Ken Roberts

what's here

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why this page?

Lots of people on inline skates can't stop quickly, even though one of their skates has a heel-brake on it.

There's several helpful web pages for learning the skills of how to stop with a heel-brake: see Resources for Learning Stopping. But for now (November 2005) they teach only one or two out of the three possible methods, and seem to assume that that limited set of methods will work for all heel-brake designs and all skate + frame + brake configurations.

But the range of skate + frame + brake configurations is too wide for that, so sometimes the limited methods don't work. Sometimes one method will work when the brake pad is worn down, but a different method is needed when the skater replaces it with a new brake pad. So skaters feel confused, and they say, "heel-brakes don't really work", or some can even fall into saying, "inline skates really just can't stop well".

Or sometimes a web page or instructor mixes up moves for two different methods of heel-braking -- and sometimes those moves for one method are in contradiction with the effectiveness of the other method.

My key points are:

  • Stopping quicker on inline skates usually requires learning some special skills and balance. Just having a heel-brake and pressing it down is not enough.

  • There needs to be a preliminary step before learning any heel-braking techniques: To first check their current skate + frame + brake configuration to find out which of the three methods are possible, and which of the possible methods should be primary.

  • Focus on learning the moves which are key for the effectiveness of the primary method, and avoid moves which contradict it.

who is it for?

The ideas on this page are intended for

  • instructors of inline skating techniques -- so they can guide each learning skater to the specific methods and moves which are appropriate for their particular equipment and goals, instead of a "one-kind-fits-all" teaching approach.

I think that a good instructor, even if they can't understand the underlying physics, should try the Big B Test and see how it comes out for different models of skates. And try some of the different methods with different skate + brake configurations, especially with both new brake pad and very-worn-down brake pad (and if possible with speedskates with a heel-brake) -- and what happens when you to take the key steps from one method and try to use them with a different method.

  • designers and distributors of inline skating equipment -- so they can target and recommend brake designs and boot + frame + brake configurations which are appropriate to different skaters with different needs.

  • learning inline skaters who want to assess if their instructor has the capability to help them learn effective stopping with their skate + frame + brake configuration.

Like if you've got skates designed for method C, there's no point in trying to learn from an instructor who doesn't know how to perform method C very well, or doesn't even believe in method C.

Not intended for

  • skaters who don't have much capacity for learning a new kind of balance.

  • skaters using special mechanical assistance designs such as the Rollerblade ABT.

Actually I'm generally in favor of special mechanical assistance designs for stopping, and the ABT is surely an important one. But I can't say much about it because I haven't gotten the chance to try it.

  • skaters trying to learn heel-brake stopping on their own without an instructor.

Most skaters with some sort of balance capability using most normal "general recreational" skates which are sold with a heel-brake already on them in the box can learn effective heel-brake stopping from some lessons with a good instructor and some practice. Watching some video examples usually helps, too.

Even if the instructor doesn't know the theory on this page, when they watch you actually skate, they can usually figure out what you need to hear in order to get you past the problems you're having with stopping (with some practice). Heel-brake stopping is not "rocket science" with most "general recreational" skates (not specialized for hockey, dance, racing, tricks, etc.)  For most people it's a matter of getting comfortable (in stages) with a special kind of balance. And that's what lessons with a live human instructor are good for: helping you through those stages of balance comfort.

Learning to stop effectively is very critical safety skill -- too important to trust to reading some words on a web page and hoping you can figure it out. Find a good experienced instructor who can show you and teach you an effective stopping method which is appropriate for your equipment.

Who am I?

I am not an instructor. I'm a skater who has tried some different heel-brake designs and different heel-brake (and non-heel-brake) stopping methods -- and who knows the relevant physics pretty well, and has put some work into analyzing how the structure of heel-brake design and skate + frame + brake configuration work to stop a skater.

Skaters who want to learn something this important for not getting hurt, should learn it from someone experienced with the tremendous fascinating complexity of helping real humans succeed in trying new actions -- an insightful and experienced human instructor (not just from reading some words on a web page based on physics).

