It's certainly possible to be a competitive figure skater at any age, although most of the skaters competing in international competitions are relatively young, from their mid-teens to mid-twenties. Many -- although not all -- of the skaters who go on to compete at this level begin lessons as children, even as toddlers. U.S. Figure Skating offers a Basic Skills Program through which novice skaters of any age can learn the fundamentals in more than 800 registered rinks across the country. In fact, many countries' figure skating governing organizations offer similar programs. Most of these programs introduce the sport as both fun and easy, although it does require a lot of determination and practice. In the early days when many skaters fall down as often as they skate, the program also demands resiliency.
Proper clothing and skates are key to successful figure skating. While skates don't necessarily have to be brand-new, they shouldn't be broken in to the point where they provide little or no support. They should fit the foot snugly and lace up correctly. U.S. Figure Skating recommends that skaters go to a reputable pro shop to purchase used or new skates to ensure a perfect fit. Experts also encourage skaters to wear layered clothing during practice sessions, as rinks are air-conditioned to between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit (10 and 15.5 degrees Celsius). Form-fitting but not overly tight pants are recommended as well, although tights often provide the best fit inside the skate. It's not a bad idea for novice skaters to wear mittens or gloves: Frequent falls bring them in close contact with ice on a regular basis. Beginning skaters and children under the age of 6 are advised to wear helmets to prevent head injury. Once skaters reach higher levels of competition, their clothing becomes much more elaborate and expensive. Custom costumes for high-level skaters can cost thousands of dollars.
Ice skating is an aerobic activity and is a great way to stay in shape and burn off unwanted calories. According to U.S. Figure Skating, competitive skaters can burn between 450 and 1,080 calories per hour, whereas recreational skaters burn between 250 and 810. Competitive figure skaters are encouraged to practice safe nutritional habits by eating a well-balanced diet and making sure to ingest enough water, protein, fats, fiber, carbohydrates, calcium, Vitamin D and iron. Experts also recommend that skaters eat five or six small meals spread out over the course of the day rather than three large ones. This helps even out blood glucose levels and stimulates their metabolism.
Unfortunately, many competitive figure skaters don't follow these eating guidelines -- there's a lot of pressure on their images. According to recent studies published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, athletes active in so-called "appearance" sports often have diets too low in calories, calcium, iron and folate. In addition, the skaters in these studies consumed far fewer than the 2,200 kilocalories per day recommended for very active females. Researchers emphasize that these deficiencies put them at risk for both electrolyte imbalances and dehydration.