Alivox on Roller Skating

Heel Brakes

Heel brakes are a stupid idea: they're ineffective and dangerous, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either a moron, they wish you ill, or they don't know jack shit about skating. And that's a fair and balanced evaluation.

Experienced skaters don't wear heel brakes: not only are they useless, but they interfere with crossing over and add the risk of them touching something. You can't even put brakes on a five-wheel skate. Obviously, it's possible to brake without so-called "brakes", just like ice skaters, skiers and runners do.

The correct way to brake is to drag your wheels sideways against the ground. With a little experience, this can be done as casually or forcefully as needed. For instance, try skating normally but never lifting your skates off the ground: this will naturally drag your wheels back underneath you with each stride. Since you can brake with either leg, at the end of each stride, and while supporting part of your weight with your braking foot, there's no big difference between "skating mode" and "braking mode" - braking is more natural and you can brake (and stop braking) more quickly.

So what's wrong with using heel brakes? The most important problem is that, when using them, your braking point - the heel of your front skate - is ahead of your support point - the other skate - which is underneath your center of gravity. If you don't understand why that's a problem, try getting onto a bicycle or motorcycle, getting up to speed, and then squeezing the front brake lever without using the rear brake. Better yet, get some other idiot to try that while you watch.

The geometry is even worse when going downhill, which is - SURPRISE! - exactly when many skaters would like to be able to brake. To use a heel brake when going downhill, you have to (1) balance on one leg, (2) bend that knee far enough (without losing your balance) so that you can stick your other leg out in front and far enough down to touch the ground, (3) put your weight on the front (braking) leg, but not so much that you flip forward over it, (4) compensate for the natural turning tendency that results from the braking point not being lined up with your other skate, and (5) maintain that position for the whole descent.

But braking correctly while going downhill is easy: you drag your back foot, leaning a little back (toward the hill behind you) to put more weight on it as needed. Under NO circumstances is braking correctly less effective than heel braking. And you can switch legs and even skate a little between braking, letting it roll without worrying that you're going to pick up too much speed to brake. In fact, you'll be able to brake at high speed, just to slow your self down a little. If you tried that with heel brakes, you'd end up on your face. Of course braking correctly puts lots of strain on the muscles of your inner thigh - the muscles you use to pull your legs together - so you have to get them into shape, too.

Another problem with heel brakes is that they put your ankles, knees and hips into compression, just like jumping down from a table or carrying a heavy load. That's not good for your joints, especially if your heel brake jams against something in the road. But if you're braking correctly and your braking foot passes over an obstacle, it will just raise the skate for a second as you pass.

It's true that braking puts wear on your wheels: so does skating! So rotate your wheels every once in a while, and replace them when they're worn out. At least you won't have to replace your brake pads (or not be able to brake when they're worn).

How about for beginners? Aren't heel brakes easier to use? Well, no, actually: they require the beginner to balance on one leg, press on the other, and stop the turn. Normal braking is much easier. And why would someone want to learn how to brake the wrong way first? The sooner they master correct braking, the better.

So why do manufacturers sell skates only with heel brakes and organizations like the National Skate Patrol recommend heel brakes? I refer you back to my opening paragraph.

How to Skate

There is one trick to learning how to skate, and I'm surprised that nobody else seems to teach it. The big secret is: you have to learn to skate on one leg. That's the single most important thing - once you've mastered that, you can use the other leg to skate, brake, turn, jump, or wave in the air if you want to. Make sure to practice using both legs.

The funny thing is, we already know that from walking. When walking normally, we can stop at any point in a stride, even with one foot in the air. That's because we're balanced on the other foot. Try walking like Frankenstein's monster, lurching as your weight falls from foot to foot. Is that how you want to skate?

Here's how to practice: while skating, try to lengthen each stride, effectively staying on one skate as long as possible. To do that, you'll find you need to plant each stride right underneath you - that's what we want. In fact, you might develop the habit of letting each foot curve slightly under the far side of your body, riding on your outside edges. That lengthens your stride considerably, which is the key to skating fast and efficiently.

