Relaxation, Rhythm and Timing

By: Robert S. Ogilvie

August 1, 2013

   In The Loop Extended Articles

The following is a revision of an article that appeared in the October, 1986 edition of the Professional Skaters Magazine.

Having watched beginners and reasonably successful skaters learning to jump in towns, cities, and skating centers all over the US and Europe for a horrifying number of years, one major fault of lower level (but very determined) skaters stands out clearly: the total misuse of the muscular energy available — skaters rushing around the rink, teeth clenched, all their muscles as tight as they can get them, muttering to themselves, "I’ll do this jump if it kills me!"---- "obsessed," as one athletic coach puts it… by the Philosophy of Overwhelm."

Well, they may not actually kill themselves but they’re going to rack up a lot of pulled or torn muscles and a mass of unnecessary bruises in the process. Even if they succeed in executing the jump, they are no pleasure to watch, their jumps are low and their percentage of falls high. Muscles held in a near permanent state of tension are inefficient, prone to injury, and drain the skater of energy.


Absence of tension, the ability to relax at the proper moment, is a prerequisite of rhythm and timing, so we must deal with this first; here we can take advantage of the experience of athletic coaches in other sorts, particularly running, in which properly applied relaxation has been found to produce the fastest times
Muscles can only contract, they cannot push. Most movable parts of the body are operated by muscles working in pairs. One set of muscles extends a joint, the other flexes it; they are known as antagonistic muscles.

For example: the lower leg is extended by the thigh muscles (quadriceps) and flexed by the hamstring muscles. As the quadriceps contract to bring the leg forwards, the hamstring muscles must relax; quite obviously they should not both be pulling at the same time. Unfortunately, in any antagonistic muscle groups, those that must relax do not always do so fully enough or in time to allow the opposing muscles to contract without hindrance.

The runner is literally being held back; this is often termed "running with the brakes on," and is just as damaging to the skater‘s muscles as to the brakes of a car. Laurence Morehouse, in his book "Maximum Performance," says this of a runner with whom he was working, ". . . his strength measurements were far superior to every one else’s. If he was to run faster, it wasn’t strength he needed; it was ability to relax his muscles between their contractions at a faster rate. But (he) had used his great power against only partially relaxing muscles for so long that the muscles were torn and replaced with non-contracting scar tissue." Quite obviously, the same thing can happen in skating.

The object of the successful runner (or skater) must be to develop a technique which permits the greatest freedom of muscle action. This cannot be done by thinking consciously of the various muscle groups but may be achieved by a general relaxation "running loose" is a common way of expressing it.

Let us hear from other sources. In his book on running (Der Lauf), Toni Nett, a well known West German coach, spends several pages emphasizing the need for relaxation. He quotes a Russian trainer: "very often in sprinting, the demand for greater speed leads to unnecessary cramping of the movement, and the speed is lessened (instead of increased). What is happening is that in the passive phase of the movements the muscles do not completely relax and thus forfeit their recovery period. The result is a loss of harmony of movement.”

Nett describes an experiment in which an American sprinter was asked to run 30 yards using a flying start; he was to make three attempts. From a moving start a good sprinter could do this distance in 3 seconds, which the American did each time. He was then told to cover the same distance trying to use only 4/5ths of his strength, and to run loose and relaxed. The surprising result was that in nine out of ten attempts he knocked 2/10ths of a second off his time, covering the distance in 2.8 seconds.

Nett also tells the story of sitting in a movie theater many years ago watching the Olympic Gold Medal winner Jesse Owens run in the 1936 Olympic Games. "He was running so loose and relaxed that no effort was visible; he gave the impression that it was child’s play." A naive member of the audience sitting next to him was heard to say in a reproachful way, “Man. how that guy could run if he really made the effort.” “That," says Nett, "is the layman’s idea of the sprint: a mighty effort using every muscle of the body, In fact, by doing that, you are running with the hand brake on!" 

And so it is with skating. Watch lower level skaters who have learned an Axel without proper supervision. The majority will step from the back outside edge to the forward outside edge giving a terrific push as they do so. Long before the take-off phase starts, all their muscles tighten, and the lack of muscle freedom presents a tremendous hindrance to effective timing, that is, "summation of forces," which we shall deal with later in this article.

Relaxed muscles do not mean floppy muscles. Tense your arm as much as you can and it will begin to quiver. This means that the antagonistic flexor and extensor muscles are pulling against each other. Relax until the quivering just stops. You are now "relaxed but together." You can best reach this state in the whole body by letting yourself go completely loose and then gradually tensing the muscles until you feel you have control; you have then achieved "Dynamic Relaxation," so named by Dr. Edmund Jacobson, physician, physiologist, and pioneer in relaxation methods. Dr. Jacobson has more complex and undoubtedly more efficient methods of attaining Dynamic Relaxation; my own explanation is highly simplistic.


Having released the brakes we can talk of rhythm and timing, two words usually used synonymously, but in skating it is useful to make a distinction. Rhythm has different meanings according to the activity involved. In jumping on ice let us think of it as a harmonious pattern of movement started some time during the approach to the jump and leading without interruption into the lift-off. Then let us think of the action immediately before and during the lift-off as being governed (successfully or otherwise) by the timing.

The rhythm of the approach differs markedly from skater to skater -- it is very individual. An experienced coach whom is familiar with a particular skater’s techniques will sense whether the skater is going to be successful or not long before his actual takeoff. "He’s lost his rhythm -- he’s not going to make it," is a phrase that constantly occurs to me when watching a skater with whose rhythm I am familiar.

