savchenko (2018 Olympic Pairs Champion) learning more off-ice techniques I can share with my young athletes.  It’s been great to learn from and train with such an incredible skater who has competed in 5 Olympic Games!

Professional figure skaters Lulu Alexandra and Aljona Savchenko - 2018 Olympic Pairs Champion. They both practice on and off-ice programmes together.
Lulu Alexandra & Aljona Savchenko

What age is best to start ice skating?

There are many questions people ask me when starting out with ambitious dreams – mainly what’s the best age to start?

This really depends on your goals?  If you have dreams of making the Olympics, then obviously the earlier you can start the better.  However, most of us won’t become Olympians but there are plenty of other competitions to aim for.  

Many aim for National Championships, some aim for Internationals and these are all possible regardless of age! There is something for everyone and the ISU also includes Adult Skating (age 28+) which can take you to the Winter World Masters Games if you want – so you see, skating is for anyone of any age, whatever your ambition.

Off Ice training programme for skaters- how important is this ? 

Let’s assume that you’re a young skater and you want to reach the National Championships.

How would you get there?

Your coach will be working with you on the ice, and I’d hope they are working your off ice jumps with you too.  They are the best people to make sure you are learning the correct technique, and working your jumps off ice will help build your confidence and help you build your rotation ability too.  Then what?   Well, rather like a car, it only runs well if you keep it well serviced, so that means working your muscles off the ice too. Off-ice training. And lots of it.

Speak to any elite athlete, and they will tell you the hard work and training is done in the gym/studio/class. Many will spend more hours training off ice than on the ice and this is for 2 main reasons.  You will build your strength and stamina, and therefore help prevent injury.  Nobody wants to get injured, so ensuring a good off-ice programme is followed will help you maintain your body for optimum performance.  Being in good condition will help your injury recovery time too. 

A good, well rounded off-ice programme for skaters will include working with your ice coach doing off-ice jumps, and working with a specialist to do some sport specific circuit, HIIT, stretch, strength and conditioning and ideally some dance and performance work as well.  

How often should a skater undertake off ice programmes

Yes, it’s a lot to fit it, but it’s hard work to get to a top level in any sport and takes a lot of time, commitment and often, money too. Ideally, you’d be able to get 3 sessions in each week, more if you have the time.  It should be a team effort – you can’t make a cake with just flour, or just eggs….you need all the different ingredients to come together to make the final result work, and that’s especially true in figure skating.

If you look at the breakdown of you score sheet, you have technical elements (the jumps, spins and footwork) and a whole second score that picks out the performance, choreography, interpretation, skating skills and transitions.  So 50% of your score is about something other than jumps and spins.

How should I warm up for off-ice training?

Here’s the fun bit.  Wherever you are at, and however much time you have, the very first things you should be doing is warming up.

How many of you get to the ice rink with a few minutes to spare, quickly put your boots on and get on the ice quick?  Hmmm, I’m guessing a lot of you.

This is actually one of the easiest ways to get injured!  In an ideal world, we would all have at least half an hour to get warm and mobile and ready for exercise, but I live in the real world and know this isn’t always possible.  What you should do is set aside at least 10 minutes to warm up, so you can give your body the best chance of working efficiently!

There are lots of different warm ups you can do, but you want to raise your heart rate and get the blood pumping through your body first, so some gentle jogging, some skipping, jumping jacks, will all raise your heart rate and get your warm.  You want to do about 5 minutes of pulse raising warm up before doing some stretches.  Any skaters off-ice programme should include these pre-warm ups.

Again, these stretches should be quite gentle….you are preparing the body for exercise so don’t go crazy and jump into the splits of you’re not properly warm! You will pull something, or worse, snap your hamstring – I can tell you from hearing a fellow dancers snap years ago, it sounds like a dull elastic band pinging and it never recovers properly!  You’ve been warned.

What might happen if I don’t warm up for off ice training?

The best way to demonstrate what can happen to a cold muscle if you stretch it too quickly is to do the “Blu-Tac” test.  If you grab some blu-tac and pull it, what happens?  Try it.  It will snap!  But if you put blu-tac in warm water for about a minute, and then pull, it will stretch like melted mozzarella on a pizza.  It’s a great experiment to do for yourself (with the blu-tac, not the muscles) so you can see for yourself!  Always remember this when you’re stretching….be the gooey mozzarella and not the snapping blu-tac!

You should be warming up and stretching the main muscles you’re going to use on the ice.  Now most people remember to do a hamstring and calf stretch and a few rotational exercises….and there’s always the one bendy girl who pulls her leg up into a Biellman and 6am and then says “aww, I’m SO stiff today!”  

But for most of us, we need to warm up and open the hips, shoulders, spine, and knees. Perform some hip circles, shoulder rolls, knee bends, and some spine mobilisation.  Add some gentle rotation exercises in for both the trunk and arms so that your body is fully mobilised before you start pulling your arms and legs into positions that most non-skaters can only dream about!

Adult skaters and younger skaters all need to be flexible to allow the body to get into some of those spin positions that get the extra levels, and execute the beautiful spirals that add to your second score (sadly not a required element as a sequence anymore) and to have beautiful landing positions.  The better you warm up, the better training session you should have.  You’re preparing your body as well as your mind.

How to cool down after training on and off ice?

So we’ve spoken about warm up – but how many of you hang around for another 10 minutes after to cool down?  Not many as I see all the kids throwing their school uniforms on to get to school before the first bell, and the adults getting their work clothes on to get to work.