Once you can skate on one leg, on both edges, there's no reason to have both skates on the ground at the same time, as you're striding. But when you're just coasting, you should develop the habit of returning to what I'll call the "sitting" position. In the sitting position, you're sitting on one leg, which is straight underneath you. Keep your knee locked below you, so that the position is held by your skeleton, not your muscles (so you can rest when you're not striding). The other leg is bearing little or no weight, and is stretched out in front of you like the tiny front wheel of an airplane, just keeping you upright in case your weight shifts forward (if you slow down). To do this well, you need to cant your hips dramatically, like a drag queen, so that one butt cheek is much higher than the other. Then you can extend the front skate well forward, keeping it lined up with the back skate.

In that position, your two legs, viewed from the side, form an A-frame, and it's almost impossible to fall. I've seen people skate down a spiral flight of wooden indoor stairs like that with their hands full! So if that's the position to which you naturally return whenever you're skating downhill, or over rough terrain, or just gliding for any reason, you will find it difficult to fall.

Helmets and other Protection

I wear a helmet when patrolling. Not only does it protect my skull a little, but it also makes me more visible and distinguishes me from pedestrians. If you're in a crowd, it's hard for drivers to realize you're moving much faster when they can't see your skates. I also put flags, lights, and wings on my helmet, just to be cool.

But I don't wear a helmet when I'm just skating for myself, even in a group. I find the helmet makes me less aware of what's going on around me, and I sometimes sweat enough in it to interfere with my vision. I'm not immortal: it's just a risk-benefit calculation. If someone else feels they're at higher risk of head injury, I usually agree.

Studies of the effectiveness of helmets are surprisingly unencouraging. There have been many studies of helmet use for bicycling - here's a link to the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation. One surprising conclusion of almost all these studies is that you would have a far greater positive impact on your own likelihood of brain injury by wearing a helmet as a pedestrian or in a car than while cycling. I would add wearing a helmet in the shower or when sitting on a barstool. If you're not doing those things, you probably shouldn't bother wearing a helmet while skating.

There's no question that you're better off wearing a helmet when you fall on the top of your head - that's not the issue. The problem is that it seems that skaters wearing helmets are significantly more likely to have accidents, perhaps as much as five times more likely. And the additional safety of a helmet - which does not protect your face, nor does it help in accidents too slow to hurt a bare skull nor too fast for the helmet to save you - appears not to compensate for the risk of injury from the additional accidents. If a helmeted skater falls five times as much, and the helmet protects him once, he will still get injured four times as much as an unhelmeted skater. The same phenomenon seems to apply to bicycling and skiing - the number of skiers wearing helmets has increased dramatically in the last ten years, but the injury rate has not fallen at all.

There are several theories to explain this : helmeted skaters, cyclists and skiers take more risks; helmets interfere in some way with awareness; helmeted athletes are self-selecting for risk; or helmeted people have already decided to focus on surviving accidents rather than avoiding them. I don't know which, if any, are true, but that doesn't matter! The effect is real, visible in the statistics, and we should be paying attention, not just doing the pious thing because it makes us feel better.

The other forms of protection - knee pads, elbow pads and wrist guards - are much harder to justify, in my opinion. First of all, the first two aren't very effective - they only prevent a small fraction of injuries to your knees and elbows (in the case of elbow pads, the estimate is that only 17% of injuries are prevented by using the pads). Wrist pads don't even prevent one of the most common injuries (a compression fracture) and leather gloves are just as effective, and protect your hands from abrasion, too. Second of all, although injuries to knees, elbows and wrists are inconvenient, they aren't life-threatening and most people are over them in a month or so.