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Not like stopping a bicycle?

Most people find that it's pretty easy to make a bicycle stop in a quick and predictable way, by squeezing the brake lever with their hand (if it's a hand-brake), or by pressing their foot in the correct direction on the pedal (if it's a pedal-brake). The only skills or balance needed is to know which lever (or pedal) to press in which direction, and to not lean forward so their head doesn't fall forward onto the ground when the wheels stop.

Seems like with skates, if somebody knows to press the heel-brake downward against the ground, and to lean their head and shoulders back a little, they ought to get a quick and predictable stop. But for most people learning to skate, that's not how it works. Instead they come to a stop only slowly.

Most bicycles are usually easier to stop quicker because:

  • most bicycles have multi-part mechanisms with levers and cables to magnify and transmit the braking force applied by the rider's muscles.

  • the human muscles used to apply braking force on a bicycle, such as fingers squeezing a lever (or foot pressing down on a pedal), are muscles that practice their strength often in other similar moves performed in many other activities of normal living.

But most inline skates provide little magnification of braking forces applied by the rider's muscles, if the rider's body and legs are in an obvious normal standing or skating-propulsion position. And the usual human muscles for the obvious heel-brake move (e.g. pulling up with the top of the front of the foot) do not get much strengthening-practice in other activities of normal human living.

How come skates aren't designed to make it easier?

Which raises the question: How come most inline skates don't come with some clever multi-part mechanism that magnifies the muscular force, or enables stronger muscles to be applied?

Actually several clever mechanisms like that have been designed and manufactured and sold -- though some of those mechanisms do not work as well as others, and some have disadvantages.

But most inline skaters (including me) still purchase skates without such mechanisms. Different skaters haver different reasons. Here's my reason:

If I just wanted something easier to use without learning any new skills, I'd just ride my bicycle. I skate because it's magical, not because it's easy. And because skates allow me to "show off" my ability to learn new skills and new kinds of balance.

When I bought my first pair of skates, I was expecting to be learning some new skills and balance. I did not know then that braking was going to have to be one of those new skills. But on most "general recreational" skates (with good concepts and a decent instructor), the skill and balance for quick braking is not more difficult to learn than lots of other skating things. So I was glad to learn it, and then glad to purchase more skates that also required skill and balance for braking.

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Three methods -- overview

These are the three biomechanical methods I've found (so far) to generate downward force on the heel-brake pad on a "normal" skate, without considering any of the different special "mechanical assistance" devices that are available (e.g. leash, ABT).

(A) muscle-torque-thru-ankle-joint

Apply a muscular force-pair ("torque") thru the ankle joint from the shin muscle, by pulling up with the front part of the foot against front part of the upper of the boot, and pushing down on the heel -- with the force coming primarily from isometric shin muscle activity.

(B) gravity-directly-thru-ankle

Position the ankle and foot so that gravitational force from body-weight is transmitted down thru the ankle joint, which must be positioned behind the rear wheel.

(C) leg-back-against-boot-cuff

Angle the whole leg backward, which forces the bones of the lower leg to press the inside rear of the high cuff of the skate boot backward and downward -- with the force to hold the leg straight coming mainly from the hip-extensor muscles.

trickiness + confusion

The big trickiness about how heel-brake stopping works is that with many skates and brakes, using body-weight actually reduces braking force -- but with others it adds braking force. With many skates, just changing the brake pad can switch it from one to the other: body-weight adds versus reduces versus adds braking.

The big contradiction is between the body positions for B and C. Gravity-directly-thru-ankle method (B) delivers its maximum force with virtually all of the skater's weight on the front braking skate. But angling the whole leg back far enough to get substantial force from Leg-back-against-boot-cuff method (C) is going to require significant body weight on the rear supporting skate. Some skate+brake configurations are good for B only, others for C only, some for both, and most 5-wheel speedskates for neither.

[ see other contradictions further below ]

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Which method(s) for which equipment?

Q0: Goals and Balance capability

 

best to find an instructor who can help you work thru these questions.

 

C-test: Does your skate boot have a high enough boot cuff?

