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Woman putting on roller skates with blue laces
Photograph: Pexels

A beginner's guide to rollerskating

Want to strap wheels on your feet and hit the road? You'll need these things first

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Written by
Cassidy Knowlton
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Rollerskating is certainly having a moment right now. Everyone from the kid next door to global comedy superstar (and Nailed It host) Nicole Byer strapped on some wheelie shoes and started exercising in style. Whether you want to get into roller derby, level up your TikTok game or just want to cruise your local streets and feel the wind in your hair, there's never been a better time to get into skating. 

But getting into rollerskating isn't as simple as firing up your front-facing camera and hitting the pavement. You need to know which skates to buy, plus you'll need some protective equipment to keep that noggin and your joints safe. We talked to Matthew Clanahan of Melbourne skate shop Bayside Blades about what you need to get started. 

Skates 

"It's fine to start simple with skates, focusing on getting something soft and comfortable to begin with," says Clanahan. "[For those who want to play roller derby], many start with an entry-level Riedell R3 skate or Bont Prostar skate for beginner and intermediate options respectively, before upgrading years later to something lighter, faster and stronger."

If you want to skate outside, there are plenty of outdoor options in lots of pretty colours and styles.

Whether you're skating indoors or outdoors, make sure you have appropriate wheels. Indoor wheels are much harder than outdoor wheels and make it easier to start, stop and manoeuvre on smooth surfaces. Outdoor wheels, which often have a jelly-like or rubbery appearance, are much softer so they can roll over debris and rough pavement more easily.

Indoor skates (like derby skates) can be used outside, as long as you swap the wheels for outdoor ones. But if you do want to skate derby, or think you might, "avoid skates with the artistic-style heel under the boot," says Clanahan. "They make many things much trickier in the future." 

Knee pads 

"This is the one part of your starting kit you don't want to compromise on," says Clanahan.

If you're getting into roller derby, you'll be spending a lot of time learning stops and falls in your first six to 12 weeks. And if you're just starting out skating outside, it is extremely likely you're going to end up falling more than once. I've been skating for almost eight years, and I would never go skating, indoors or out, without kneepads.

So what kneepads are right for you? "If you've had knee issues in the past you'll gravitate to the premium 187 pads or TSG pads," Clanahan says. "More commonly people use knee pads from Triple 8, Smith, S-One or the thinner 187 options."

Elbow pads

"It takes a pretty awkward fall to land on the elbows!" Clanahan says. But that doesn't mean you should ignore this part of your kit. "If you do, these unhumerous pointy bits are pretty fragile, so cover them with almost anything that fits well. Spending more on elbow pads will help increase their longevity, but on day one it is totally fine to go very minimal with elbow pads, provided they fit like a glove."

Many outdoor skaters choose to forego elbow pads, but if you want to get into roller derby, they are mandatory.

Wrist guards

These pads are not optional, whether you want to play roller derby or skate around your neighbourhood. You will naturally put your hands out to break your fall – and that could mean breaking your wrist. 

"[Wrist guards are] the first guards you think of and the last pads you should put on (because they make everything else trickier!)," says Clanahan. "Some wrist guards focus on support and restricting the impact of the biggest crashes. Some wrist guards focus on flexibility, comfort and feeling like wearing nothing at all. Decide where you sit on that scale and measure your body – it's super important to get guards that fit snug on day one so that they don't become too big."

Mouthguard

Many outdoor skaters don't wear mouthguards but do consider if that is the right choice. Falls that knock out your teeth are rare – but if you have one, you'll be very glad to have that protection. And mouthguards are mandatory for all roller derby skaters.

"You can still get a thick old chemist-style boil-and-bite wedge of plastic as an inexpensive option," Clanahan says. But he instead recommends a super-thin, mouldable SISU mouthguard, which makes it easier to speak and drink.

"Gag less and speak clearer with a thin mouthguard," says Clanahan. And most importantly: "Keep it clean and replace it when it gets a bit gross."

Helmet

Even if you choose not to wear any other protective equipment, you should always, always wear a helmet when you have wheels on your feet. Bones and joints usually heal, sometimes with surgery and medical intervention; brains often don't. And of course, if you want to skate roller derby a helmet is nonnegotiable at all times. But it can be tricky to find the helmet that is best for your circumstances.

"Certified or not? Special technology to counter-rotational force? There’s a lot of information out there on helmets, and some of it is honestly contradictory," says Clanahan. "We’ll always encourage you to focus on fit, as a helmet that doesn’t stay on your head is absolutely useless.

"Measure the circumference of your head and refer to the size guide of the helmet you’re buying – sizing isn’t universal, and you need it to hold onto that skull and the associated brain cells."

Every piece of protective equipment you buy is only fashion until you crash or fall, and then it could be the difference between a rueful smile and a trip to the hospital. Clanahan says it's important to make sure every piece of equipment is snug on day one, so it doesn't slip or move as you skate. "Measure your body and compare it to all the size guides you can," he says. "If you have the ability to try things on in person, do it. Can be trickier at some times. If in doubt, call your local skate shop for help on how each brand fits and when between sizes, get something smaller rather than larger."

How to start outdoor skating

So you have all of your equipment, but what should you look for in a skate path? The best skate paths are those that are wide, smooth and flat, with few obstacles or other users. Rocks, sticks, sand or other debris on the path will make your journey much more perilous and stressful, and even a few degrees of incline or decline makes a huge difference on skates. Also, choose a path that does not cross any roads – you don't want to risk falling.

Think hard about whether you can get from your car or home to the place you want to go skating without encountering difficult terrains like grass, sand or gravel. If you can't, wear your shoes to the skate path and change them when you get somewhere smooth, flat and safe. It's a good idea to wear a backpack with your shoes in case your skates break in some way along the path, or you come to rough terrain or a road you need to cross. Bring sunscreen and water in your backpack, and throwing in a granola bar can't hurt. 

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