Well, your cool down is equally as important as your warm up and training session.  During your skaters off-ice programme it’s important to return your muscles back to their optimal length tension, bring your heart rate back down, and restore your body temperature to normal. 

Now I know some ice rinks are soooo cold, you never feel like you get warm enough to cool down, but it is important to take at least 5 minutes of gentle stretching after your skating session. Your body weight has been hammering your muscles and joints for your whole session and it deserves a little bit of TLC afterwards so make sure you give your body the love it deserves, or it might stiffen up the following day and you’ll not be able to do what you’d planned.

Off Ice programme to avoid injury on the ice.

Assuming you are the perfect athlete, and you warm up, train hard, cool down, go to school, finish school, do an off-ice class and then do another session on the ice (the reality is very few can fit all that in 5-6 days each week!) your body should be ticking over nicely.  Correct?  Sadly, not always.  Even with the best will in the world, we get sore, we get injured and sometimes, just an ice pack and a day off doesn’t work.

I’m a great fan of using KT tape (correctly) to help tired and strained muscles, here’ s an Amazon link if you need it. But I also see a sports massage therapist every 2 weeks to maintain my body and keep it working at it’s best.  Muscles get tight with over use, especially hamstrings and Achilles, most of us have had shin splints at some point, and feet and ankles, hips, and knees all tend to ache, and a lot of that can be from having very tight glutei (your bottom muscle). 

Seeing a sports physio is an important mix for the skating programme

Seeing a sports massage therapist (who shouldn’t be confused with having a lovely relaxing spa massage….it’s really isn’t always pleasant having some sports tightness massaged out) is really important.  I hear many people say “but it’s so expensive” – perhaps, but intensive physio costs more if you get injured, and you don’t want your ambitious goals ended before you even got going, do you?  So try and think how you can include this in your skaters off-ice training programme.  

My poor coach knows if I’m injured, I’ll be reducing lessons for a bit to pay for the physio but that also gives me some rest time too.  It’s really important you get a sports massage regularly if you are competing, and the higher level you are, the more strain your body is put under so don’t ignore this important part of your training regime.  It’s like having your car services so it doesn’t break down. 

Why should nutrition be a part of my figure skating programme 

And while we are talking about keeping your body well serviced and preventing it from breaking down, let’s touch a little bit on nutrition.

I’m often asked about nutrition but this is a very delicate area.  Firstly, it takes years to qualify as a dietician and only they are qualified to give prescriptive nutritional advice.  So as I am not a dietician, I am, like many other sports professionals only qualified to give nutritional guidance.  

Nutrition can be very complicated.  Skating is a sport where you burn up a lot of energy, but it’s enviable to have a leaner body.  This is due to the fact that the leaner body can get tighter in the air – the basic biomechanics that enable a skater to lift and rotate quickly into air positions, and spin positions. 

Why is strength important for my skating performance?

It’s important to distinguish the difference between lean and skinny.  My mantra with my classes has always been “Strong is the New Skinny” because I’ve spent a lot of time over the years trying to re-educate predominantly female athletes and dancers that you need to be strong to succeed in your sport or discipline. Figure skating requires immense strength, so it is a key part of my off-ice programme for skaters. 

Off ice training for figure skaters includes strength conditioning with bars and weights

Look at the top elite pair skating ladies – they’re tiny but immensely strong.  Meagan Duhamel and Aljona Savchenko have the strongest muscles but are also very petite for pair skating.  You have to trust me when I say these girls are fierce and if any of you joined in with any of the ISU Livestream KEEP TRAINING  sessions during lockdown, you will know how strong these ladies are and how hard they train.

What do I need to eat for a good skating performance?

So how do you fuel yourself best for a lean body?  I hate this question and I hate answering it because there are so many factors, everybody is different so I will give you a fairly general answer with some pointers.  We all know a balanced diet is the best way.  We also enjoy treats, so it’s all about striking a balance.

When I was dancing professionally many years ago, we were still living in the skinny years, before it was cool to be ripped, strong and muscly.  A lot of the dancers had horrendous diets, got injured and their careers ended early.  We don’t want this to happen to you.   Luckily, there are a lot of resources out there now.

Any off-ice programme for skaters include fruit and vegetables to help you get the essential vitamins and nutrients.  You need a good source of protein as this is your muscle food.  Meat eaters – easy….lots of good lean chicken, turkey and fish, some lean red meat for iron.  Vegetarians and Vegans, I’d point you towards Meagan Duhamel’s vegan blog “Lutz Of Greens” for food ideas for vegan athletes.  She’s the expert in this area.

Recovery foods are important but again, I’m not going to be prescriptive.  A glass of milk is great (unless you’re a vegan but you can use a dairy alternative). Better still, if you have a blender, mix a banana into the milk and make a sort of smoothie and that will replace potassium that you’ve lost too.

Dried fruit and nuts make a quick easy snack (if you’re not allergic to nuts) or natural cereal bars offer a great pre or post workout fuel source too.  Bananas, as previously mentioned are a great post workout food, but the main thing is to be eating enough.  You’d be surprised how much “good food” you can eat and your body will thank you for it.  You are, after all, active and training hard so you need to keep that body in tip top condition.

Off Ice Programmes – a final note from Lulu

I’ve only really scratched the surface on some things here, and I’m sure I will be writing about more specifics in the future.  I hope this has been helpful in understanding just some of the off-ice considerations for figure skating.  Please contact me via my Instagram and let me know any questions you might have @luluonice thanks Lulu for her amazing inspiration for this post. We try to bring real advice from experts in their field and we will continue to follow this practice. Our aim is to bring figure skating to masses, with trustful information from ambassadors like Lulu.