This test is intended to answer:

Does your skate boot have a high enough boot cuff to support effective stopping by pressing the lower leg back and down against it?

 

see more

B-test: Is direct body-weight working against you or for you?

This test is intended to answer:

Is trying to put your body-weight directly over the heel-brake working against you or for you in your stopping?

Is this test necessary?

  • If your skate + brake work well with method C, and you don't have any interest in using method B sometimes, then No this test is not necessary -- provided that you follow these:

    • Do not try to shift your body weight forward to more over the braking skate.

    • Apply force to the front braking skate only by pressing your leg back against the rear of the cuff of the front boot, by using your leg bone structure and muscles (but not by weight-shift). Or it's OK focus the distribution of force within the foot more to the brake pad by using the muscular force of method A. 

  • If you're using the mechanical assistance of a leash (and never intend to use B as a backup method), or if you have amazing special-muscle strength to make your method A stopping strong enough without assistance, then No this test is not necessary -- provided that you follow this:

    • Do not try to shift your body weight forward to more over the braking skate.

  • If you want to try to use method B as a primary or back-up or supplemental method, then Yes you should do this test.

  • If you want to feel free to shift more weight forward over the braking skate (perhaps for balance while stopping?), then Yes you should do this test.

  • If you're using a speedskate boot or frame with a heel-brake, then it's pretty likely that you should be doing this test.

see more

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Key steps to make each method effective

method A : muscle-torque-thru-ankle-joint

Very few people can get strong braking using only method A, because the main muscle used for method A is just not very big. But method A is a straightfoward way to supplement other methods, so it's worth working on it.

The keys for making this method work better are:

  • Develop lots more of the special muscular strength needed, usually by means of lots of practice.

Which implies that until that special strength ever arrives, you need some other method to deliver strong braking force when needed.

  • Pull up with the front part of your foot, the part out toward your toe -- as well as pushing down through your heel.

Do not pay attention to claims that pulling up with toe or front of braking foot is "bad form". That might perhaps be unnecessary or somehow bad for some other method, but pulling up with front of the braking foot is an essential component for method A.

  • Make sure that body-weight is not working against your braking.

If your heel-brake and/or skate + frame + brake configuration are currently "neutral" or "positive" under the Big B Test, then this is not a concern.

But most brakes + skates are "negative" under the Big B Test sometimes, especially when the brake pad is new. So when in doubt, follow this . . .

  • Do not try to shift your body weight forward to more over the braking skate.

For method A, do not listen to intuitively appealing advice to consciously shift your weight forward more over the braking skate -- that advice is for method B.

Trying to combine method B simultaneously with method A will result in reducing the braking force if the brake + skate are currently "negative" under the Big B Test. Or will give no help if the brake + skate are currently "neutral" under the Big B Test.

Only shift your weight consciously to the front skate for method A braking if you know that your brake + skate is currently "positive" under the Big B Test.

  • Consider using the special mechanical assistance of a leash.

   > > > see more details on Method A : equipment - balance - strength - interactions

method B : key steps for gravity-directly-thru-ankle

balance

Trying to get maximum braking force with Method B requires very good balance, because the skater is trying to put lots of weight on the front skate, and the two ground-contact points for the front skate during braking (its rear wheel and the brake pad) are very close together.

So lots of skaters put more weight on the rear skate for easier balance and control, and get supplemental braking force from other methods, rather than worrying about maximum from method B.

modify equipment

Getting more out of method B -- and often getting any braking force out of method B -- usually requires modifying the heel-brake design or the skate + frame + brake configuration.

options include:

  • Cut or grind down the brake pad, to make the pad-to-ground gap bigger. This is a minor modification which makes it possible to tilt the skate back more to get transmission of the skater's body-weight focused back more over the brake-pad.

Brake pad rubber is not so easy to cut or grind unless you've got suitable power tools. I don't have such power tools in our apartment, but I was able to cut down one of Sharon's brake pads using a hacksaw.

