Figure Skaters Guide to Synthetic Ice

Written By: Riedell | May 30, 2024

Passionate figure skaters are continuously looking for ways to sharpen their skills, but finding time for frequent trips to the ice rink can be challenging, especially when external factors like the recent pandemic prevent you from accessing the rink. While off-ice workouts can help during these dry spells, they aren’t a replacement for on-the-ice practice. Fortunately, synthetic ice presents a versatile solution, allowing skaters to practice right at home– whether in a spare room, a garage, or even in their backyard.

However, setting up a home rink raises important questions. Which type of synthetic ice is best suited to your space and skills? What should you consider in terms of cost and space requirements? Don’t worry, we’re going to cover these topics and more to help you make a well-informed decision that meets your needs.

What is Synthetic Ice for Figure Skating?

While figure skaters typically rely on commercial ice rinks to hone their skills, it’s not always feasible due to busy schedules, external circumstances, or other unforeseen events. This is where synthetic ice comes into play.

To get a better understanding of the evolution of this innovative material, let’s quickly rewind. Synthetic ice for skating emerged in the late 1960s with the introduction of the first polymer-based panels made from polyoxymethylene plastic. These early versions were primarily large squares designed for small settings and small groups. 

Scientists and researchers worked to refine and improve this material, helping it evolve significantly. By the 1980s, the technology had advanced to support the creation of the first large-scale synthetic ice rinks– a revolutionary achievement at the time.

Now, onto the present day. Synthetic ice today is crafted from a solid polymer, most commonly High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) or Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE). It’s cleverly engineered to connect like puzzle pieces, using a variety of methods like dovetail, tongue and groove, or flush edges. This versatility allows the ice to be adapted to almost anywhere, regardless of shape or space. 

Thanks to these advancements, figure skaters now have the flexibility to practice their spins, jumps, and routines in the comfort of their own homes or backyards, allowing them the opportunity to flourish outside of traditional rinks.

Types of Synthetic Ice

As we’ve mentioned, synthetic ice is typically made from two types of materials: High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) and Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE). Both are engineered to replicate the feel of natural ice, but there are some notable differences around surface friction.

Skating on synthetic ice involves more friction compared to natural ice. Skaters exert more effort to glide across synthetic surfaces, experiencing approximately 10-15% more friction. While this might sound challenging, it can actually be beneficial. This additional resistance can enhance a skater’s fitness and strength because it activates and engages key muscle groups more intensively. Generally, the best synthetic ice rinks achieve a feel that’s about 90% similar to that of natural ice.

Out of these two materials, rinks made from UHMWPE exhibit a bit less surface friction than those constructed from HDPE. Also, some synthetic ice panels are infused with slip agents, which help to further reduce friction and more closely mimic the glide of natural ice. 

Along with these points, those considering setting up a synthetic ice rink should also think about whether they want to use portable or dedicated tiles. Portable tiles are designed for flexibility and convenience. They’re lightweight, easy to handle, and straightforward to set up or dismantle. On the other hand, dedicated tiles are built for more lasting setups. These are thicker, larger, and heavier. These variations cater to different needs and preferences, allowing skaters to choose the best type based on their specific requirements.

What to Know About Synthetic Ice

So, we’ve discussed what synthetic ice is made of, the different types available, and even delved a bit into their history. What more is there to know about? Plenty! If you’re considering putting up a synthetic ice rink, you’ll want to consider a few more things. 

What Are Slip Agents?

We briefly mentioned slip agents earlier, but there’s more to know! Slip agents are a type of lubricant applied to the surface of the panels. They help replicate the physics of natural ice, reducing surface friction and allowing skaters to glide more easily.

There are slip agents you can buy and apply to your synthetic ice as part of your maintenance routine. However, there are also plenty of synthetic ice brands that have slip agents infused into the panels, which is more convenient as it eliminates one step in your maintenance routine.

How to Maintain Synthetic Ice Rinks

As you likely expected, synthetic ice rinks require some degree of maintenance, which may include applying a slip agent weekly, depending on the type and brand of synthetic ice you purchase. 

However, both infused and non-infused rinks require regular cleaning and maintenance to keep the surface even and free of debris. Thankfully, the maintenance they require isn’t too in-depth. 

Daily maintenance involves removing dust and shavings with a broom or vacuum cleaner. Additionally, it’s recommended to wet-clean the surface every 7-10 days. This can be done using a mop, a specialized cleaning machine with a rotating disc, or a power washer. It’s important to use only pH-neutral soap to avoid damaging the material.

What Are the Space Requirements for Synthetic Ice Rinks?

There’s no set-in-stone space requirement for synthetic ice rinks. The tiles can be assembled in any space, allowing smaller spaces to be utilized as synthetic ice rinks. However, you still want to be sure the space you choose is realistically useful for practicing. This depends on the skater, what type of training or practice they plan to engage in, their skill level, etc. 

A common starting point for a smaller practice surface is around 32 square feet, but you can make it much larger if you wish. It’s all about your preferences and the space you have available. 

How Much Does It Cost?

The cost of tiles for a synthetic ice rink will vary widely depending on which retailer you go through, which material you choose, the amount you buy, etc. A smaller size surface could be priced as low as a few hundred dollars, while a much larger surface may cost a few thousand! It’s helpful to research various brands and compare the costs to find a source that best meets your needs.

Do I Need Synthetic Ice for Figure Skating?

Many figure skaters go their entire careers without using synthetic ice. It’s not a necessity, but it can be a powerful tool to aid in training. Here are some of the benefits of using synthetic ice:

  • Cost-Effective: Installing a synthetic ice rink at home requires a significant upfront cost, but it can significantly reduce costs over the years if it lessens the amount of time you pay to use and commute to a commercial ice rink.
  • Customizable Environment: The size and shape of synthetic rinks can be continuously altered to adapt to the skater’s skill level and training needs. Additionally, skaters get to control their environment and don’t have to share the space.
  • Flexible Practice Time: Skaters get to choose their own hours when they have a rink in their home or backyard. You can skate as little or as much as you want without restrictions. It’s also year-round, even on holidays!
  • More Friction, More Power: Since the surface friction is higher on synthetic ice, it helps build muscle. This can give skaters an edge, making them move more powerfully on natural ice.

Can Figure Skaters Use Synthetic Ice?

Figure skaters absolutely can and do use synthetic ice! It’s an excellent tool for practicing and honing your skills in a self-controlled environment. However, along with the benefits, there are a couple of drawbacks to using synthetic ice that skaters should know:

  • Hard on Blades: Synthetic rinks will put more wear and tear on your blades. You’ll need to sharpen them more frequently than you would only practicing on natural ice.
  • Hard on Joints: The impact of landing on natural ice vs synthetic ice is fairly different. Your joints will take a bigger hit, which could potentially lead to overuse injuries.
  • The Heat: Natural ice rinks are cold! Synthetic ice rinks, even in an air-conditioned room, can feel uncomfortably warm, which can make a lengthy training session more difficult.
  • Stopping is Harder: Synthetic ice doesn’t feel exactly the same as natural ice. It’s harder to stop and coast on synthetic ice rinks, which can make practices more challenging.

Ultimately, the decision of whether to use a synthetic ice rink is up to a skater’s personal preferences and whether they feel the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

Skate On with Riedell

Whether you’re practicing on natural or synthetic ice, you’ll need high-quality equipment to see you through your skating journey. Riedell has a variety of products available for skaters of all levels, from beginners to competitors to Olympic-level skaters.