What Would Kat Arbour Do?

Kat  is a believer in the benefits of off-ice training: that the proper regimen can go a long way in preventing injuries and can vastly improve on-ice performance. - from Professional Skater Magazine May-June 2014


by Terri Milner Tarquini

To get the extra edge in figure skating, sometimes unlacing one's skates can be the answer. Armed with an education in physics, master's degrees in exercise science and physical therapy, and a PhD in biomechanics, Dr. Kat Arbour took her passion for skating outside the boards.

The owner and operator of Ice Dynamics, Arbour is a believer in the benefits of off-ice training - that the proper regimen can go a long way in preventing injuries and can vastly improve on-ice performance. Having worked with Olympic and World-level athletes, she has done extensive research on the impact of take-offs and landings for single, double and triple jumps.

A former chair and member of U.S. Figure Skatings Sports Science and Medicine Committee and the recipient of the 2006 “Doc" Councilman Award for Innovative Sports Science awarded by the United States Olympic Committee, Arbour answers the question, “What would Kat Arbour Do?"

How important is off-ice training?

It is absolutely integral. I honestly do not think that competitive skaters at this point in time can accomplish what they need to on the ice without off-ice training. It's simple: A skater doesn't want just enough strength to land one double Axel in practice. Strength needs to far exceed this so the skater can consistently land a double Axel when physically tired in a program.

What is your main goal for the skaters you work with?

The overall goal is to be as injury—free as possible, which proper off-ice can go a long way in accomplishing. Of course, also to be in peak condition for the most important competitions throughout the year.

 How did you decide to delve into the off-ice aspect of skating?

I was a skater (Arbour passed her senior tests in free skate, figures and dance) and then I started coaching and I went through my senior ISA ratings in Moves in the Field and free skating. Then I went to physical therapy school and thought, “Wow, this would be great for skating." I almost couldn't wait to get done with school to apply it to skating. In the late ’90s, I was working as a physical therapist and eager to apply some of the training concepts to skating. Robbie Kaine gave me my first official off-ice job. There was a real lack of off-ice training back then, so I decided I could help skaters more by staying with off-ice training, rather than also pursuing on-ice coaching. I kept leaving to go back to school, but I kept coming back. I love the rink. I’ll be in one till the clay I die.

What percentage of training do you feel should be dedicated to off-ice?

For my skaters who do three sessions per day, five days per week, they work with me about one session per day, about 25 percent. Is that the magic number? I donlt know, it’s not an exact science, but it certainly is working.

You have devised "6 Training Phases”that comprise a year's worth of off-ice training. Where did the strategy behind this plan come from?

There is a ton of information out there about periodization, so I didn't invent it. I just applied it to skating. The 6 Training Phases coincide with a skaters on-ice training; intensity ramps up and down to match the competition schedule to prevent burnout and maximize results.

Is this an ideal model for the elite athlete or is this for every skater?

Though the specifics are different for elite vs. younger and competitive vs. non-competitive skaters, it is imperative that the off-ice training has cycles during the year between different phases with different specific goals such as improving balance or strength or power or stamina. It’s good for the body and mind to cycle through intensities; we crave that kind of change and physical challenge. The new website can help skaters of all levels. I was doing a lot of one-on- one assessments and giving extremely detailed programs for each skater, but not everyone needs an individualized program. There are consistencies: everyone needs core and ankle strength, everyone needs a certain amount of flexibility and everyone needs to be able to jump high enough to complete rotations in the air. There are some generalizations that can be applied. Through the website, I’m hoping to reach out to a whole lot more athletes and standardize off-ice training here in the U.S. (Arbour’s website www.icedynamics.net presents off-ice training strategies and training plans for lower-level, mid- to high-level and elite-level athletes.)

Kids are busy. Are there things that, even with limited time, a skater must be doing off-ice?

If they only have 20 or 30 minutes a day, they have to be very efficient. They must get in some strength training - I'm a big proponent of single leg exercises like squats with proper alignment. They have to be able to jump and land on one foot with the knee lined up over the toe — not bowing to the inside or the outside - and the hips pointing forward. Excellent alignment goes a long way in preventing injury. If the skater is loosey-goosey, then they most likely lack core control and strength. If they're tight, then they need extra stretching and flexibility training. There should also be some type of interval off-ice so that the on-ice program is not the ONLY tool for training stamina. In the end it comes down to good alignment in the lower extremities, which leads to safe strength and power development, core control, adequate flexibility, and interval training.

What do you see as the most harmful thing a skater can do as far as off-ice training that can actually adversely affect their on-ice perforfmance?

The most harmful thing a skater can do is not communicate an injury to a coach or off-ice trainer. Off—ice training can address “annoyances” long before they ever become an injury, but only if the coaches know about it. Skaters are doing themselves a disservice by keeping quiet about pain. It is the coach’s responsibility to create an environment that the skater feels safe to report injuries or discomforts to the coach on a daily basis without being reprimanded.

The most harmful thing off-ice trainers can do is to forget that the focus of off-ice training is to ultimately augment on-ice skating. It is not its own sport. Don't make skaters so sore that they can't walk for a week. It’s important to look at what's realistic. On-ice and off-ice training need to go together and, whether a coach is doing their skater's off-ice or having them go to someone else, the question should always be asked: “How does this relate to the skater’s on-ice training?"

On the flip side, what can proper off-ice acomplish?

There’s a quote on the website: “The difference between great and greatness is proper physical training." And I’m going to stand by that. Timing is everything! When you combine great skaters with a training plan to be in peak physical shape when they need to compete, that's what can lead to true greatness.

Are there things a coach can look for to determine whether their skaters need more focused - or just more, in general — off-ice training?

Coaches are excellent at seeing what their skaters need. They know if there's not enough power at the end of the program, or not enough flexibility in the Biellmann, or not enough power in a crossover, or if the knee isn't over the skate in a landing position. Coaches watch their skaters all day long; they know their strengths and weaknesses. Communication between the coaches and the off-ice specialists is key for the best outcome.

If you hadn't been involved in figure skating, what would you have done?

(Laughs) I've asked myself that so many times in my life. I started skating at two years old so I have no memory of my life that didn't involve skating. I went to school for physics and exercise science and physical therapy and then did my PhD in biomechanics. I would have been involved in the science aspect of sports somehow. I love sports and I love physical movement and I love science, so I would have blended it in somehow, but I’m glad it is skating. When it all comes together, it's just so amazing. We get to spin like a circus performer hanging from their teeth. No other sport gives you that kind of freedom. It can be so frustrating, but it’s so amazing.

Do you have an overall coaching philosophy or mission statement?

(Laughs) Last summer was my first full summer training skaters in Boston and we had a quote when doing interval training: “Embrace the suck." One of the skaters even gave me a shirt that said that. Interval training is hard, and yes, it can suck. The skaters understand it’s going to be tough, and they embrace the physical demands, give it their best effort and are rewarded will great results. The results of off-ice interval training is easier on-ice program run—throughs, so it’s really not a hard sell. They ask me to do interval training quite often, actually!

Who or what inspires you in your work?

My motivation when I started was that I saw a void in skating where off-ice training could be. My motivation now is through the skaters I work with. I am fortunate to work with the full range of skaters from the lower levels through elite competitors. Regardless of their level, I primarily love seeing them enjoy training. Hopefully they will take fitness with them into their adult lives. Second, is the progress. The exercises can be difficult and require balance, stamina or strength, and oftentimes they canlt do it at first and then — one day they can do it and there is a real sense of accomplishment. For them to be able to see that progress and get the connection? That's a wonderful motivator.