How do I choose inline skates?

Buying inline skates is exciting, but for the new beginner skater — unfamiliar with the many potential choices of boot, frame, and wheel — it’s also daunting. But knowing what type of inline skating discipline interests you will help narrow the field.

When you first start to choose inline skates, as with skating styles, comfort is the most important factor.

Choose your skating type

Inline skating consists of variety of different disciplines, each with skates specifically adapted to it: recreational, fitness, freestyle/slalom, speed, aggressive, artistic, hockey.

I discuss each of these, and their specific characteristics, below. Knowing what you want to do on your skates makes it much easier to find the right ones and choose inline skates that will be fit for purpose.

Soft or hard boots?

Some skate types, especially recreational and fitness, offer a choice of soft or hard boots.

Soft boots are more visible in the marketplace, but I recommend hard boots for anyone heavier than a child or a small woman, as they provide the support that we heavier people need.

Skaters learning on soft boots are twice as likely to pronate on inside edges because of the reduced sense of control from their boots, and very often move on to hard boots after only a few months — which is an expensive progression.

Starting with comfortable, good-fitting hard boots is usually best.

Skates by type

Recreational inline skates

Recreational skates

These are for all-purpose park and street skating. They typically have four wheels, and a heel brake on one skate, and come in many different styles and models. Usually they have soft boots, which as noted I do not recommend.

Fitness skates

Fitness skates are designed for distance skating and can come in three-wheel Triskate (generally 90-110mm) or four-wheel (generally 80mm) varieties. The taller the wheel, the less manoeuvrable it will be, though the shorter wheel base of a three-wheel setup wins back some of that.

For a fuller discussion of this issue, see my previous blog:

Read more on inline skate wheel size: 3 wheels of 4 – which is best?

Freesyle / slalom, and speed inline skates

Freestyle/slalom skates

These are designed for high manoeuvrability, and are usually rockered. In a rockered setup, the wheels are positioned with millimetre-thin variations in such a way that only two or three wheels touch the ground at once.

The reduced wheel-base length that this provides allows for easier pivoting. They are usually hard-booted for strength in more challenging positions, such as on toes or with crossed feet.

Speed skates

These types of skates usually have a longer frame and larger wheels for increased speed and stability, sit lower on the ankle for lightness and increased flexibility, and have no brake.

Their three or four wheels can be as large as 125mm.

Aggressive inline skates and artistic quad skates

Aggressive inline skates

Aggressive skates are very heavy, with a short wheel base and small wheels for manoeuvrability and to facilitate landing from jumps. They have a grind plate for sliding and performing tricks. They have no heel brake, and are not to be used for speed or distance skating.

Artistic skates

And as if you couldn’t get further away from aggressive skates, you have artistic skates.

These were traditionally quad skates but now come in an inline variant, are usually rockered for easier spinning and have a front toe stop to assist in jump take-offs. These are not well-suited to outdoor skating.

Hockey inline skates

Hockey skates

Hockey skates have a short wheel base for manoeuvrability and no heel brake. They have a harder boot to withstand impacts, and are traditionally very stiff and supportive — so a challenge to break in. Really only for hockey.

Brake, or no brake?

When you first start to choose inline skates, I always recommend a heel brake.

Learning how to stop on your inline skates is crucial for safe skating, and unless you can do at least one, and preferably three, alternative non-heel-brake methods that stop you from your highest speeds, including downhill, starting with a heel brake is paramount. I always say that learning to skate without a heel brake is as dangerous as learning to drive by only using the gears to stop!

The most common mistake I see new skaters make is not learning to use their heel brake properly. This can slow their progress for many months, because their body remains tense with the muscle memory of their inability to stop properly. This impedes good skating technique.

Top tip: Try skates on if you can

How different brands, models and sizes of skate feel on your feet is extremely important, so being able to put skates on your feet before buying them should be a high priority.

I’m still surprised by how different the variations of skate can feel. Yet sadly, the growing scarcity of physical skate shops makes it harder and harder to find someplace where you can try skates on.

Even if you have to travel hours to get to a skate store, it is probably worth it. On the plus side, the pandemic-like volumes of almost-new, mis-bought second-hand skates now available online offer some bargain opportunities to those who know what they want!

Or try to use your local skate community to source second-hand skates that you can try on, or even try out, before buying.

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