Speed skating is an activity that emphasizes technique.
With this emphasis comes much debate surrounding techniques that lead to crossing the finish line in first place, achieving a personal best, or experiencing the joy of effortlessly gliding on the ice.
One frequently debated topic is spine position: Flat-back vs. Round-back.
Spine position has been identified by Carl Cepuran, a foundational supporter of the sport and good friend, as “one of the more interesting debates in speed skating technique.”
On one side, there is a group that promotes a “neutral spine position.” For our purposes we'll characterize them as team Flat-back.
On another side is a group that encourages a “hips under/butt tucked position.” We'll distinguish them as team Round-back.
The purpose of this article is to capture some considerations when selecting teams: Flat-back vs. Round-back.
These considerations are intended to expand our understanding towards a selection. We would be misguided to treat them as an exhaustive list as additional considerations may also be practical.
After the considerations, we’ll evaluate pros and cons of selecting each team and I’ll reveal the team I’ve selected.
But before we get started, I want to give you an opportunity to select your team!
Which team do you select?
Survey results January 1, 2020 - January 7, 2020.
Thank you to all respondants for participating!
What are the pros and cons of your selection?
What did you consider when making your selection?
If we examine our answers to these questions, we might gain some understanding before approaching the Flat-back vs. Round-back debate.
The Technique Debate
Technique is frequently discussed in speed skating.
Most who are familiar with the sport (athletes, coaches, trainers, parents, fans, physical therapists, etc.) identify skating technique as a top ingredient for success.
However, if you’ve discussed technique with anyone outside of your club, training group, or team, you’ll recall that opinions differ when it comes to the most successful technique.
If we’re being honest, opinions within your immediate club, training group, or team likely vary!
Does this make you curious?
It’s common to appraise the technique of top performing skaters.
Most who are familiar with the sport identify skating technique as a critical factor for success.
To spot the technical differences, we may view three unique disciplines/distances here:
While watching the three examples above, we notice that these successful skaters exhibit technical differences.
We’ll explore the specifics of these differences later.
For now, let’s simply note that differences do exist.
Again, if we’re being honest, even competitors within the same disciplines and distances likely demonstrate differences!
Now, does this make you curious?
When we consider the differing opinions among various groups in the sport and the performances across various disciplines and distances, a single best technique does not appear clear.
Instead, we see that skaters can be successful while displaying technical differences. We also recognize that technical differences occur among successful skaters in different disciplines and distances.
We have our first two considerations!
Consideration 1 = Successful skaters display technical differences.
Consideration 2 = Differences occur across disciplines/distances.
When we appreciate these considerations, we might find ourselves in a more favorable position to grasp the Flat-back vs. Round-back debate.
We may continue exploring considerations by looking at the characteristics of speed skating.
Characteristics of Speed Skating
Speed skating is dynamic.
A symphony of synchronized events take place throughout the entire human movement system in order to reach speeds of up to 35+ mph.
When competitors are removed, we recognize that speed skating requires three basic tasks from a participant.
First, it requires the participant to react quickly off the start line and transition out of a static state.
Second, it requires the participant to accelerate in order to reach skating speed or complete a pass.
Third, it requires a participant to preserve speed to maintain placement.
With these requirements in mind, we might find it helpful to separate speed skating into at least three stages.
The first stage, "Initiate", takes place as the participant moves from the start with the intent to skate.
The second stage "Accelerate", takes place when the participant skates with the intent to increase speed.
Finally, the third stage, "Maintain", takes place when the participant skates with the intent to maintain speed.
When we look closely at each stage (Initiate, Accelerate, and Maintain) we detect that they match with an intent that relates to the requirements of speed skating.
To observe this in action, we may first view the 500m Gold Medal Long Track – Ice race from the 2020 Milwaukee Four Continents Championships here:
While watching, we spot the Initiate stage – the athlete(s) launch off the start line and executes the first 10 or so steps. We notice the variation in appearance from the Accelerate stage, when the competitors execute powerful skating strokes to increase speed.
In addition, we may consider the appearance of the Maintain stage by viewing the 1500m Gold Medal Short Track – Ice race from the 2019 Shanghai World Cup here:
While watching, we spot the Maintain stage – the competitors preserve speed by executing efficient skating strokes to hold their placement during the early and middle portions of the race. We notice the variation in appearance from the Initiate stage and to a lesser degree the Accelerate stage.
In addition to the 3 stages, we might also regard the phases of a speed skating stride. As the legendary coach, Sue Ellis, points out, short track champion Viktor Ahn displays variation in appearance while moving through distinct phases of the speed skating stride.
