What Condition Is Your Conditioning In?

Off-skates Conditioning – The new, hip thing in derby?  Something we should have been doing all along?

Some benefits – It helps us to be faster and stronger on and off the track.  It helps us feel comfortable in our own skin, and gets us to know our bodies better.  It develops lifelong healthy habits that will (hopefully) stay with us post-derby retirement.

Some challenges – As with everything in derby, we all think we have the best answer.  And that’s because there are many answers.  Everyone has a different body, different challenges, different goals and a different attitude towards their derby skating.  Some skaters will embrace a 3-day a week, hour-long strength and energy system training program.  Some girls have a hard time managing an extra half an hour twice a week.  Some girls are injured, some have poor body-awareness or faulty movement patterns.  Can we train everyone the same way and expect the same results?  Absolutely not.  But, we can give basic guidelines and some common sense.

First, what is derby?  Not the info blurb that’s in all of our bout programs – what is derby biomechanically?  What does derby do to our bodies?  Here’s a video of the muscles targeted by roller-skating:

That’s lots, eh?  Basically the whole of the lower body gets involved in one way or another.  As well, we use our upper body to propel us forward and our upper body and core to stabilize.  We all know that skating derby is a whole body workout, so how do we train those muscles when we’re not on the track?  Look for information about off-skates fitness and you’ll see recommendations for yoga, for Olympic lifting, for pilates, for cycling, for the exact program that Team X is doing, or why Team Y’s program is way better/safer/more effective than Team X’s.  You’ll also see some pretty absolute statements:

“Derby is so quad-dominant that you should never squat.”  Okay, fair, derby is pretty quad-dominant in that we spend a lot of time in a squat when skating.  However, we also extend when we push, abduct and adduct when we crossover.  What we need to do is develop a balanced training program that addresses how much time we spend in a squatting position, only ever turning left.  Don’t forget your posterior chain: do your squats, but also throw in some bridges, thrusts and deadlifts to strengthen your glutes and hamstrings.   Also, the best way to achieve a better derby stance and therefore a more stable stride and greater power in blocking is to learn proper squatting patterns.  The best way to learn proper squatting patterns is to squat.  True story.

“Since we skate full two-minute shifts in an hour-long game, we need to be training endurance.  Hop up on that cardio machine and go for an hour.”  Yes, we do need to work on our cardiovascular endurance.  Yes, there is a place and a time for cardio machines (or just cardio in general).  Is an hour on the treadmill the best use of your off-skates time?  Maybe not.  Derby is an explosive sport, with bursts of speed interspersed with periods of slow control.  We need to train both our aerobic and anaerobic systems to maximize performance.  If we train our anaerobic system (working hard enough to be breathless), we’ll increase our lactate threshold.  Lactate threshold is the point during exercise at which your blood lactate builds faster than it can clear, and your muscles fatigue (for more info, read this).  Training anaerobically will incrementally better your lactate threshold, which in turn will improve your aerobic performance.  Think of it this way, training aerobically only increases your aerobic abilities – you’ll have great endurance, but when you have to race to catch that jammer at the last minute, you may not have the gas.  Training anaerobically improves both systems,  you’ll have the staying power and you’ll be more resistant to muscle fatigue after your sudden bursts of speed.  So, if you want to use a machine, try some intervals at different levels of exertion.  Outside, experiment with hill sprints.  Again though, all types of conditioning are not for everyone right away.  Be honest about where you are at with your fitness, and start at an appropriate level.  If you are brand new to fitness in general, you can start with some steady state and gradually work in the intervals.  You’ll protect your body and by working progressively, you’ll set yourself up to win.

“Since derby is all about explosive movement and speed, all you need is plyo and sprint training.  Lifting weights will just make you bulky and slow you down.”  First of all, I have a serious hate on for the word “bulky”.  It is a word used far too often to discourage women from lifting weights and it makes me crazy, but that’s another post for another time.  Now as far as muscularity slowing you down – Here is my favourite picture in the world of champion speed skater, Apolo Anton Ohno.

photo courtesy of ESPN, The Body Issue

Is he pretty muscular?  Yep.  Does he use resistance training?  You better believe he does. Does his muscularity slow him down?  Um, no.  Resistance training can be utilized in a number of ways – for strength as well for power.  It’s all in the application.  For a lot of skaters without an athletic background, we just need to get stronger, period.

Gaining muscle mass helps our body in a number of ways: weight control – the higher our muscle mass, the more calories we burn at rest; increased strength – means increased stamina and better quality of life as we age; and the key one for derby: reduced risk of injury – building muscle helps to protect and support our joints.  Weight bearing exercise helps strengthen bones.  Unlike skeletal muscle, our tendons and ligaments have a poor blood supply and are slow to heal and adapt, resistance training helps to strengthen tendons and ligaments, making them more resistant to tearing.  All around, a pretty good thing.

Sure, do some plyo training if you are ready for it – but be safe and progress gradually.  You need to have sufficient leg strength before you are able to safely execute proper plyometric exercise (which brings us back to strength training…).  We’re not all ready for this just yet.

It gets mentioned a lot that downhill skiing is pretty similar to roller derby as far as the body is concerned.  This stands up – skiiers spend a lot of time in a partial squat, using their core and upper body to stabilize.  Here’s a great resource with some sample dryland programs.

There are tons of different ways to train off-skates.  There are different benefits to each training element.  What I preach is balance.  Take time to train holistically – strength train, train for power, and train your different energy systems, train your mind.   Our gains can only happen during our rest periods, so make sure you allow time for recovery.

The take-away here is that there’s no one conditioning program that will suit every skater (or outside of derby, every person looking to get fit, athlete or not).  Be wary of those who say there’s only one way to do things and that every other method is crap.

The best program is the one that suits your individual needs and challenges.

The best program is the one that you will stick to.

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10 Comments

  1. What a fantastic write up! You hit it on the nose.

  2. Interesting! And like Killson mentioned, you really aimed at the right stuff .

  3. This is likely the best article I’ve ever read in regards to off skate workouts! It seems, everytime I turn around there is another popular, “trendy” workout bandwagon. What bothers me the most is that with every new trend, the workout is sold as the absolute, only and best way to see results & everyone else is wrong. I like to pull what works for me and implement it into what I’ve been doing for years…listening to my body and doing what works, as evidenced by results. Dolly Foxx

    • Exactly! It’s your body, it should be your workout. Some trends stand the test of time, most don’t. Finding a program that you can progressively adapt and one that gives you results is timeless.
      Thanks for reading!

  4. Bingo! There is no “best” workout but there are certainly some sound and commonsensical principles to abide by when designing training programs for better derby conditioning.

  5. Pingback: Great Blog re. Conditioning of Roller Derby athletes « The Blog of Greg Burch: Personal Training for Functional Fitness and Body Recomposition

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