The Heel Brake on Inline Skates
Use it or Lose it?
April 2002 (Updated)
This article is an attempt to discuss why you may want to use a heel brake, and why some skaters remove their brakes. I'm not going to try to convince you which route you should take, but rather try to present sufficient knowledge so that you can make your own informed decision.
There is so much conflicting information on this subject, and very often newer skaters don't know what decision to take regarding the heel brake commonly found on inline skates, with strong opinions being offered to convince either way.
If you wish to learn how to use the heel brake, this online lesson breaks the technique down into steps with photos and video.
Why use the heel brake?
The heel brake is probably the easiest and most powerful stopping method for inline skates. It's much easier to stop with the heel brake than with the more advanced manoeuvres such as T-Stops, snow ploughs, lunge stops, power slides, and hockey stops. This applies especially for the newer skater who doesn't yet have sufficient balance, ankle strength, and control to skate any real distance on one foot. That same newer skater also is unlikely to have enough confidence to slide out his or her skates under control in order to stop.
Confidence for the new skater is so important in helping to learn new techniques fast. If the heel brake gives the newer skater more confidence through removing the fear of not being able to stop, he/she is much more likely to both enjoy and stick with skating.
I'd be the first to admit that not everyone likes the heel brake, and that in some cases it doesn't look or sound cool, but I believe it has an important and necessary place in inline skating. Some of the situations where a heel brake is appropriate are:
Just remember that if you're not using a heel brake, then you will almost certainly be wearing out your wheels, and wheels tend to be more expensive to replace than brake pads. Of course that depends on where and how you skate - my soft 74A indoor hockey wheels still look almost new after almost 7 months of heavy playing with lots of sliding stops on indoor surfaces. By comparison, during the summer I was going through a set of 82A wheels after four Sundays of outdoor hockey in Kensington Gardens. If you're using cheap wheels, they probably aren't that much more expensive than a heel brake, and it's likely that they will handle a lot more wear than a heel brake would simply because there's more urethane to scrub off.
Why lose the heel brake?
There are quite a few circumstances where you won't want to use a brake. Many more experienced skaters get rid of the brake as they have the skating skill and ability to be able to regularly pull off many of the advanced stopping techniques both reliably and safely. They often find it gets in the way and limits their freedom.
Getting rid of the heelbrake can force you to learn new stopping manoeuvres if you can't already do them, and will certainly ensure that you develop as a skater, provided you don't try to do this too soon in your skating career. Of course, the trick is to do that without crashing out and injuring yourself. :)
Most speedskaters don't use a heelbrake for a number of reasons. The heel brake is much more likely to get in the way with the much longer frame found on 5 wheel skates, and this same longer frame affects how much force you can put into the heel brake, thus reducing the stopping power available. Many speed skaters are also concerned with reducing as much weight as possible, and dropping the 150 grams of an average new heel brake is a substantial saving for those into serious racing. There are some exceptions, such as the renowned Uwe Brockman, who skated almost 300 miles in 24 hrs. He uses heelbrakes on both skates with leverage devices to increase the amount of force he can apply to braking on his 5 wheel speed skates.
Hockey players don't want a brake because a brake would really get in the way of the rapid stops and direction changes found in the game, and would limit the agility required. Stopping isn't as much a part of inline hockey as it is with ice hockey, but it's still important. Skates are often used to kick the ball/puck up to your stick, quite often in limited space between players and the boards, so you don't want the brake to catch when you turn the skate sideways.
For some unknown reason there seems to be some level of stigma attached to having a heel brake, particularly here in London. Some people don't think a heel brake is particularly cool. Others, seeing you with a heel brake, will draw conclusions (rightly or wrongly) about the type of skating you do, and for many, these reasons are enough to take off their heel brake.
Beginners and the heel brake.
In order to improve your personal safety whilst skating, the most important thing is to learn to stop well as soon as possible, however you choose to stop. Many beginners are very scared (rightly) of skating on hills because they find it difficult to stop. Because the heel brake is the easiest and quickest stop to learn, it's a good choice for beginners. It will help to keep them safe and ensure confidence whilst they are learning controlled safe skating.
In my opinion beginner skaters are best off learning to use the heel brake properly. After all, learning to use the heel brake can't do you any harm, and you can always go on to learn as many of the more advanced stops as you want to once you've gained control and confidence.
