Modifying Skate Fit and Balance
for Health, Longevity and Performance

© 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2016 by Mitchell Grunes

I claim:

  1. A remarkably large number of skaters live with the consequences of ill-fitting skate boots. Even some of the world's top skaters, using boots custom made for them by the best boot makers, suffer foot injuries as a result of ill fit boots. In addition, their boots and blades do not last as long as they should, and they may have problems performing as well as they should because of these issues.
  2. Your feet should almost never be in pain as a result of exercise. If they are, one possible explanation is poorly fitting shoes or boots. I've seen excellent skaters, even coaches, whose feet are extremely unhealthy, in ways that are obviously due to bad skate fit. Most people should not develop blisters, corns, calluses, scars, bunions, hammer toes, inflammation, bone spurs and fragments, or other visible or felt signs of excess or insufficient pressure or abrasion. Totally unnecessary, unless you have certain rare medical conditions. Proper fit can also reduce the frequency of other injuries like bone fractures, ligament sprains, muscle strains, and back pains, because the pressure and tension created by you weight and inertia will be born on the correct body parts.
  3. I believe that most people can modify their boots to fix most of these problems. The high cost of skates makes this highly desirable.
  4. Proper fit leads to superior athletic performance, because there is no slipping, shifting or rocking within the boots, nor will you need to waste energy compensating for poor balance.
  5. Proper maintenance and fit often makes your boots last several times longer than otherwise.

Caution I am not a certified expert, and have no medical training. This treatise is based on my own and other's experience, together with the basic principles of physics, chemistry and biology. Boot fitting is more art than science. People use variant techniques to fit and modify boots. People vary substantially in sensitivity to boot fitting problems and to the chemicals contained in the leather, in the amount and composition of sweat, skating styles and disciplines, the amount of reinforcement and motion they expect from their boots on various parts of their feet, the frequency with which they skate, and the weather and climate in which their boots are stored. There are very knowledgeable people who disagree with anything and everything I say here.

Further, skating boots, especially figure skating boots (because you will switch between balancing on the inside and outside of the foot), should fit much more tightly than is considered healthy in normal footwear, to achieve better blade control. This means you will have a lot more problems with boot fit than you have with ordinary shoes.(Though an optimal 3 dimensional fit needn't be quite as tight, because you aren't using the excess pressure to deform the boots to fit your feet.)

Summary and Introduction

Let's start with a brief summary of the theory techniques discussed in the following pages.

Summary and Introduction: Steps to Take

  1. Most people can make do with rental skates at first. Though, to be honest, rental skates at most ice rinks aren't stiff enough if you get serious about skating, beyond your first few weeks, and you will be much happier with boots that fit you better, either because they are customized, or because you modify them yourself, as described here.
  2. As a person who has both taught entry level skaters and worked as a rink guard, I can safely say that between 98% and 99% of people who have trouble with basic skating have just chosen skates that are too large and/or haven't laced their boots tight enough. This is because skates place your feet higher off the ground than regular shoes, like stilts, and you must balance across a knife edge.
  3. For rental skates, many people should pick a half-to-full size (American style sizes - e.g., 1,2,3... 15) smaller size boots than normal shoes. That's about 1 - 2 mm length smaller in metric sizing. Unfortunately, most rental boots are sized for men, so if you are a lady, and are using American sized rental skates, drop down a size or two to get the equivalent men's size. (That does not apply to the tot size range, which are the same for boys and girls.) If the result is too large or too small, ask for smaller or larger skates. If your feet are different sizes, some rental counters let you pick different size for each foot.
  4. If buying your own skates, find the best skate fitter you can (ask the best skaters you can find), and have him or her measure your feet. More on this here.
  5. Make sure you received one left boot and one right boot. At rental counters, where people work very fast, people make mistakes.
  6. If your feet hurt when you first put a skate on, and the pain is on the sides of your feet. Perhaps your foot is too wide at some point. If you are using rental, you must pick bigger boots. A few people can't help but hurt in stock boots, for reasons discussed later, and need to order their own custom boots.
  7. BUT: Feet that hurt on the sides after you have been skating for a while probably have the opposite problem. If they are too large, or too loose, they rub against your foot (and can eventually produce a blister), which causes pain.
  8. For rental boots, wear socks, to avoid getting other people's diseases. Make sure they come above the boot. Unless your boots fit very well, bare feet will cause problems. Even if they do, most people prefer to wear socks, to reduce boot stink, and to extend boot lifetime.
  9. If your feet hurt on the bottom, check that there is nothing in the bottom of your boot that is causing the problem. If not, there is probably a mismatch between the shape of the bottom of your foot, and the top of the footbed + insole. For example, if your medial arch (the place where your foot rises, on the inside of the foot) is higher or flatter than the boot design assumes, your foot is being forced into an awkward configuration that probably over-stretches muscles or ligaments, or other tissue.

