Inline Skating: The Basics
Introducing the Skates
A (Very) Brief History of Skate Styles
In the beginning, there were roller skates. I'm talking about the old metal skates that clipped and strapped onto regular shoes. Most of us above a certain age began with these skates. They did not work well on sneakers, so much to the dismay of our mothers, we'd strap them onto our school shoes. Fasten the ankle strap, then crank in the toe clips with your skate key. The skate key was your most valuable possession. You could not skate without it.
Then came shoe-skates. These were also around at the same time as the metal jobs, but had hard composition wheels attached to high boots, more like ice skates, and were intended strictly for indoor skating at roller rinks. These rinks were very popular in the 1940s and 1950s. You were not allowed to use your outdoor sidewalk skates at these establishments. You either bought your own rink skates (expensive!) or rented them on site.
The next evolution of the roller skate was the in-line skate, which originally appeared under the trade name of Rollerblade.™ These skates had hard rubber or vinyl wheels, four of them, all in a single line under the center of the skate boot. These boots were a rigid plastic shell, with a padded liner, much more like a ski boot than a skate boot. Since the Rollerblade™ innovation, there have been countless "knock-offs."
Not Quite a Skate, But Still Standing up on Wheels
Somewhere in the middle of all this, beginning in the late 1950s to mid-1960s, along came a variation known as the skateboard. They do not attach to your feet or shoes in any way, but are purely a matter of balance as you ride on a board. The earliest were homemade gizmos, with the trucks of regular metal skates simply re-attached to any handy board, and away you went.
The skateboard, too has evolved into fancy composite materials with features I don't understand.
The In-Line Skate, Examined
As I mentioned above, the boot is rigid, more related to a ski boot than the boot of the old-style shoe-skates or modern ice skates. This rigid boot is perfect for me, as I tend toward weak ankles, and always had to lace my ice skates so tight around the ankles that my toes would go numb.
Under the boot are centered the wheels, and the brake, which is at the rear of one of the skates, compared to the 'toe stop' on traditional rink skates.
The wheels are thinner than those on traditional roller skates by nearly half and have a tapered profile.
Depending on the manufacturer, the boots may be cinched shut with any number of fasteners, ranging from plastic gripper-lever-ratchet arrangements to laces to hook-type devices.
Where the boot differs from a ski boot, is that it is straight, whereas a ski boot (at least the ones I've seen, I'm not a skier), appears to be molded with a forced forward bend at the ankle.
As the sport grew in popularity, more and more advanced designs showed up, including racing models, with as many as six wheels in a slotted carrier that actually extends past the skate boot. These models have no brakes! (This long wheelbase is similar to the extremely long blades seen on speed skates for ice racing, as seen in the Olympics.)
Gearing Up for Safety
In-line skating, like any sport, is not without its risks, most of which are related to falling. In order to protect vital joints such as knees, wrists, and elbows, specially-designed padding is available for each joint. A helmet is also a smart investment, as it is so easy to fall and hit your head, especially if you are just learning to use these skates, and even more so for children.
You can do without the elbow pads: that's a less likely impact spot, but please, get the helmet, wrist, and knee pads. Remember, most in-line skating takes place outdoors, either on asphalt walking trails, sidewalks and some even skate in the street. (Not really a smart thing to do.)
If you fall while ice skating, ice is hard, and it will probably hurt. But it is also slippery, so upon impact, you will slide quite a ways, and the surface is fairly smooth. You are not too likely to bloody yourself. Not so with in-line skating. If you fall on asphalt or concrete, you're going to get some nasty road rash. And knees are what keep us walking, so they need protection.
Instinct has us throwing our hands out to catch us as we fall, whether forward or backwards. If you go down at the right angle, you take all your weight on your hands, and that can jam your wrists pretty severely, or even cause a fracture.
The wrist and knee guards are soft inside, with a hard plastic shell outside, so they can both serve as a protective splint and a sliding surface, to scrub off some of the force of the impact.
Even experienced skaters can fall. I always, always wore my wrist and knee guards.
Sort of Like Ice Skating, But Not Exactly
Now, if you've never been on in-line skates before, it's an entirely different feeling, and you would be well-advised to get accustomed to them in an area where there are plenty of things to hold onto as you learn to balance.
Everyone is different, and everyone has a different opinion. My husband does not like this style of skate; he prefers the old-fashioned shoe skates with their 4 wheels in the "corners."
I much prefer the in-line skates, because to me, they are much more like ice skating, which I did for many years (at indoor rinks, mind you, we don't live in snow country).