I think cutting the brake pad down could be a good one-time strategy for while learning method B, to make it extra-easy to get the feel and balance of getting lots of body-weight into the stop. But if I thought I'd have to cut down every replacement heel-brake-pad I bought before using it, I think I'd prefer this:

  • Switch to a different heel-brake design with a bigger pad-to-ground gap.

as of November 2005, the after-market heel-brake offered by Miller Sports has a bigger pad-to-ground gap than some other models, and is compatible with many (but not all) speedskate wheel-frames.

  • Change the mounting of the wheel-frame, to move the wheel-frame further forward relative to the boot -- so ankle joint is back closer to the brake pad.

  • Switch to a different wheel-frame which doesn't stick out so far behind the skate.

  • Manage the overall strategy for braking so that some other method is used to deliver stronger braking force when needed -- while waiting for a new or replacement brake pad to wear down to a big enough gap for method B to deliver substantial force.

Perhaps some options for the "other" method might be: (1) a second heel-brake on the other skate, with a brake-pad already worn down to enable use the combination of methods B and A to deliver strong braking force -- while for situations that do not require strong force, method A is used to wear down the first brake pad; (2) the mechanical assistance of a leash. My experience is that (1) is complicated to manage, and but it's made less hard by adding (2) in combination.

warnings

Even after modification, there are very very few skates with brakes that are not sometimes "neutral" or "negative" under Big B Test. Which implies that

> > > Sometimes method B cannot work. Not at all. < < <

So the skater must have some other sufficiently-effective stopping method ready to use for that situation. Most skaters who like method B use as their "backup" stopping method A, sometimes with the special mechanical assistance of a leash.

> > > method B alone is usually not sufficient for a strong quick stop. < < <

So when a quick strong stop is needed, the skater must have some other sufficiently-effective stopping method ready to help. Most skaters who like method B use as their "supplemental" stopping method A, sometimes with the special mechanical assistance of a leash.

move

?? [ more to be added ]

The key skills for this method are: 

  • Learn to commit more weight to the front braking skate. (see tips below)

  • Get good at using some other effective braking method -- different from B but compatible with B -- which can be used as a "supplement" or "alternate back-up" as needed.

Method A is the obvious choice, and it's usually straightforward to overlap methods A and B and shift the proportion between them as needed. But method A might not be sufficient as a supplement for some skate + brake configurations for some stopping requirements.

  • Detect when the current skate + brake + body-weight configuration is "neutral" or "negative" -- and get good at easily and quickly switching to a different braking method other than B.

  • Do not try to commit more body-weight to the front skate when the current skate + brake + body-weight configuration is "negative".

Ideas for learning to commit more to the front skate:

practice standing still (indoors) with nearby supports -- less and less weight on the rear skate. Try to get to lifting the rear skate off the ground and feeling what it is to balance on only two points:

"final exam" of expert-level method B is to make a stop (in favorable terrain) with full body weight all on the front braking skate, with the other skate a little ways up in the air.

?? [ more to be added ]

 

   > > > see more details on Method B : equipment - balance - strength - interactions

method C : key steps for leg-back-against-boot-cuff

Basic level

Purpose: To press the brake pad strongly against the ground, and transfer weight from the braking skate's wheels to the brake pad, while maintaining stable balance.

Strategy: Use pressure thru the back of the lower leg, supported by the big leg muscles. Learn stable balance thru progressive exercises.

(1) Find out if the design of your boot-wheelframe-brake configuration is a reasonable candidate for trying this method.

Typically if the skate did not come in the box with the heel-brake already attached when you first bought it, then it's not a candidate for this method.

(2a) Find a safe learning and practice environment.

(2b) Look at some videos of how this method is supposed to look when it works.

(2c) Find an experienced instructor who understands and can demonstrate this method.

(3) Balance:  Learn to roll gliding forward with the braking foot fully out in front of the non-braking foot. (a) first with all wheels of the braking skate on the ground, then (b) with only the rear wheel of braking skate (and all wheels of the non-braking skate) on the ground, then (c) with the front skate tilted back far enough so the brake pad touches -- rolling with both the rear wheel and the brake pad touching the ground (and all wheels of the non-braking skate on the ground).

