Figure skaters are graceful on the ice, but every jump grinds their bodies with hundreds of pounds of force — up to eight times their own body weight.
That force leaves its mark on skaters’ bodies, from Tara Lipinski’s hip surgery at age 18 to Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko’s withdrawal from the men’s individual competition last week due to back pain.
After 12 surgeries, the 31-year-old Plushenko’s body has held out longer in the sport than many figure skaters, said Brigham Young University exercise science professor Sarah Ridge.
"We don’t have skaters at the Olympic level for four Olympic cycles — it just rarely happens these days," said Ridge. "We can see what the injuries are, we can see what the long-term effects are, but we don’t know what the actual impact is."
Ridge is part of a team developing a new device to measure impact force more accurately than the current method using force plates. That lab-based measurement can only show the impact of a simple jump, not a double axle or a triple lutz.
"Without really knowing that impact, it’s hard to do much about it," Ridge said.
She’s working with BYU mechanical engineering professor Steven Charles and professor Deb King, of Ithaca College in New York, to build a device that straps over the skate boot.
Though Ridge, a former competitive skater, knows first-hand the sport’s effects, they were new to Charles.
"I was most surprised when I saw the high-speed video. You can see the shock rippling through the muscles on the high-speed video, it’s amazing," he said.
Competitive skaters execute those jumps at least 50 times a day, with just milliseconds to absorb the impact.
"In skating, you don’t have any padding," Ridge said.
Three and a half years after starting the project, the team has begun to take measurements with the device on the ice. Working with the U.S. Figure Skating Association, they’re planning to give the data to coaches and physical therapists to help design training routines that minimize the risk of overuse.
Eventually, Ridge and Charles want to design a better skating boot that can absorb more of the impact.
"These boots haven’t changed in like 60 years," Charles said. "In order to make a boot that transmits less force on the legs, you have to be able to measure the force. That’s where we come in."
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