jo skates

Skating in the key of life

Speed skaters: rough, tough, and in the buff


So when I was looking on the web for resources that might help me understand the muscles used in skating, I came across two very interesting things.  One was a motion-capture video of Olympic and World Champion speed skating Ireen Wüst:

Cool, huh? Notice how there is no wasted motion here.

The other thing I found was an article called “The Anatomy of Speed Skating” from an issue of Popular Science Monthly from December 1895. It begins with a reference to the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who enjoyed skating.

Here’s a picture of Goethe on skates, looking very much the manly skater on the cusp of German Romanticism (hips forward and tailbone down). I feel like I should be one of that smiling trio of women ready to chuck a snowball at him.


I didn’t know Goethe skated, but why should I be surprised?  After all, William Wordsworth skated too. All those Romantic poets seemed to take to the ice, and then write poetry about it. Here’s Wordsworth’s description of what he calls “a time of rapture” from The Prelude: 

. . . I wheeled about,
Proud and exulting like an untired horse
That cares not for his home. All shod with steel,
We hissed along the polished ice in games
Confederate, imitative of the chase
And woodland pleasures,–the resounding horn,
The pack loud chiming, and the hunted hare.

And here’s Wordsworth’s skates, preserved for posterity in the Wordsworth Museum and immortalized by the great contemporary poet Seamus Heaney in his poem “Wordsworth’s Skates,” from his 2006 poetry collection District and Circle.

Star in the window.

Slate scrape.
Bird or branch?
Or the whet and scud of steel on placid ice?

Not the bootless runners lying toppled
In dust in a display case,
Their bindings perished,

But the reel of them on frozen Windermere
As he flashed from the clutch of earth along its curve
And left it scored.

Image from the Wordsworth Trust. Caption reads:

Image from the Wordsworth Trust. Caption reads: “These were Wordsworth’s skates and they would have bolted into his clogs (shoes with wooden soles). Only four days after moving into Dove Cottage, on Christmas Eve, 1799, Wordsworth wrote in a letter, ‘Rydal is covered in ice, clear as polished steel, I have procured a pair of skates,
and tomorrow mean to give my body to the wind.”

Oh, okay, sorry. Back to the article on “The Anatomy of Speed Skating.”

The rest of the essay describes the accomplishments of some of the fastest speed skaters of this time (John S. Johnson [of Minneapolis!], Olaf Nortwedt, Adolph Norsing, and J.K. McCulloch) but also focuses on how these men have developed skeletal and muscular problems from the over-development of certain muscles and the neglect of others.  It gives careful details on anatomical features, diet, and training habits of speed skaters from the U.S., Canada, and Norway. It concludes that some of these men have developed a “bicycle stoop” and have poorly developed arms while others, who have supplemented skating with gymnastics, have much better upper body development and symmetry.

I confess I was somewhat taken aback as I looked beyond the diagrams and sketches (including a chart comparing their physiques to that of 3000 young men at Yale) and came across the photographs of them very scantily clad in briefs or a thong–or in the nude. All were tastefully posed in speed skating position, and photographed from the side so that nothing may have shocked the magazine’s readers. These photographs didn’t seem as though they were intended to be provocative; this is Popular Science Monthly in 1895, for Pete’s sake, not “The Hottest Men of Figure Skating” (which I only found by following the blog “Princess Beany Skates,” honest!) or my latest seriously funny random find, “Des Hommes et des chatons.”

So I didn’t really learn all that much about what muscles are used in skating. And I wasn’t convinced by looking at these photographs that speed skating, as the article said, would lead to the “permanent deformity of its too zealous votaries.”

Hmmm. . . they looked okay to me. And admiring their skating musculature certainly made for a nice change from all that poetry!

Author: Joskates

Don't see me on the ice? I may be in the classroom or at the theater, or hanging out with my family and friends.

2 thoughts on “Speed skaters: rough, tough, and in the buff

  1. That video was fascinating. I tried to watch it carefully and noticed that when they do their forward strokes, they’re actually skating on inside edges. Essentially, they do inside edge stroking down the length of the arena before they head into the crossovers. I had no idea! Love that their knees are already bent and rarely straighten so they get good pushes too!


  2. Speed skaters have such different blades, so I’m sure that makes a difference too. We can’t get away without that extension-but it does slow you down!


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