This is what figure skating does to your body

If you’ve already managed to catch Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya about the first American woman to complete a triple axel during a skating competition (or if you’ve tuned in to any of the Winter Olympics, for that matter), you’ll know one thing – figure skating is a pretty impressive sport

While lead actress Margot Robbie makes gliding around on the ice look pretty effortless, it’s actually one of the most challenging sports the body can undertake, requiring a mammoth amount of core strength, flexibility and balance – not to mention the mental determination to throw yourself in the air over a hard plain of ice.

Don’t let the sparkly costumes and megawatt finishing smiles fool you – figure skating is a gruelling athletic discipline that takes thousands of hours of practice. It also completely changes the shape of your body, demanding a borderline freakish core-strength from competing Olympic athletes. Here are just a few reasons why it’s easily one of the hardest sports out there.

It builds incredible lower body strength

Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada (Julie Jacobson/AP)

Take a look at any professional figure skater and you’ll notice one major thing: their legs are incredibly muscular. This is because jumping, landing and sticking on a slippery surface requires much more lower-body endurance than on a regular dance mat. Even during leisurely skating, hamstrings, hips, calves, quadriceps, and core muscles like the pelvic floor, back muscles and glutes increase in mass and are strengthened and toned, as the lower body works to propel you across the ice. Along with a consistent skating program to build endurance, figure skaters must regularly perform weighted strength training in the gym to harness the muscle mass needed to support them through a typical routine.

Amazing core strength

Eric Radford and Meagan Duhamel of Canada (PA Wire/David Davies)

Forget HIIT and yoga, skating champions have some of the most enviable abs in sport. This is because the blades that figure skaters compete on are around four millimetres thick, meaning they’re balancing on a very small metal edge while completing complex spins and footwork. Core muscles, including various areas of the back and abdominal muscles, are important for strength in maintaining poses and balance on such a tiny surface area, while stabilising the spine to prevent injury. Olympic figure skaters have to have an incredible amount of core strength to keep the body perfectly aligned when nailing complicated moves like a double or triple axel.

Unreal flexibility

Anna Duskova and Martin Bidar of the Czech Republic (David Davies/PA)

Beautiful elongated lines and flexibility are essential in order to score high points in figure skating. As well as looking good, staying loose increases range of motion and prevents injuries. Flexibility is one of the hardest elements of figure skating, because – unlike gymnastics – when you’re working on cold ice, your muscles tend to tighten up. This is why competitive figure skaters must drill through a dynamic stretching routine after every practice.

Incredible accuracy and multi-tasking skills

Great Britain’s Jenna McCorkell (David Davies/PA)

The brain is concentrating on spinning several different plates during a competition skate. As well as technique, skaters are are scrutinised for grace, poise and subjective things like partner chemistry and not engaging the audience. Total points for each jump also asks for pinpoint accuracy: skaters must launch and land on the correct edge of the correct feet.

Improved coordination

OAR athletes Alexander Enbert and Natalia Zabiiaki (Mike Egerton/PA)

Much like a ballerina, figure skaters use the technique of “spotting” to stop them from falling over while spinning on the ice. This helps, but studies have shown that the brains of figure skater may have actually adapted to effectively ignore the vestibular signal from their inner ears. With enough practice, the signal going to the brain areas responsible for perception of dizziness in the cerebral cortex is reduced, making dancers resistant to feeling dizzy. Most coaches won’t let skaters do more than two rotations until he or she has had years of practice. Then skaters work their way up to as many as eight rotations with complicated additions.

Mental determination

Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise of Italy take a tumble (David Davies/PA Wire)

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed in figure skating, it’s falling over and hurting yourself. Injury is a given in the pursuit of improvement and falls can take a serious toll on the body: when you’re really high and lose control, you land on a block of freezing cold ice, which is about as soft as pavement. Most professionals in the sport have been training since they could walk, with many training for five hours a day, five days a week.

One thing’s for sure: it’s not a sport that is mastered easily, or without pain.

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