An Olympian Taught Me to Ice Skate, and Holy Moly It Was a Good Workout

Photo: Getty Images/Tom Warner
If you've ever seen a Hallmark Christmas movie set in New York City, you likely know that ice skating in Rockefeller Center is just about one of the most festive things you can do during the winter time. Despite living here for six years of my adult life, though, I'd never actually done it. I talked about it all winter, every winter, to anyone who was willing to listen, but every time it seemed like it was actually going to happen, the massive crowds and freezing temps stopped me in my tracks...and so did the fact that I didn't know how to ice skate.

So when I got an e-mail inviting me to take an early morning skating lesson at the Rink at Rockefeller Center with former Olympic figure skater Jojo Starbuck, I was positively giddy with excitement. I was going to be the next Tara Lipinski (or Jonathan Van Ness), and I couldn't wait. 

When I showed up to the semi-private class at quarter of 7 a.m. on a freezing Tuesday morning in the middle of February, I was blown away by the fact that the movie-famous attraction was completely empty. It was totally devoid of the usual tourists that tend to swarm to the area all winter long, and when I laced up my skates and hit the rink ( that a thing actual skaters say?) I was one of only nine people on the ice, all of whom were there to skate with Starbuck.

My dream of being a naturally talented figure skater was quickly squashed, but I still managed to make my way around the ice (thanks in large part to Starbuck's A+ teaching) without falling, and by the end of my hour-long lesson was even doing some basic tricks like twirling and skating backward. Even though I kind of sucked, I absolutely loved it, as evidenced by the massive, goofy grin on my face in every single photo from the morning.

But not only was ice skating the most fun thing ever (and, I'm going to be honest, doing it practically alone in Rockefeller Center was definitely the coolest thing I've ever done), but it also turned out to be a really good—and really hard—workout. "Skating works primarily the glutes and quads, but also your core and back," says Starbuck. "Good balance in skating requires you to be at least slightly bent in your ankles, knees and hips almost all the time, while remaining lifted/supported in your core and back." And that's not to mention the fact that gliding around on a sheet of ice for the better part of an hour can really get your heart rate going.

"Skating is an excellent lower-body workout because it engages all the foot and leg muscles, tones and strengthens them without heavy impact," confirms skating pro Moira North. "Skating improves balance and coordination, and you learn to make micro movements to constantly adjust to the glide and friction.  Adding in speed and angular momentum forces your body to become stronger than just going to the gym and repeating the same movements over and over."

Even if you don't plan to hit up Rockefeller Center in these final few weeks of winter (though, for what it's worth, Starbuck's Tuesday-Thursday morning class is open to the public, and might just be the best kept secret in New York City), there are ways that you can craft a skating lesson of your own wherever you are. In addition to skating being a great workout on its own, Starbuck shared a few tips on how to get as many physical benefits as possible out of your time on the ice.

For a little cardio action

To get your heart seriously pumping, push yourself around the rink for two minutes, non-stop. "When pushing, never use your toe picks—always push the ice away to the side, using the inside edge of your blades," says Starbuck of engaging in proper form. "Keep down in your knees before the push, and keep up  with your core, back, and eyes at all times." She also suggests keeping your arms out at 10 and 2 o'clock for balance, especially if you're a newbie like me.

For an added, glute-tastic challenge

Get some flow going, then balance on one foot and glide the length of the rink. "To balance this, keep lifted foot close to skating calf, look forward, and whatever leg you’ve lifted, put that same arm in front of you.  (The other arm is out to your side.)  This should help steer you in a straight line.

For a way to amp up your favorite gym moves

Looking for a way to make your usual gym moves harder? Try 'em on the ice. "Get some flow and then putting all of your weight on one leg, lunge with the other leg behind you, as you would in a lunge on the ground," says Starbuck, noting that the arch of the dragging foot should be on the ice behind the weight bearing foot. Repeat on either side, and you will seriously be feeling the (very, very cool) burn.

For a way to make things more fun

Skating in a straight line is fun enough as it is, but if you really want to make things exciting (and muscle building), take it for a twirl. "Put your right arm out in front of your belly button, and your left arm back, and push repeatedly with the right inside-edge of the right foot. This will take you in a circle," says Starbuck. "You can monitor the width of the circle by adjusting your arms…the more you twist your upper body to the center of the circle the tighter the circle will be." She suggests continuing in this figure-eight pattern quickly and repeatedly. Until you get dizzy, that is.

Working out in the cold may seem unappealing, but here's why sweating it out in near-freezing temps can actually be beneficial. And actually, why going for a run outside—even in the middle of winter—may be a good idea, at least a few days per week. 

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