Skating through the Ages

Skaters have been speeding up over the centuries, thanks to better footwear.

old skate

My little brother and I grew up on Rollerblades, the terrestrial version of ice skates. We raced on the rumpled streets of New York City, from Greenwich Village north to Central Park, ecstatic not to be circling a small oval of ice. In those days I held two major misconceptions about skating:  I imagined that we were pioneering a new form of long-distance transport, and I thought skating was easier than running because of its gliding phase. In neither case was I close to the truth.

As far back as the Bronze Age, 3,000 years ago, skates helped people travel more widely. And it turns out that skating is extremely efficient, taking advantage of biomechanical properties of the muscles throughout the movement cycle—not only during the glide.

To an unmechanized Europe and Russia, ice skates were one of the first useful tools for making winter trips between towns. And since the joys of skating are best appreciated on long stretches of smooth black ice, it comes as little surprise that ice skates made their first appearance on relatively flat, snowless waterways.

Early skates were constructed of trimmed horse or cow bones, pierced at one end and strapped to the foot with leather thongs. Rather than being powered by the classic skating motion, those beauties were used in tandem with a long stick; skaters straddled the stick and poled themselves along. Bone blades gave way to iron ones and then to steel. By the 1800s the idea of a steel blade grafted to a fitted leather boot had firmly taken hold.  (Although most skaters still use that design today, the ultimate innovation in the skating world was the "klap" skate; it has a hinge that allows the skater to extend the ankle while pushing, which boosts speeds by 5 percent.)

The advent of thinner blades and a firm attachment to the foot signaled a transition to the longer strides of a modern skater. Those extended strides give skating its advantage over unassisted modes of transport (such as running) because, as it happens, the slower a muscle contracts, the greater the force it develops. To understand how that force difference works on the molecular level, imagine the muscle fiber as a “rope”: slow contractions pull the rope hand-over-hand, as if hauling a bucket from a well; rapid contractions grab and quickly release the rope—delivering a smaller relative force. Since skaters’ leg muscles can contract quite slowly, even at very high speeds, they generate more force during each stride cycle. And that slow contraction can be maintained  thanks to the fact that less lateral force—the outward push against the ice—is needed at higher speeds. Thus the strides get longer and the skate tracks become more parallel to the direction of travel.


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