While examining the series of distinct phases displayed in the image above, we notice variation in appearance.
We’ll explore the specifics of this variation later.
For now, let’s simply note that variation does exist.
When we consider the three basic tasks required from participants, the three separate stages of speed skating, and the distinct phases of a speed skating stride, a single best technique does not emerge.
Instead, we see that skaters demonstrate technical variation at separate stages and phases relative to intent.
We have our third consideration!
Consideration 3 = Variation exists at separate stages and phases relative to intent.
When we acknowledge this consideration, in addition to the two earlier, we might find ourselves in a more encouraging position to figure out the Flat-back vs. Round-back debate.
We may continue our exploration by looking at the final considerations of this article, the characteristics of speed skaters.
Characteristics of Speed Skaters
Speed skaters are diverse.
A variety of shapes, sizes, and body proportions achieve success in speed skating. We may observe this variety most easily at an international or national level event. While observing the variety, we discover that skaters of unique shapes, sizes, and proportions exhibit technical diversity.
Successful skaters likely possess different movement capabilities. This may be apparent if we screened skaters’ range of motion at the hip and shoulder. We might also find it helpful to look at the knee and ankle. While comparing screens, we realize that it would be reasonable for skaters with different movement capabilities to display technical diversity.
We’ll explore the specifics of the diversity later.
For now, let’s simply note that diversity does exist.
When we consider the characteristics of speed skating and the characteristics of speed skaters, a single best technique does not materialize.
Instead, we see that technical diversity occurs among skaters with unique shapes, sizes, and proportions. We also recognize that skaters can display technical diversity influenced by their movement capabilities.
We have our final two considerations!
Consideration 4 = Skater(s) shape, size, and proportions influence technique.
Consideration 5 = Technique is impacted by movement capabilities.
When we appreciate these considerations, in addition to the three earlier, we might find ourselves in a more supportive position to discern the Flat-back vs. Round-back debate.
The purpose of this article was to capture some considerations when selecting teams: Flat-back vs. Round-back.
Our intent with these considerations was to expand our understanding towards a selection while acknowledging that additional considerations may also be practical.
We examined the technique debate, characteristics of speed skating, and characteristics of speed skaters to capture five considerations:
1) Successful skaters display technical differences.
2) Differences occur across disciplines/distances.
3) Variation exists at separate stages and phases relative to intent.
4) Skater(s) shape, size, and proportions influence technique.
5) Technique is impacted by movement capabilities.
When these considerations are appreciated, we find ourselves in a more sympathetic position to interpret the Flat-back vs. Round-back debate.
As we move closer to a selection, we might also seek to determine pros and cons of selecting each team.
When you choose to continue this journey with me, you can anticipate Part 2 of “Exploring Speed Skating Technique: Flat-back vs. Round-back”, where we’ll evaluate the pros and cons of selecting each team.
I appreciate your time. Thank you for reading.
Enjoy your skating!
About the Author
Levi is passionate about supporting health, fitness, and sport professionals. As program manager and instructor at the Lexington Healing Arts Academy, he facilitates the education, certification, and training of fitness and nutrition coaches by promoting an integrated approach and culture of excellence.
Levi began coaching in 2003 after completing the speed skating coaching program offered through the US National Governing Body ("NGB") for the sport. While competing both internationally and domestically in the sport, he coached skaters of various ages and abilities. He also facilitated the certification process for fellow speed skating coaches by instructing certification clinics. His competitive career spanned for 12 years - 2002 to 2014. During that time, he participated in two short track speed skating Olympic Trials (2006, 2010), one Winter World University Games (2007), and one long track speed skating Olympic Trials (2014). He was a member of the United States Olympic Education Center short track team (2004-2010) and the US NGB National Racing Program short track team (2010-2012).
Levi completed degrees in Exercise Science (2010) and Management (2015) from Northern Michigan University. He currently holds coaching credentials through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist), American Council on Exercise Science (Health Coach), and Precision Nutrition (Nutrition Coach).
You can connect with and learn more from Levi by visiting:
Thank you to all who contributed towards this article by reviewing drafts and helping drive discussion. You made this possible. Special thanks to Carl Cepuran, Kyle Carr, Jeff Simon, Jonathan Garcia, Alex Strauss, Lucy Hendricks, Zac Cupples, Bill Hartman, Eva Rodansky, Ryan Shimabukuro, Sue Ellis, Danielle Barrett, all of my former teammates, coaches, and mentors who challenged me to grow, and anyone else who commented on or shared my content.