Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/December 1895/The Anatomy of Speed Skating
By R. TAIT McKENZIE.
SPEED skating as a distinct branch of athletics is of recent date, but as an art it is one of the oldest cultivated by the vigorous nations of the temperate and frigid zones.
Fitz Stephen, the historian of London, speaks of the sport as taking place in the twelfth century, but the first mention in history occurs eighteen hundred years ago, in the Edda, where the god Uller is represented as distinguished by beauty, arrows, and skates. In 1662, Pepys enters this item in his diary under date December 1st: "So to my Lord Sandwich's, to Mr. Moore, and then over the Parke (where I first in my life, it being a great frost, did see people sliding with their skeates, which is a very pretty art)."
When we consider the improvements that modern ingenuity has added to skates and race tracks, and the modern methods of training, we would expect marked reductions in the time taken to cover the various distances. We have no means of comparing speeds for distances under a mile, but if we can trust the time taken by the watches of 1821 we may accept the fact that in England a Lincolnshire man won one hundred guineas by skating a mile within two seconds of three minutes. The present record is only four or five seconds better (2·56, Johnson, January 7, 1894).
At the beginning of the century (1801) two young women skated thirty miles in two hours at Groningen; and if we go into the dangerous ground of "hearsay" we will find an account of a father who crossed forty leagues one day to rescue his son from danger, and of another who bet that he could cover three leagues on ice while his friend went one and a half on the best horse.
It has had among its devotees no less a man than Goethe, the great German poet, who sought by this means to drive away his persistent sleeplessness and bring back his youthful vigor. One clear, cold morning in December he is said to have jumped from his bed, strapped on his skates, and to have sallied out, reciting the following like one inspired: "Penetrated with the gayety that
Fig. 1.—J. K. McCulloch in Skating Position.
gives the feeling of health, I go to scour afar the glistening crystal, . . . How brilliant is the ice that night has spread on the waters!"
It is also said of him that when he and Klopstock the poet met for the first time—one in his prime and the other in the decline of life—the subject of conversation was not poetry, literature, or æsthetics, as we would suppose, but was entirely devoted to skating. The prominence of athletic sports has directed much attention to the various problems that are intimately connected with their practice in their various forms, and naturally the question of the anatomical characteristics required for success in any branch of athletics is one of the first to be investigated in the light of modern physiology and anatomy.
One of the teachings of modern physiology is that function makes structure; that if horses are raced generation after generation
Fig. 2.—Adolph Norsing in Skating Position.
we get the slender, nervous race horse, while if they pull heavy loads we have developed the Clydesdale type. Again, if a man has to use his right hand and arm only, continuously in his work we get it large and brawny, while the rest of his muscular system may be but poorly developed. It is this specialism that gives such a law a chance of showing its workings, so that one can often pick out a man's trade by peculiarities in his physique. In athletics, which include the severest forms of physical labor. we would look for examples of the operation of this law, for nowhere has specialism been carried further than in athletic sports.
Such contests as the Penthalon, a revival of the Greek idea of all-around development, which includes a test in running and jumping and weight-putting, are too rare in our modern athletic meets.
Men systematically train for bicycle racing until the particular set of muscles used in that particular exercise—those of legs and thighs—are in a perfect state of development, while the arms remain poor and the chest flat.
The "bicycle stoop" is now a well-recognized deformity, and few men who have devoted much time or attention to racing are entirely free from it, while in many racers the marked dorsal curvature forward (kyphosis) is permanent, unsightly, and injurious to the health.
Heavy gymnastics were the cause of many round shoulders till a reaction took place in the world of physical education, and now body-building is done by the almost exclusive use of light work. This reaction has extended to the more intelligent athletic trainers, who have given up the old drastic methods and have adopted more rational means of obtaining strength and endurance to their protégés.
Our present method of testing athletic prowess thus encourages the exclusive development of certain groups of muscles and the neglect of others—sometimes, as we will see, to the permanent deformity of its too zealous votaries.
Other instances of anatomical changes brought about by special feats could be cited, such as the flat foot of the broad-jumper or the broad back and flat chest of the oarsman; but one of the best examples of this effect of function on structure is seen in "speed skating," which the international contests of the last few years have done so much to popularize.
Speed skating differs from ordinary skating in several marked particulars. The skate itself—about eighteen inches long has—a flat blade, almost as thin as a knife, set into a light tube supporting two uprights, circular but hollow. These short upright tubes fasten it to the boot by means of a plate, the whole purpose being to combine the greatest strength and lightness. The boot laces tightly, giving firm support to the ankle.
This form has evolved from the original skate, made of the lower jawbones of horses and cattle carved to the proper shape and polished. In the British Museum the visitor can still see a pair of these primitive instruments, and the workmen occasionally disinter them about Moorfields and Finsbury.
Let us take up the strengths and weaknesses of the modern speed skaters, who, like the Homeric gods, "stride with winged feet over the sea transmuted into solid ground."
