It had been nearly two decades since my last childhood figure skating lessons, and my skills—and my skates—were a bit rusty. But besides conjuring a wave of nostalgia for Tonya and Nancy and the 1994 Winter Olympics, gliding across the glassy surface rimmed by a ring of tall pines while deer rustled in the distance seemed like a weekend workout with more motivational potential than, say, driving 45 minutes to the closest elliptical machine.
A little investigating confirmed that skating also has serious body-sculpting potential. "It has cardiovascular benefits as it trains both your aerobic and anaerobic systems, and it’s a fantastic overall body challenge to your core, your balance, your coordination, and your posterior chain,” said Peter Zapalo, the director of sports science and medicine for U.S. Figure Skating. “Also: Skaters have great butts,” he deadpanned. “But the really cool thing is that [the sport] trains total body proprioception—the ability to sense your own body’s position, motion, and equilibrium,” which means better balance and grace off the ice, too.
Logging laps was definitely not my primary concern when I got onto the lake for the first time a few days later. After acclimating to the freezing outdoor temperatures, it became very clear that my own proprioception was a little off; ditto my endurance. “Start by warming up with movements off the ice,” Zapalo suggests when I plug him for training tips. His recommendations included leg lunges, high-stepping, “dynamic kicks,” and improving your balance by standing on one foot while brushing your teeth, alternating for 30 seconds on each side. When you finally make it onto the ice, it’s best to stay at a sustained pace for maximum cardio benefits, says Zapalo; then throw in a few sprints if your body is up for it. “It’s like running or cycling: you need to maintain a consistent ‘work load,’ and as you improve your technical skills, you’ll be able to go longer and skate better.”
For those who are serious about perfecting their skills or don’t live near a skate-safe lake, most local ice rinks offer classes and open skate hours. There are also endless how-to videos on YouTube, and U.S. Figure Skating’s Learn To Skate website. Rebranded and revamped last June to include information and practical tips for figure skating, hockey, and speed skating, the site will let you know where to find a rink near you, has downloadable PDFs outlining various moves, and its accompanying app is loaded with step-by-step training guides and handy videos to illustrate exactly how to do that forward slalom correctly.
The “Adult Beginner” PDF I downloaded was a godsend upstate last month as I attempted to work on my “swizzles” and “wiggles.” Gliding about, my wobbliness soon subsided and I was extending my strides like a champ—maybe not quite Kristi Yamaguchi–or Oksana Baiul–caliber, but I was much better than I had been at the beginning of the day. I was also exhausted after an hour on the ice, which made Zapalo’s cooldown suggestions particularly helpful. “If your body is not used to skating, you want to take some extra time for passive stretching when you get off the ice—and don’t forget about recovery nutrition,” he says, revealing the post-workout drink of choice for competitive skaters: 8 ounces of 1 percent fat organic chocolate milk. “It’s the perfect ratio of carbs to protein!”