Why elephants can’t skate
Posted by Dean Holden at April 2nd, 2013
by Jack Blatherwick, 27 March 2013
If elephants could speak, they’d explain why they can’t skate like humans – but more importantly, why most summer training programs are inadequate for hockey. They’d demonstrate some anatomical differences between elephant hip joints and those of humans. One of the differences (explained in the next paragraph) allows humans to skate fast. That same anatomical difference helps an elephant support tons of weight. Consequently, elephants can’t skate, and humans need hip replacements after carrying extra pounds for a few years.
The comparative anatomy? Human femurs (thigh bones) have a longer ‘neck’ attached to the ‘head,’ (the head is a ball or hemisphere which fits into the socket of the pelvis). Study the anatomical diagrams to see how the longer neck provides greater leverage for gluteal muscles (buttocks) to abduct the leg at the hip. [Note: ‘Abduction’ means thrusting the leg to the side. The two middle drawings are not intended to be accurate, but exaggerate this difference].
OK. Forget the elephant and inferior art. The lesson you must NOT forget is this: ABDUCTION at the hip is critical to skating fast. As you accelerate from a standstill, in your first stride there is almost no abduction as you extend straight back (opposite to the direction you will travel). Of course you also rotate your leg so the blade is perpendicular to the direction of force. Then, as your speed increases, the force of each stride is progressively more to the side. In other words, at higher speeds, gluteal muscles abduct, not just extend the leg at the hip.
Applying great force to the side allows you to apply that force more slowly than if you extended straight back, as when you run. This is why speedskaters can maintain very high speeds with long, slow strides to the side – faster speeds, but not greater acceleration than Usain Bolt! Similarly, it is why sailboats can go very fast cross-wind (a topic from physics for another day?).
Abduction is unique to skating, because squatting, jumping or sprinting require mostly extension (straight back) at the hip, and there is very little abduction until the runner cuts to the side. Of course, sprinting, jumping and skating also involve knee and ankle extension, coordinated perfectly with hip movements. Therefore, abduction should not be isolated, but part of a dynamic exercise that includes knee and ankle extension as well.
Any good training program for hockey would include abduction, yet it is often left out. Study the photos, and add these and other exercises that look and feel like skating. Training in this range of motion should emphasize strength and knee bend, plus endurance to maintain these. It’s easy to see that jogging and bike riding fail to improve endurance in muscles that produce these movements. It is no wonder that research shows they are poor hockey endurance workouts, even though they improve cardiovascular fitness and are commonly thought to be appropriate.
Efficient, explosive skating strides are totally dependent on hip abduction/extension, and all great skaters (hockey or speedskating) have huge, strong gluteal muscles. Training is inadequate if this is omitted or de-emphasized.