The racing posture of all the best skaters is practically the same. The back is kept straight and horizontal, the arms folded across the back except when spurting; then they are swung from side to side, keeping time to the stroke. Thighs are flexed to a right angle, while the knees are kept in half flexion or almost straight (Figs. 1 and 3). In a recent championship race five of the best amateurs in the world were strung out in line, and their rhythmical swing and stride were as if one brain was moving the whole combination. The crouching position, while it does not Fig. 3.—Diagram. interfere with respiration, diminishes resistance to the wind—an important advantage—and also gives the best position for using the powerful muscles of the loins and back.
The stroke of all the best men is practically the same, and differs from that of ordinary skating both in its direction and in the way it is taken. Its direction is more forward and backward than one from the ordinary short skate, and with the long, flat blade the stroke is given by the whole of the foot flat. Any lifting of the heel in striking out is impossible on account of the length of skate-blade. This has an important bearing on muscular development, as will be seen later.The muscles most used in speed skating will be seen by the accompanying diagram, in which muscles are represented by the heavy black lines. A stroke is made by extending the knee and hip joints, and the erector spinæ muscles (S) are brought into strong action in straightening the back on the pelvis, which is thereby made firm enough to resist the action of the muscles of the lower limb. The powerful gluteal muscles (G), which in landing keep the body in the upright position, contract strongly.
Chart A.—Anthropometric Table compiled from measures of twenty-three hundred students. The large figures indicate millimetres and kilogrammes; the small, inches and pounds. Also, the measure of (1) John S. Johnson ————, (2) Adolph Norsing ————, and (3) Olaf Nortwedt ——·——·——·, taken February 7, 1894, by R. Tait McKenzie, M. D.
drawing the thigh bone back and out. The hamstring muscles (H) have a similar action, with addition of flexing or bending the knee joint. As the stroke consists in a straightening of this joint, the skater uses the powerful extensors (E) to counteract this latter action of the hamstrings (H).
The extensor muscles (E) are tremendously powerful, and from their double origin on the pelvis and along the front of the thigh bone (femur) they are inserted into the knee-cap (patella), which changes the direction of their pull to a right angle by carrying them over the knee joint to their final insertion on the tibia, just as the wire of a door-bell is carried round the corners on its way to the kitchen. As the only function of the calf muscles (C) is to raise the heel and bend the knee, they will hardly be used at all in skating with long, flat racing skates.
In a speed skater we would look for a strong back and broad neck, due to his attitude while at work. His arms, which are kept idly folded on his back, would be small and weak, as would be his chest muscles. His abdominal muscles would get some work from the constant swaying, and he would have powerful, vigorous gluteal and extensor muscles, with sinewy hamstrings but undersized calves.
An examination of the measurements of some of our most noted skaters will show this special development even better than their photographs.
In the accompanying charts each measurement is compared with those of nearly three thousand Yale students, whose average, or more correctly whose "mean," measurements are inclosed in the two heavy lines, and may be said to fairly represent the proportions of the average young man. The variation from this average, or mean, is marked in percentages in the extreme left-hand column of the chart.
John S. Johnson, of Minneapolis, has had a somewhat meteoric athletic career. Although he has been wheeling and skating for nine years, he has been heard of only about three years, when his phenomenal time was at first scarcely credited. His decisive defeat of the hitherto invincible Joe Donahue in Montreal, February 3, 1894, in all distances up to five miles, brought him up to the top of the tree, where he has remained perched on its topmost branch till the present hour, unquestionably the best man up to five miles on ice. He holds nearly all the records in speed skating.His trainer never allows him to tire himself, but starts him with short spurts and an easy pace; so that, although he had been eighteen months in training when I examined him (February 5, 1894), he had in that time gained twenty-six pounds. He was then twenty-two years of age, and weighed one hundred and forty-four pounds. While in his sitting height he is surpassed by
Chart B.—Anthropometric Table with measures of J. K. McCulloch, taken in February, 1894, by R. Tait McKenzie, M. D
forty-five per cent of those measured (see Chart A, No. 1), his length of legs rises to the hundred-per-cent class. The girth of the neck is small, but the low chest measurement is due to its rounded shape.
Its expansive power of seven inches is extraordinary in a chest of that shape. The muscle girths of his arms are exceeded by eighty per cent of young men, while the elbows and wrists show rather heavy bones. The rather small thigh girths will be due partly to their great length. The size of his calves shows about average development—to be attributed to bicycling largely—but the insteps are very large, and his photos show a flat foot. The neck and chest are broad, as would be the shoulders if he had better arm muscles. The "bicycle stoop," amounting almost to deformity in his case, brings the depth of chest up to the one-hundred-per-cent class. His lung capacity is very good, but he can not pull himself up by his arms more than two and a half times, and one dip on the parallels is the extent of his ability. His pulse is only fifty-four to the minute—remarkably slow and strong, and not easily quickened by exercise. The long thighs and "bicycle stoop" are well shown in Fig. 4. Notice particularly the deep chest.
