Most people are discouraged to find they don't get the feel for stopping with a heel brake right away, so don't feel lonely if you can't lay skinny scratch, either. But don't give up trying! When used with the proper form, the heel brake can be the most immediate and powerful stopping tool you'll ever need.
I hope this article helps you master braking, but I encourage you to consider hiring a certified skating instructor to save time and frustration. Also, if you are left-handed, it's very likely that you'll have better balance if you transfer your brake to your left skate (using the allen wrench packaged in the box).
Liz demos the heel brake stop on video.
Ready Position Stance
The key to effective heel brake stops is your stance, which unfolds from the skater's Ready Position. On a carpet or lawn, stand with feet shoulder width apart. Stand upright but with knees bent, so that your knee pads block the view of your toes. For better balance, raise your hands to waist level (still within view) and look forward, not down. Keep your shoulders directly above your hips and hips over heels. Do not lean forward or arch your back. Instead, curve your spine slightly so that your pelvis is tucked in. This brings your hips forward under your body, making it easier to extend the braking foot.
Although it seems the right thing to do the first time you try to brake, simply raising the toe of the brake skate is not the best way to stop. Rather, you must push that skate forward directly in front of your body mass before braking. This is true for all types of heel mounted brakes, including cuff-activated brakes.
Still on your non-rolling surface, try to assume the scissors position. The brake skate is pushed ahead by sinking down over the supporting leg's knee. It won't go very far if your supporting knee is straight. Extend the braking skate ahead at least until that ankle is even with the big toe of the other skate (at high speeds, even more distance between skates is necessary). You are now in the scissors stance necessary for making your brake work. From the side view, your lower legs should make a wide-based triangle over the pavement surface. Notice that most of your weight is on your back, support leg.
Make sure your skates remain perfectly parallel with each other and within hip width apart. This ensures that as you slow to a stop, it will be in a straight line. If you angle the braking foot off to the side, you'll swerve that way. Anticipate just this, though, when you are first learning how to use the brake, because it really is a balance skill, and if you're new to in-lines, you will tend to tip toward the outside of the brake foot at first. Try squeezing your knees together to keep the skates closer.
Touch down stance
Standard Brake: After you extend the brake into the scissors position, then you can tip up your toe and touch the heel brake pad to the carpet or lawn. Push forward against it, being careful not to look down at your feet. (Sure as shootin', your upper body will drop forward if look at your feet when in motion.)
ABT Brake: As you scissors your braking skate forward, instead of lifting your toe, you must consciously press your big toe down toward the pavement, the same way an Olympic diver or ballerina points her toes. As your foot slides forward, your calf muscle pushes back against the cuff of the skate, which automatically pushes the brake down so the rubber drags.
If you don't feel the brake touching down as soon as you scissors your foot forward, lower the brake pad according to the skate manufacturer's user manual. You'll get near "instant gratification" if you start out with the brake pad very close to the ground. You can always raise it again later.
For best results, do the following skill building drills in the order presented. Repeat as needed before moving up; return to the prior drill if you are too wobbly to progress. Spend a minimum of 5 or 10 minutes on each, especially the narrow scissors coast, which builds the required balance. Remember, keeping your hands in view at waist level helps with that balance. Also, if you roll too slowly, your balance actually gets worse!
1. Approach low (bend your knees) — You need to be able to coast in the Ready Position for at least 10 feet in order to learn how to stop with the heel brake. On the pavement (and fully geared, please), take a few strides to build up your speed, get in a good ready position, and then relax into a coasting roll. See how far you can roll with both skates together. Practice until you're comfortable doing this. And don't look at your feet!
2. Approach long (scissors the brake foot ahead) — While coasting at a moderate speed in the Ready Position, shift your hips left (or right if your brake is on the left skate) so your are fully centered over your support leg. Then extend your braking skate ahead one boot length by straightening that knee. Hold steady and continue to coast.