    If it is a rental skate, you can insert an orthotic (if you have one) inside the boot - though most orthotics are too wide for skates. Or insert paper towels, toilet paper, or whatever you can find, under the insole where the foot is being forced too low. Be sure to remove it when you leave. You may need a larger boot to accommodate the extra space.

    For you own skates, you can do something more permanent. More on this later.
  10. You probably want to lace as tight as you can stand without cutting off your circulation or making you numb. Start at the bottom, pull inwards (not upwards!) at the holes and hooks, and tie the bow tie and double knot as close to the boot as you can. Say, about 15-20 pounds of tension in every part of the lace. To avoid cutting into your fingers, avoid twisting the lace, and wrap the lace around your hand before you pull. Don't let the lace slip back as you work your way up. If you can work a finger under any part of the lace and the end, it is much too loose.
  11. However, you can tighten the laces different amounts different places, to make the boot fit better, by seperating different heights of the boots using a double-overhand lace lock. E.g., see https://www.backcountryedge.com/videos/lacing-techniques-for-better-boot-fit
  12. Most of you should just fix your boot size and lace tightness, and you won't need to read the rest of these pages!
  13. Every few days, make sure your blade mounting screws are tight. If the blade moves with respect to the bottom of the boot, that could create a wobble, or injure you. (This problem doesn't occur if your blades are attached by rivets instead of screws.) Do this by trying to move the blade left and right, in the front and in the back. Make sure you are using permanent mount (round) holes in the mounting plates of the blade, not just the oblong holes, which don't hold the blade in place as well. Then make sure the screws are screwed in tight. Be very careful when tightening the screws, as you can strip the threads in the hole - in which case you need to use a different hole, and/or fill the hole with something - more on this in another section.
  14. If you still wobble, that means that there is a lack or weakness of contact between your boot and foot somewhere, or that there is an imbalance.
  15. If the boots can be heat molded, do it! More on this here.
  16. Now analyze carefully the way each foot interacts with its boot:
  17. Check for lack or weakness of contact somewhere: For example, if one side of the bottom of your foot, or one side of the upper foot, doesn't touch as hard on the boot as the other side. So the boot can rock from side to side, without your control. How awful! Remember that boots should be much tighter than shoes - a snug fit all over (except the sides of the toes) creates control. You can use tape or adhesive foam (e.g., moleskin) on the bottom of the insole to tighten things up inside the boot and make the foot have more or less uniform pressure everywhere. (Except it is probably unhealthy to have much pressure on the sides of your toes.) More on this in another section.
  18. Check for blade imbalance: Maybe when you place your foot on the ice a jump, or land, the initial shock, interacting with the blade mount position causes your ankle to bend to the left or right. Medical books say there is supposed to be a "principle longitudinal arch" (running on some people from the center of the heel to the second toe, or a little closer to the big toe), which can support your whole weight. But that doesn't seem to work in skates for many people. You may need to offset your blade mount position to the left or right. (Note that the sideways mount position need not be the same for the front and back of the boot. But that alignment difference also affects the direction in which you skate, relative to your body, so take that into account too.) More on this in another section.
  19. Check for muscle/ligament imbalance: When you put your bare foot down on the floor, then put your full weight on it, standing on one foot. does it collapse asymmetrically? I.e., does it bend to the left or right? How about when you take off or land a jump? The muscles and/or ligaments may be weaker or longer on one side of the foot. In order to hold your initial edge, it helps to make it collapse more symmetrically. This is almost the same as the two cases as above, and can be dealt with the same ways - though you may now need unequal pressure left and right on the foot. Most people find that if you collapse towards the inside (pronation), you need more pressure against the inside part of the foot, underneath, and/or to the side. Which makes sense, since physics says the force should drive your foot away from the force. Likewise for the bends to the outside. However, some people say they need pressure to the opposite side. I'm not sure why - I have theorized that if the muscles or ligaments are too loose, a extreme solution, that these people may be using, is to deliberately push the contact pressure from the boot strongly against the weak side until it distorts the shape of the foot enough that it can go no further (which might possibly be unhealthy, but may "work") - though a skate fitter on a discussion board claimed that never happens. More on this in another section.
  20. Once you are done, and are happy with the shape of your insole, you can create a warmer insole, if your feet get cold, by tracing around the old insole onto closed cell urethane carpet foam padding (be sure to use high quality padding - e.g. you want a fairly high density and resistance to bottoming out (both measured in PSI = pounds per square inch, though one is pressure from the weight of the carpet, and one is pressure load that the carpet can sustain without compressing too much). Then you cut the foam to match, leaving some extra around the sides to take up space if the original didn't fit well, then trimming the bottom of this new insole until the profile matches your taped insole shape, and trimming the sides until it fits all around the sides of the foot. If you have practice, you don't need to use tape to get things right, and can start with the traced carpet foam. Then make small changes, if needed, to make everything work right, as discussed in the various sections above. The closed cell foam will also absorb impacts. I have cold feet. I've decided this is the only type of insole I will ever use.