Adolph Norsing has skated since childhood on the rivers and fiords of Norway. For the last five years he has met the champions in this sport both at home and throughout Europe, and has visited America twice. He is a worthy representative of the land of the Vikings, and he now holds the Canadian record for half mile (1·24). His training methods are peculiar: two hours daily, finishing with about three miles at top speed, is his quota of work till the day of the race; his diet is principally oatmeal, eggs, and meat. He allows himself one glass of ale daily at dinner, but otherwise does not use alcohol and has never used tobacco. He is
a typical skater; his occupation, that of a carriage painter, is sedentary, and we find in him typical development.
Although not above the forty-five-per-cent class in height, and with his sitting height surpassed by over seventy per cent of young men, his length of lower limb is up to the one-hundred-per-cent class, as in the case of Johnson (see Chart A, No. 2). His other bone lengths are low, except his feet, which are long. The hip and elbow girths show heavy bones. An old fracture of the left femur, with shortening, invalidates the thigh measures somewhat, but the calves are away below the knee girths, while the insteps show a condition of flat foot in this man also.
Great breadth and depth show splendid lung power in a chest round, capacious, and barrel-shaped, but not very mobile, for he has small expansion. His pulse is rather fast (eighty-four), and his strength tests, much above his muscle measurements, would give the impression that if determination and will power can do it he will always be a winner.
In his case, as in that of all the men whose measurements are here shown, the left thigh is the larger, probably from having to bear the body weight in turning the corners of a rink. Fig. 5 shows well the rounded shape of the chest in expansion, also the type of figure shown in the chart.
J. K. McCulloch, of Winnipeg, is certainly the best representative that Canada has produced lately in speed skating, and he takes front rank both in this sport and in bicycling. We would hardly expect the typical development of a skater, however, in this man, who excels as a gymnast and all-round athlete as well. At eleven years of age he was winning boys' races, and his summer evenings are taken up by rowing, canoeing and lacrosse. For the last three years bicycling has been his main form of athletic exercise during the five summer months. In winter he is the mainstay of the Winnipeg Hockey Team, and his special penchant for the parallel bars in the gymnasium shows in the well-developed arms and chest. His measurements, plotted on Chart B, show a few of the characteristics of the skater. With height in the thirty-per-cent class we find comparatively short legs and long thighs. His arms are also short. A glance at Fig. 6 well shows the shortness of his leg. His muscle girths are in the eighty to ninety per cent class, while his knee-bone measurements are down to twenty per cent; his narrow hips give origin to very powerful muscles, whose girth make up for these bony deficiencies to speed skating (see Fig. G). His calves are large, but he tells me since he stopped wheeling, four months ago, they have decreased nearly an inch and a half in girth.
His chest is deep and his strength tests show well-developed arms and back. Fig. G shows where his extraordinary speed is obtained: the driving power lies in the very long and muscular thighs. This young man is a natural athlete, and, although not built for a skater, excels in that sport as he would in almost any he took up. He would make a splendid high or broad jumper, and would be a success as a gymnast.
Fig. 7 shows a typical speed skater—Olaf Nortwedt, a professional, aged twenty-four, who has been on skates almost since he could walk. He has taken no other form of exercise, and his best distances are under three miles. This photo, taken on the eve of a race, shows the fine condition of his skating muscles. Here again the body is short—the length of the leg and thigh in the one-
hundred-per-cent class (Chart A, 3), while the arms are not long in proportion. The feet are long and fiat, and as a rule his other bone girths and lengths are large, with small muscle girths. The rather small thigh girths are due to their great length in conjunction with very narrow hips; his chest is deep and round, although not mobile. His strength tests show weak, poorly developed arms, but the breadth of neck in him, as in Johnson and Norsing shows good development in the upper muscles of the back. His occupation, that of clerk, is light, so that the natural development of a skater has not been interfered with by other causes, as in the case of McCulloch. The plotting of the measurements of these three great skaters, Johnson, Norsing, and Nortwedt, on Chart A, shows the remarkable similarity of their build. All are about the same height and weight, and we find in all certain characteristics. The typical speed skater has a short body, capacious, round chest, with well-developed back; his thighs are strong and very
Fig. 7.—Olaf Nortwedt.
long, as are also his legs. His feet are large and flat. His weak points are his calves, due to the long, fiat skate to which his flattened foot is so closely bound. The large muscles of his chest are not exercised, and his arms, held lying idly along his back, are unused except in an occasional spurt, when they are brought down and swung straight from the shoulder. They say that they catch less wind held that way, and that the position is restful to the tense extensors of the back. This is, no doubt, true, but the result is disastrous to symmetrical development. This type of figure is seen at its best in such skaters as the Donahues, McCormick, the old-time professional, who still skates a fast race although now forty years of age, and in Wilson Breen, a professional, who has been a winner of much gold and glory by means of his long legs and powerful thighs.
The conclusion that speed skating alone is not a good exercise to develop a well-built, symmetrical man will be patent to any one who reviews the facts. If indulged in, it should be, as done by McCulloch, in conjunction with other forms of athletics which bring into action the muscles of the arm, calf, shoulders, and chest.