Some skaters start the rhythm into the jump early in the approach, whereas others may start the rhythm late or even omit it entirely. A good example is the run-in to a double Lutz when approached on a long back outside edge. As soon as he has settled himself comfortably on the back outside edge, the rhythmic skater will start to bring his arms into position, stretch his free leg back, and initiate a bend of the skating knee, all these movements leading easily into the take-off phase. In a top-rank skater these movements almost invariably have a fixed and permanent relationship to one another, they tend to be individual to that skater, and the movements are usually (but not always) without any "dead spots." I mean points at which the skater assumes a position on the edge and stops making any movement whatever of any part of his body.

Apart from adding to the charm of the skater, rhythm in the approach to a jump has a very practical use. An easy, constant movement, however slight, during the approach activates those organs (proprioceptors) within the body that keep track of the position of the body and its various parts, changes of position, and the tension and degree of stretch of various muscles. This does not, of course, take place on a conscious level. I suspect that the tendency to go "dead" during a run-in can, in a lesser skater, cause him to lose the feel of what he is doing. This body sense seems very important in any athletic endeavor and is known as "kinesthetic awareness."


Now we come to timing in the take-off phase. While the rhythm of the approach may contain various idiosyncrasies having little to do with the final result, the timing and technique of the lift-off should be bereft of mannerisms and follow as closely as possible correct biomechanical principles, which are valid for all jumpers. However, the length of the joint sections, whether they operate in true arcs, and the individual mix of the skater’s fast and slow twitch muscles may affect the degree of bend and the speed of action of the various parts of the body.

Relaxation at the start of the lift-off in jumping is of the utmost importance as is necessary for the use of "sequential action" in which all the muscles involved each makes its individual contribution just as the preceding muscle is reaching its maximum power. The final effect is known as “summation of forces.”

John W. Bunn, in his book "Scientific Principles of Coaching," expresses it as follows: "The total effective force will be the sum of the forces of each member of the body if applied in a single direction and in the proper sequence." One sees this in the baseball pitcher. The action starts with a step in the direction of the batter thus bringing the body into a forward motion, followed by the throwing shoulder and finally the wrist and fingers (according to technique).

Take a skater off the ice, ask him to remove his skates and, from a deep two-leg crouch, jump upward from both feet; the sequence of action is very apparent. He starts with the body and arms, followed by a push from the knees, and then from the ankles. Instinctively he jumps correctly. Off the ice, jumping is a natural activity; on an ice surface, however, skaters are not in their natural environment, and when learning skating jumps do not always follow this instinctive, natural sequence.

It can now be seen that if all the participating muscles are strongly tensed at the lift-off of a jump, it is very difficult to carry out the necessary sequence of action. The body "blocks" and all the muscle groups involved fire off simultaneously, resulting in cramped, low jumps. This can be seen clearly in skaters who have learned an Axel without proper supervision. They almost always push from the skating knee before the free leg has reached its maximum upward acceleration.

Correct sequential action is the essence of good timing; it enables the skater to hit the "sweet spot." Nevertheless, during the jump itself the muscles do tense and block because, once having launched himself into the air, the skater must resist the forces acting upon his body, particularly the centrifugal force, and even the psychological force of fear, which may tempt him to crouch just before the landing. As he touches the ice he will once more gradually relax as he absorbs the force of the landing, and so be ready for the next move.

Relaxation has other side effects besides making timing easier. I once asked a very fine skater why she thought relaxation helped her in her jumps; she replied, “It helps me balance.” When a skater relaxes, he (or she) usually stops hurrying. He takes his time and this time is used quite unconsciously to collect data from his body sense organs to make necessary adjustments in his body position before entering the final lift-off phase.

Watch, if you get the opportunity, that master of relaxation, rhythm and timing, Don Jackson. No fuss, no hurry; fast over the ice, yes, but still taking his time to place himself in the perfect position to take the greatest advantage of the summation of forces; he hits the sweet spot every time. Hurry has been labeled by one coach "that athletic poison." The elimination of hurry becomes much easier as the skater develops confidence in what he is doing.

In certain jumps it is advantageous to start the movements for the lift-off relatively slowly, and gradually increase the lifting force. This is so that the skater can overcome the initial inertia of the body and its separate parts before the final force is applied. To do so the skater must be relaxed and take his time. One does not successfully get a car moving by charging it at full tilt after a fifty-foot run.

Sequential action leading to correct timing almost always starts slowly and with the stronger muscle groups. Most skaters lean forwards slightly as they approach a takeoff. The first thing they should think of is to start to raise the torso; this gets the center of gravity moving upwards and thus overcomes the initial inertia of the body. The free leg is a relatively heavy limb and it too has its own inertia that must be overcome. In a waltz jump or Axel, for instance, the free leg should begin its movement from behind slowly, gradually gathering speed and therefore force during its passage forward and upward. .

In some jumps the stretched muscle reflex action (usually included in descriptions of plyometrics) is used. In this technique the muscles are overstretched which increases their explosive power considerably provided there is no pause in the stretch and the following action.

In skating it is common in the landing of the loop jump when it is used as the second jump in a combination in which a bouncing action takes place---the bend and extension of the knee forming one action. Another is seen in those skaters who before a double Axel swing the arms back forcibly before their swing forward to accompany the upward swing of the free leg.
Finally never hurry---always remember that one movement must be finished before starting the next, not unlike good speech. 
Robert S. Ogilvie
Copyright © 2013         
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