    Some people have excessively warm sweaty feet instead of cold feet, and might do better with an open cell carpet foam.

    Caution: I'm not certain any highly compressible foam insole will work for high jumping freestyle skaters - maybe the downwards motion of the foot inside the boot would cause you to lose control of the landing edge. I'm not a good enough jumper to test this, and it may depend on your anatomy and technique. :( I also don't know whether any compressible insoles - which should give you an advantage by reducing impact force and therefore foot injuries, and which should also store energy, reducing effort and making jumps higher - might be barred under the rules of competitive figure skating. I haven't been able to find any rules against "mechanical aids", but they may exist.

    More on this in another section.
  21. Check for blade tilt imbalance: Once you have finished playing with all the things above you may find that when you place your boot down on the ice, the blade is tilted left or right - i.e., not aligned along the lower leg. That won't create a wobble. But it will mean that you inside or outside edges will slip, even if the blade is sharp. "Shim" the blade: Unmount the blade (trace the old mount position first, so you can re-use it), stick something, like athletic tape, between one side of the mounting plate and the outsole of the boot, and remount, being careful tightening screws as above. Make sure that tape is placed so that pressure does not warp the blade: when the blade mounting plates just barely touches the boot, they should touch evenly all over, when the boot is in the desired mounting position. More on this in another section.
  22. If the preceding steps were are all done right, you should be able to skate stably forwards or backwards, on inside or outside edges, balanced on one foot, without using any more muscles on one side of the body other, and without getting sore. You should also be able to take off and land jumps without your foot jerking to one side or the other. And you should skid when you don't want to. Test these things now.
  23. Don't be surprised if you need to iterate between the the preceding steps to make everything right.
  24. If you don't glide, turn, spin, or jump as well as you would like, or you skid instead of gliding on an edge, you may need to play with your blade length, shape or mounting position:
  25. There is no need for the blade length to be set by the boot outsole length. Nor should the blade forward/back mounting position to be set by the front or back of the outsole. While it is very common in the skate tech community, and they often view doing otherwise as a sign of incompetence, using the boot outsole length and position to pick length and mounting position is just plain silly, since the boot outsole does not touch either your foot or the ice, so has no effect on skating.
  26. A blade shape that works well for your coach might not work well for you. E.g., the front portion of most blades is not scaled for foot or body size - hence works quite differently for different size people, or people with different anatomical proportions.
  27. Instead, you want blade length, mounting position and shape to match your foot and body anatomy, as well as your skating level and desired moves.

    The main blade mount position determinants are:
    1. The most bendable part of the front part of your main foot - the ball - should over top, or slightly behind, the "sweet spot" of your blade - where the longitudinal blade curvature changes from the less curved main rocker, to the front spin rocker. That gives you optimal control over turns and spins. A good starting point is to pick your blade length and mounting position this way.

      Unfortunately, this also affects how easy it is to reach your toe pick, how stable and fast you are at the back of the blade, and whether your tails cross, causing you to lose control or fall. Which is why you need a blade shape that meets your needs. To some extent, a GOOD sharpener can adjust blade shape to reposition the sweet spot to make these still be good.
    2. You want the toe pick position to be such that you can skate comfortably without the toe pick touching the ice, but it is still easy enough to use your toe pick (the toe pick mostly just interferes with skating, but as you learn to do jumps, you want it to be easier to use your toe pick - and you may also use it for some types of turn, so this relationship will change as you advance in skill, as well as when you change blade types).
    3. You want the back (tail) of the blade to be as far back as you reasonably can, for speed (because the back edge scrapes on the ice), and so that you don't fall backwards off the tail, but not so far back that you cross your blades. (In Ice Dance, it is often considered good form to touch the free foot boot behind the back of the skating boot - "neat feet" - so shorter blades help avoiding crossing tails when you touch the free foot down from that pose.)

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