If scissors coasting is too hard right now, practice this one-footed balance drill. Coasting in your Ready Position, start marching by raising your knees slightly while keeping your body as motionless as possible. Try to lengthen the gliding time for each right or left march. This is easier if you remember to shift your weight first. Now see if you can pick up the skate with the brake on it and coast as far as possible. Later, try moving the airborne skate to the front, side and behind as you roll.
3. Approach narrow (hip width or less) — When practicing this brake-building drill, it helps if you squeeze your knees together or engage your abdominal (core) muscles for better stability in the narrow coast. Incidentally, this is the best position to glide safely and easily over nasty patches of pavement. In this defensive coasting stance, your wheels form a longer, more stable platform, and you are very close to the stopping position, should you need it.
4. Put the rubber to the road — Start out by only lightly touching down very briefly with the brake pad while coasting in the scissors position. Try to hear and prolong the light contact, but don't bother trying to stop yet, while you get used to what's going on below. Touch and then raise the brake several times over a long coast.
- Standard brake users, lift and lower the toe several times in one long coast.
- Cuff-activated brake users, scissors the brake foot forward with pointed toe and all four wheels on the pavement, then withdraw it, repeating several times in a long coast.
5. Squeeze it on — You should now be able to drag the brake lightly for at least five feet and deal with the resulting pull on your upper body without losing your balance. Once you are gently braking in a straight line, widen the front-to-back length of your scissors triangle to add friction and "smear" the brake further ahead. With eyes and chest upright and facing forward, increase the pressure until you stop.
Coasting with the brake engaged is your key to preventing speed on a downhill, so please practice drill 5 until you can coast as far as necessary with the brake engaged to get safely down a long decline. The longer you wait to apply the brake, the faster you'll go and the more frightened you will get. It is no fun to panic and "bail" on paved surfaces!
Stop on a line
Accept the truth: You will never be able to stop on a dime with the current in-line heel brake technology. However, you can stop wherever you want as long as you stay alert enough to plan ahead. Save this final drill for when you can drag your brake lightly for at least five feet.
- Approach a line or other mark on the pavement in your best scissors stance with weight mostly on the back skate. Start a light brake drag with the braking skate as close as possible to the middle of your line of travel (known as the centerline).
- To assertively finish the stop, drop your hips as though trying to sit down on the heel of your back support skate. As long as you don't lean forward, this down bounce bends your support knee so much that it "squirts" the brake forward at the same time, adding friction.
- Repeat many times, approaching your line at varying speeds to experiment with what it takes to get your own personal body mass stopped on that line.
Remember to keep your torso upright throughout the entire approach because when your lower body stops, your upper body wants to keep going! Another typical problem area is being too tentative, which causes the brake to skip alarmingly across the surface and make you lose your balance. Here are tips to help with both situations:
- To fight the upper body's forward motion, tighten your stomach muscles in anticipation as you begin to add pressure. Concentrate on sinking down behind the brake as the pressure increases, as though you are about to sit on a stool, keeping shoulders above the hips. The moment your shoulders and head fall ahead of the heel brake, the lack of leverage makes it almost impossible to get enough pressure for an effective stop.
- To fight a skipping brake, make sure you increase the pressure on the brake pad very gradually. You want to squeeze it on, not slam it on. This is the hardest trick to learn once you've mastered the other braking skills. Squeeze on the brake the same way you do the brake pedal in a car as you approach a stop sign.
Practice, practice, practice!
Stopping on a line is the most important drill you can do from now on, and you should practice it anywhere and everywhere until you gain the confidence and balance to skate in a world filled with intersections, pedestrians, cyclists and cars. I urge you (as I do all of my students) to make 100 heel brake stops in a safe practice area so that this most important of safety skills will become an instinctive and possibly life-saving reaction when danger suddenly presents itself.
Better yet, you will gain the liberation that comes with knowing you are in complete control. When that happens, you can skate the world!
P. S. Feel free to print and share this article with anybody you think needs the information. Also, if you're still having trouble, see my FAQ "Braking--I Still Can't do it! "