Often called the "scissor" position -- several websites and books give tips and exercises for how to learn it -- see these resources.

(4) Knee backward: With the braking skate fully out in front, tilted back with its rear wheel and brake pad touching the ground, move the braking leg's knee backward and downward. Press the back of the lower leg against the inside of the back of the high cuff of the skate boot. Since the back of the boot is stiff, this presses the brake pad harder against the ground, which normally causes stronger quicker stopping.

Adjust balance to compensate for the force of the braking foot slowing down, so don't fall over forward.

More pressure thru the lower leg backward against the inside of cuff, stronger stopping (if you don't change anything else in your body position).

(5) Hip-Knee relationship: Braking leg's knee joint extended to as straight as possible.

The hip joint is connected to the knee by the upper leg bone, so if the knee goes backward, the braking leg's hip must also go backward and downward. But "sitting back" with the hip is just a necessary side-effect of the lower leg with knee move -- the hip move doesn't actually help braking. So the hip and upper leg should move backward no further than required by the lower leg with knee move. The way to do this is to keep the braking let as straight as possible thru its knee joint.

(6) Verify that the design of your boot-wheelframe-brake configuration really works for this method.

Enhanced level

Purpose: To increase maximum braking force when especially needed:  Transfer more weight off from the non-braking skate onto the brake pad, without much of that transfer going to the rear wheel of the front skate instead of the brake pad. The lower percentage of the skater's weight is supported by any wheels on the front or rear skate, then the more weight is pressing down on the brake pad, and (normally) the stronger and quicker the stopping.

Strategy: Bring more body parts (other than the braking leg's knee) forward and upward -- but not so far forward that significantly more weight goes on the braking skate's wheel instead of the brake pad (also make sure not to actually fall over forward if there's sudden unexpected additional braking friction). Learn balance more precise and more stable.

(1) Bring the shoulders forward.

Try comparing stopping with shoulders high and erect directly over the hips versus shoulders leaned forward: Can you feel the difference in the quickness of stopping?

(2) Bring the arms and hands forward and up.

Try comparing stopping with arms hanging down by hips and shoulders high and erect directly over the hips, versus hands and arms and shoulders way forward: Can you feel the difference?

Maybe not: there's such a thing as too much weight forward. Play around with finding out where bringing hands and arms and shoulders forward (and up) doesn't seem to make the stopping quicker and stronger -- or even makes the stopping weaker. No point in doing extra work which is not effective.

(3) Keep the braking leg's hip forward and up as much as possible by keeping the knee joint extended close to straight.

Try comparing stopping with knee bent less versus knee bent more versus knee straight. What's the difference?

(4) Keep focused on driving the knee backward and downward to press the lower leg strongly against the inside back of the boot cuff. This means that the hip must keep driving backward and downward.

Mental image: Try to "dig" the brake pad into the ground so strongly that the braking skate's rear wheel comes all the way up off the ground. (I'm not sure if physically raising the wheel off the ground delivers more braking force -- or if it's even possible with some skate designs. But the mental image of trying to do that might help increase braking force -- another thing to play with.

(5) Contradiction of moves: Get comfortable with getting the shoulders forward (and partly up), at the same time you're driving the knee and hip down and backward.

The apparant contradiction might not be just apparent -- there might be a real trade-off here: So play with what variations in position produce more or less stopping power. Apart from analysis of trade-offs in the objective physics, my personal experience is that it's more important to keep my conscious mental focus on pressing the lower leg to "dig" the brake pad.

Why not "keep it simple" by just focusing on one thing: getting weight forward over the brake pad? Because just bringing weight forward tends to put more of it on the braking skate's rear wheel instead of on the brake pad. It's usually easy to transfer weight forward from the non-braking skate to the braking skate. It's normally hard to transfer a substantial percentage of weight off from the braking skate's rear wheel onto the brake pad.

(6) Balance: Feel and play with the balance -- how far forward you can move more body parts -- how little weight you can leave pressing on the rear non-braking skate -- what's really effective for stronger stopping and what isn't.