Of course, I first learned on those old metal clamp-on roller skates, but once I learned ice skating, and tried to go back to the traditional 4-wheels-in-the-corners skates, I thought I was going to kill myself. I found them difficult to maneuver. The sketch below shows why, but suffice it to say, it is because there is more surface area you are trying to push and turn.
Skate Footprint Comparisons
The technique for in-line skating is very much more like ice skating, in that you push off on each stroke on a diagonal motion. Trying to push off straight forward is going to send you down on your nose, as the wheels will just roll under you, and unlike figure skates for ice, or traditional rink roller skates, there is no toe pick or toe stop to end that forward momentum, or offer a pushing-off surface. So, you must learn to use the sides of the wheels to shove off and continue skating, as shown in the photo below.
Your posture while in-line skating is vital to maintaining your balance. You do not want a rigidly vertical, military-style posture. This will assure a fall, if not multiple falls.
You need to be leaning slightly forward from the hips, not bent over forward at the waist, just a bit of a lean into your direction of travel.
This balances you against the tendency of the wheels to want to roll out from under you; it is really no different than any other kind of skating; just a lot more important. If you try to stand up straight, or worse, lean backward at all, you are guaranteed to land on your backside.
Posture and Balance
As I mentioned earlier, the brake is on the rear of the skate,(on one skate only), and is activated by extending the braking foot out in front of you, and exerting downward and backward pressure from a half-squat position. It puts a lot of force that you can really feel on the hamstrings and calf muscles. The faster you go, or the steeper the slope, the deeper the crouch, and the hotter the 'burn' in your leg muscles.
You cannot use a "T" stop as in ice skating; you will fall. Nor can you do a 'snowplow' stop, also doable on ice, in which you turn yourself and your feet at right angles to the direction you were going, and bear down with sideways pressure. You will fall if you try this on inline skates.
The reason for only a single brake pad is, believe it or not, safety. You can brake both wheels at once on a bike, but if you try to brake both skates at once on inline skates, you will be overbalanced rearward, leading to landing square on your bum.
That said, the brake pad can be installed on either skate; choose the one you prefer, that ideally, is your stronger leg.
(Note: If I look uncomfortable in any of the photos, it's because it's easier to keep your balance when actually moving, just as with a bicycle: try to balance when standing still, without your feet touching the ground.)
As you skate down the path, keep an eye out for litter or debris that can trip you up. Particular enemies include Eucalyptus pods, and pencil-sized or larger twigs or sticks. These can behave very much like pulling hard on only a bicycle's front brakes, with no rear brakes; you'll probably take a flying lesson over the handlebars. Likewise, if you come up against a larger twig, unless you're very quick on your feet, you're likely to go down.
Smaller little pebbles, though, up to about the size of a pea, don't generally bother the in-line skater, where they would be a real hazard to traditional skates. This is because of the tapered aspect of the wheel—there is not enough surface area touching the ground for this small object to be a stopper—they will generally just be shot out to the side.
Probably the worst road hazards you will encounter are large open cracks and tar patches. Places where cracks have appeared in the path or street, and they have used a liquid tar spot filler to patch the cracks are treacherous. Unlike the normal asphalt surface, these are very visible (luckily for the skaters) dark black shiny squiggly lines. Steer clear.
When my daughters and I would go skating on our favorite trail, there was a section that had a lot of these tar patches. We nicknamed it "La Brea," after the famous tar pits in Los Angeles.
On cold days, hitting one of these patches is like hitting ice—they become very slippery. On hot days, they get very sticky, and hitting the stuff is like having a vise suddenly clamp shut on your front wheel, and you come to an instant halt. At least your skate does—your body still has its forward momentum, and you are going down. Hard. (I imagine the same would hold true for traditional skates, but I haven't been on that type since I was a child.)
Who Can Skate In-Line?
Pretty much anyone from a kid getting their first pair of skates to a retiree can in-line skate. All that is needed is a willingness to try, the safety gear, and a good sense of balance.
For us old fogeys like myself, probably a physical checkup from your doctor is a good starting point. But, I first began in-line skating at age 45. That's when I was actually in the best shape of my life, and my daughters and I would go out at least a couple of times a week, skating about 9 miles each time on our favorite trail.
As of this writing, I haven't actually been skating in many years, due to a knee injury that happened back in 2001, (not related to skating), but I do miss it so much, that since I've had a knee replacement, I'm up for trying it again.
The very best thing about skating? It's fun! And oh, by the way, it just happens to be exercise, and that's my kind of exercise!
© 2012 Liz Elias