I'm a staffer for the two associations that organize the huge skate rallies in Paris. I'm on the first-aid team, so I get to see (or hear, over the walkie- talkie) skaters get injured quite often. We run two rallies a week, forty times a year, covering about 25 kilometers over 2-3 hours, and we average (I'm told) more than ten thousand skaters each time. That works out to 20 million skater-kilometers a year, and I've been doing it for five years. Even if I miss half the rallies, and assuming the skater counts are inflated and some incidents aren't reported, that still works out to millions of skater-km of experience, which is far, far, far more than the medical studies or NSP's statistics rely on. In other words, we know much more than they do - it's a shame we haven't been keeping careful statistics on what protection skaters and injured skaters are wearing.

So what do we know? Well, we've had only two deaths in 10+ years of doing this, and neither would have been prevented by protection (one was hit by a car, one had a heart attack). Most skaters, including staffers, don't wear helmets or any other protection, and serious injuries are pretty rare: I know of nobody who has had to stop skating because of one (but maybe I wouldn't). Skating without protection is not a form of suicide.

My experience is overwhelmingly urban skating (alone, in groups and in rallies), plus some country road & trail skating. I think it makes sense for children, beginners, racers, and "aggressive" trick skaters to wear protection, but I claim no expertise. I'll let you make your own decision on hockey, trail fitness skating, and figure skating. Here are some links to sites with skating injury statistics:

Here's a link to a fair summary.

Obviously, the biggest problem with all these stats is lack of a denominator. Without knowing how many people are skating when some get injured, all we have are anecdotes. I can't find a good study comparing similar groups of skaters for injury rate with and without protection, but there's some evidence that wrist guards just move the break up the forearm. One of the articles above cites 6% as the percentage of skaters using all four forms of protection, and mentions they represent 5% of injured skaters. With a 1% margin of error, that means the protection isn't working.

I also dislike the definition of a "major injury" as one requiring hospitalization, since I want to encourage people who have fallen on their heads to go to the hospital for radiology to rule out a cerebral hemorrhage, and whether the hospital admits injured skaters or treats them as outpatients depends on the hospital, not the injury. I would prefer to track injuries that have not healed after a month or so - those are the ones I really want to prevent, not the scrapes, dislocations or even minor fractures.

My personal opinion is that it is far more important to concentrate our efforts on preventing accidents than minimizing injuries. Dressing skaters in suits of armor doesn't help the jaywalker, grandmother, or baby stroller they run into, nor does it protect them from an arrogant motorcyclist or clueless motorist.

Anecdotally, it's always the skaters outfitted for roller derby who have the accidents. Maybe they're self-selecting for risk, or maybe the protection is actually causing the accidents - the studies don't explain this phenomenon. But my theory is that telling people they're doing something dangerous makes them nervous, being nervous makes them scared and hesitant, and that in turn leads to panic, bad decision-making, and accidents.

If you're scared, and wearing all that protection makes you feel safer, by all means go ahead and wear it. But it should be a personal goal of yours to reach a level of competence and confidence where you don't need all that junk to feel safe. After all, you probably don't wear a helmet in your car, sitting at a bar, or in the shower, where it would make much more of a difference.

It's a shame that all this piety and unsupported advice is probably preventing us from developing better protection! But if the medical associations and manufacturers are unwilling to admit the current devices aren't working, there's no incentive for improvement.

Principles of Skating

I skate on streets and trails. I don't skate indoors, I don't play hockey, I don't do artistic skating, roller dance, aggro, downhill, speed skating, or racing. All of those are legitimate pastimes, but I can't speak about them from experience. But I do know something about normal recreational skating in the real world. Here's what I know :


There's a brand of roller skate frames called Springskates, which offer a suspension system for your wheels. The advantage is not only in going over rough pavement or cobblestones, although they work great for that, but also in keeping all four wheels on the road even when the pavement isn't perfectly flat. That makes you faster, and I'm told they even return some of the side forces lost in turning, like carving skis (I wouldn't notice). And they're strong, light, and cool-looking, too.

They're not on the market yet, but I've been skating on prototypes for a few years now, and they're great. I appreciate the suspension on the cobblestones, and they're easier on my old knees than standard frames, too. I like them so much I bought some stock in the company!

Check out their website:

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