You may not need to brake much if you're simply skating around a flat parking lot when you first learn to skate, but imagine what might happen as your skating ability improves and you're able to skate considerably faster? Now move out onto the pavements and streets, with all the additional obstacles that this involves, including cars, traffic lights, pedestrians, steep hills, etc. One of the first few lessons IISA instructors give is on how to properly use the heel brake, which they've chosen because of it's ease of use and effectiveness.
What should I be capable of before removing my heelbrake?
I believe that transitioning to skating without a heel brake is risky, so it's better to have suitable skating skills under your belt first. (For that matter, learning to skate without a heel brake first is even more dangerous). I personally wouldn't be quick to remove my heel brake unless I were getting into some of the more specialised skating disciplines and thus had a real need to remove my brake. For me, that was inline hockey.
I would suggest that you be capable of at least the following skills before removing the heelbrake.
Now take a long hard think about whether you really want to remove your brake, and why. I'd also suggest you get advice from an experienced and certified IISA instructor, and perhaps some other experienced skaters in your area on whether they think you are ready to remove your brake.
If you still want to remove your brake, then be careful. Never exceed your own comfort zone, and stick to flat areas and situations that don't require much stopping (i.e. not hills). See the disclaimer below.
My experiences when removing my brake.
After some thought, I decided to remove my brake a few months after first learning to skate. This was partly because I was interested in riding stairs at the time, and also because I was just getting into inline hockey. In preparation I spent some time trying to discipline myself to T-Stop rather than use the brake while it was still mounted.
That still didn't prepare me for the cold shock I got the first few times I really had to stop when instinctively trying to use my phantom brake. Luckily I managed to avoid any really nasty crashes in the early weeks, although I had some heart-stopping moments, and eventually became proficient at stopping without a brake.
One of the factors that really helped me improve my brake-less stopping ability was playing indoor inline hockey. No hills, a consistent, smooth and very grippy surface combined with sticky indoor wheels, and the constant stopping required of hockey meant that I had a lot of stopping practice in a safe environment.
In hindsight I think I should have waited longer and gained some more experience before removing my brake.
Some Urban legends:
Can't do crossovers with a brake.
This is of course complete nonsense. You soon become used to the extra length of the brake skate, and I and many other skaters can do both forwards and backwards crossovers with a brake.
What's probably not so easy is changing between using a brake and not using one on a regular basis. You tend to learn and count on either the presence or the absence of the brake, so having a brake only sometimes can be quite confusing, from personal experience.
You can stop faster with a power slide/hockey stop/etc. because the 4/8 wheels used have more stopping area than the brake.
Not true. Friction is only proportional to the weight on the sliding surface and the coefficient of friction between the two sliding materials. Area has no part to play in the equation - check out any high school physics book. More importantly, with a one footed heel brake stop (see the skate videos page) you are probably getting as much weight as is possible on the heel brake, unlike in a power slide where a decent proportion of your weight is on the rolling foot.
More importantly than this power slides and hockey stops are much less stable in the unpredictable urban environment most of us skate in. That makes them more dangerous and less controllable than heel brake stops.
You can stop just as well with a T-Stop as you can with a heelbrake.
Not true. The problem with a T-Stop is that it's very difficult to get much weight over the dragging skate. That's unlike the heelbrake, where it's possible to get nearly all your weight over the brake. Friction is proportional to this, so if we ignore the difference in material between the heelbrake and wheels, this shows why. Practise confirms that the T-Stop is a good method for slowing down, but an ineffective stopping technique. It's certainly not as effective as a powerslide or hockey stop.
Ice skates don't have a brake so inline skates don't need them.
This is a myth, and doesn't show why inline skates should or should not have a brake. Ice skates don't have a brake because they don't need one. Stopping on ice involves turning sideways and scraping the ice, and for a number of reasons this is a very effective stop and much easier than the equivalent stops on inline skates. Just about any competent ice skater can pretty much stop within a meter or two from a full sprint. Other reasons are that you don't tend to find hills, cars, narrow paths, etc. on the average ice rink. :)
It's really important to be able to learn to stop safely however you choose to stop and before you learn to skate for obvious safety reasons! Remember to plan ahead whilst skating, because no stopping method is going to bring you to a halt instantly. It's often better to avoid an accident rather than relying only on your stopping ability - avoiding that obstacle by going around it is often just as good as braking to a stop before it.
Stick with what you are comfortable with, and be sure never to exceed your own limits. I don't see anything wrong with using a heel brake, so don't be quick to discard it. If you do choose to go without a heel brake, make sure you really consider your reasons for doing so, and be sure that you have learnt at least two alternative stopping methods well.
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