(7) Quickness: Practice quicker initiation of the braking position and moves from the midst of normal skating strides.

When the unexpected happens and you really need a quick stop, it's not enough to know how to apply maximum friction thru the brake pad. Because you don't get that maximum friction power helping you until you get into position and actually start doing it. Every moment of delay before starting the actual braking takes you closer to the thing you don't want to hit.

Practice quickness. Practice from your normal skating striding speed. Then practice to get quick confident initiation of strong braking from your normal striding speed on a gentle downhill (in an environment with a safe flat run-out below the downhill). Also practice to get quick confident initiation from coasting down hills (with a safe flat run-out below) of steepness that you want to be able to handle in your skating tours.

expert "precision" level

Purpose: Precise positioning of body for maximum focus of body weight on the brake pad, minimun on the any of the wheels of the real or front skate.

This is only important for maximum stopping power -- something most skaters should rarely need. It's much more important to practice to be able execute an imperfect stopping position quickly and confidently and reliable, than to spend lots of time refining body position.

Strategy: Learn to stop with all the rear skate's wheels lifted off the ground.

(1) Expert's balance drill: Play with lifting the rear skate all the way off the ground.

Perhaps can work toward this by steps: Of course first have to be complete solid and confident rolling on one skate without any braking. For braking, could first try with feeling reduced weight on rear skate. Or play with only the rear skate's toe wheel on the ground while heel-braking. At last try lifting the skate just a little ways off the ground, so you can immediately confidently set it down again if you need to.

(2) Expert's body position tuning: Hands and arms and shoulders no further forward (or up) than necessary to just barely get all the rear skate's wheels up off the ground.

Find the upper body configuration which accomplished that and feels most controllable and comfortable.

(3) In real world stopping, it's not critical whether the rear skate is all the way off the ground or down rolling with small percentage of weight on it.

If having the rear skate on the ground helps you feel confident to "dig" the heel-brake more strongly into the ground, that's the more important thing.

If you are devoting any conscious energy to keeping your foot off the ground, then it's probably not worth it. Put your energy into digging the brake pad into the ground stronger and "deeper", and watching for the unexpected.

If you do have the the rear foot in the air, probably good to keep it close to the ground -- ready to immediately support you and initiate a recovery move in case something unexpected happens.

   > > > see more details on Method C : equipment - balance - strength - interactions

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contradictions between the methods

  • The big contradiction is between the body positions for B and C: weight directly over the front braking foot versus leg angled back which puts upper body over rear supporting foot. (see "Trickiness and Confusion" above under Three Methods)

  • some boot designs which are stiff to support C can make it more difficult to make the "ankle dorsi-flexion" move to tilt the foot back into position required to get the ankle joint behind the rear wheel to exploit gravity (B), or difficult to get into the best configuration for muscle-torque-thru-ankle-joint (A). Of course a (more expensive) boot could be designed with both forward-freedom for A+B and backward-stiffness for C.

  • smaller contradiction sometimes between C and A: at least it feels to me like I can't exert as much shin-muscle force when my leg is angled way back.

  • small contradiction between equipment for A+C versus B: Small vertical gap between brake pad and ground makes balance for A easier for beginners, since do not have to advance braking skate as far forward, and makes C easier because the leg can be angled back less. But larger brake-pad-to-ground gap is often a key requirement for making it possible to get any help from B.

On other hand, perhaps this could lead sometimes to a nice complementarity between methods B and C: Focus on C when the brake-pad is new, then more toward method B as the pad wears down and the gap is bigger. The problem with using different methods for different pad-wear situations is forgetting which method is the one to use currently. Since the moves for B and the moves for C are somewhat in contradiction, this is not a trivial problem, if your attention is focused on a sudden obstacle that is requiring an unexpected quick stop.

One approach I've tried is to use two brake pads, and always switch the more worn-down brake pad to the left skate and put the new replacement pad on the right skate, so that my left foot learns to focus on method B (combined with method A), while my right foot learns to focus on methods C (and also A, whose moves do not much contradict C).

more . . .

see also

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