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Ever since I was a little girl watching Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski vie for medals at the 1998 Olympics, I wanted to skate. Figure skating held a magical appeal to me: the sparkly outfits, the music, the pure athleticism in every jump and spin on the ice. But being the third of 11 kids came with limitations, and I didn’t visit a local rink until I went off to college.
That time, and another a few years later, were…well, embarrassing. Both times, all I could manage was to hold myself up by clinging to the boards or other people. I blamed my weak ankles, but now, I think the problem was simpler: I just didn’t know what I was doing.
This past Thanksgiving, I watched my dad and sisters glide effortlessly around a rink in Michigan—while I sat with my mom in the bleachers—and I decided then that I’d learn how to skate. Before my flight back to Denver, I watched a bunch of YouTube tutorials for beginner skaters and gathered some basic knowledge. Since half the awkwardness of trying to skate as an adult newbie is fear of embarrassment or running into other people or getting in people’s way, I decided that if the airport rink was empty when I returned to Colorado, I’d take the opportunity to practice so I could skate on a busier rink later with less anxiety. (Every year, DIA opens a free ice rink from mid-November to January.)
And so on the Monday after Thanksgiving, I rolled up with my suitcase and backpack. Only one person was on the tiny rink, so I slid into the Westin for hockey skates and then started fumbling my way across the ice with Bambi-like balance. At first, I shimmied along the walls, but as I got more comfortable, I braved the rink without holding on and found, with a lot of focus and intention, I could actually kind of skate.
Since then, I’ve gone ice skating a couple more times and met with a few skating instructors at Apex Center Ice Arena, Ice Centre at the Promenade, and South Suburban Sports Complex to improve. I’m sure I’m not the only 30-year-old who never learned to skate as a kid, so consider this article my gift to you, daring stranger, as you embrace that growth mindset and try to glide.
How To Learn to Ice Skate as an Adult
A step-by-step guide for picking up a new hobby this winter.
1. Lace up tight.
In order for your feet and ankles to do their jobs on the ice, your skates must fit properly. Gerry Lane, director of skating at South Suburban Parks and Recreation, recommends picking a size that gives your toes enough room to wiggle without having gaping room in the toe box. Tighten the laces (or cinch the buckles) so they’re snug over your foot and tight around the ankle, and leave enough room around the top so you can press your knees over your toes. “If you can put your fingers underneath the laces [at your ankle], they’re too loose,” Lane says.
Lane and other coaches also recommend beginners start with figure skates (instead of hockey skates) because they’re lower to the ground and the blade is flatter, which can be easier to learn on. By contrast, hockey skates have shorter, more curved blades, which are designed for speed and quickness. Still, the feel of the skate is a personal preference—if you feel more stable on hockey skates, go for it.
2. Stand tall with soft knees, and keep your head up.
The simplest way to maintain balance is to keep your weight centered over your skates. Try to avoid leaning forward or backward; later, when you move up to gliding on one skate, you’ll need to shift your weight over your skating hip, leg, and foot. To achieve this, first focus on body alignment.
“Keep your head, your shoulders, and your hips over your feet,” Lane says, “and press your knees forward.” Your feet should be underneath you, in line with your pelvis—about hip width or slightly narrower.
At the same time, you’ll want what Denise Hughes, skating coordinator at Apex Center, describes as “soft knees.” Press your knees forward and keep your hips stacked over your skates. Then put your hands out at about 10 and 2, and look ahead, not down.
3. Get a feel for your skates (and the ice).
Before launching yourself onto the ice, take some time to walk around on your blades outside of the rink. Practice keeping your feet flat as you pick up your knees so that when your blades hit the surface, you don’t roll from heel to toe (or toe to heel) and the entire blade touches the floor at once.
Now, do the same thing on the ice while holding onto the side. Work up from holding on with both hands to only one hand to letting go of the boards and continuing to march. Take it slow and between every few steps, pause on both feet and push your knees forward. You should start to glide a little bit.
4. Practice falling.
Falling on the ice is a bit scarier when your face is at least five feet from the ground. The fact that skates have a razor-sharp edge only adds to the risk. That’s why most skating classes teach students how to fall.
Stefano Stangalini, figure skating coach at Ice Centre, directs his students to bring their hands behind themselves and sit down. Other coaches simply have their students slowly squat and fall to one hip or the other. The goal is the same: Land on the cushion of your butt and not on your knees or wrists or face.
“Make friends with the ice,” Hughes jokes. “Practice falling because then when you do it for real, it’s not going to be a big deal.” You can also wear protective gear, like a helmet, knee pads, wrist guards, or gloves.
To get up, roll onto one knee, plant your opposite skate on the ice, stand on that skate, and straighten your other leg.
5. Swizzle, swizzle, swizzle.
Two-footed skating is next, and swizzles are fun. Why? Little risk, because both feet stay firmly on the ice, but nice rewards because you can build up some momentum and glide a bit—so it feels like you’re finally starting to skate.
To do a swizzle, begin with both feet squared under your hips (or slightly narrower). Angle your toes out and bend your knees, then push your feet laterally. Now, in a smooth motion, turn your toes back in and continue pushing your feet forward. You should travel across the ice, each foot making a curvy line behind you.
It may be easier to start by holding onto the board with one hand and looking at your skates, but once you’ve learned the motion, keep your head up and let go of the side. Do these until you’re comfortable gaining some speed and propelling yourself forward.
6. Stop gradually.
Don’t expect to stop on a dime. If you try to right now, you’ll probably fall. Newbies should focus on the snowplow stop. You can do this with one or both legs.
Hughes recommends starting at the boards standing still. Hold onto the wall and then push your feet out sideways, keeping your ankles strong. This will scrape up the ice, forming little piles of snow. Once that feels more comfortable, move away from the boards and pick up a little bit of speed. Repeat the same motion.
Do this over and over again, increasing speed after you’ve mastered the stop at your current speed.
7. Push and glide.
Now that you’ve mastered two-footed skating and the snowplow stop, it’s time to work on gliding on a single skate. Think of it like riding a scooter: You stand on one foot and the other foot propels you forward. Two main differences: On skates, you’ll alternate which foot you’re gliding on, and you have to turn your pushing foot out so your skate won’t slide out behind you.
According to Stangalini, the most efficient push is from the T position. That’s where your back foot is perpendicular to your skating foot and pushes directly backward. You can also go down to a “V” where your pushing foot is at a 45-degree angle from your skating foot. This is a more natural position than the T and is easier to alternate back and forth between skates.
Practice pushing off and gliding between each push. It doesn’t take much force to pick up speed.
8. Turn with your shoulders.
Whatever rink you’re skating on, you’ll eventually have to turn. But if you’re maintaining good alignment, this is pretty simple: Gradually turn your head and shoulders in the direction you want to go. “It’s kind of like riding a bike,” Lane says. “If you push the handlebar forward to turn left, you want to make sure the other handlebar comes back, so you’ll want your arms in that position.”
Your hips and legs should follow your shoulders, bringing you around the bend with ease. Depending on how fast you’re going, you may need to lean in that direction too. To practice, you can follow the lines on a hockey rink, increasing speed as you improve.
9. Take breaks.
Skating looks a lot easier than it is. Next time you visit a rink, be generous in giving yourself breaks. Your feet and ankles will need time to warm up and to rest.
Learning to skate as an adult isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to do, but it can be done.