How To Shop For Your First Pair Of Inline Skates

Also see Types Of Inline Skates Page

It is important to remember that inline skates are not toys, but serious sports equipment, as well as a means of transportation. The best place to buy skates is from a retailer who specialises in inline skates & accessories. A speciality retailer offers knowledgeable sales staff, a full complement of safety gear, accessories, replacement parts & provides the opportunity to actually try the skates. Some retailers have ISA Qualified Instructors working with them. A chain store or toy store might offer slightly lower prices, but ending up with the wrong skate is no bargain, no matter what good the price. Take your time, shop around, try on a variety of skates & protective gear, & most important, ask plenty of questions.

STEP 1. – make sure you know what your skating interests are.

Below is a general description of the basic skate types.  Unless you are certain that your interests are exclusive to a specialist type of skating, you should start with a recreational skate. 

Recreational – these are typically designed with a boot to hold the ankle firmly & wheels that permit a large degree of control.  Boot materials range from a one or two piece mould of engineering plastic to the newer “soft” boot designs that resemble a training or hiking shoe. All recreational skates have a brake attachment.

Fitness – these are similar to recreational skates. They are usually lighter with larger wheels & a lower cut boot. They have a brake attachment. 

Speed – racing skates have five wheels (though some frames can accommodate more!), a long wheelbase & a low-cut leather boot with little ankle support. They typically have no brake fitted & are for experienced skaters only.

Hockey – these are constructed like ice hockey skates. They are made of stitched leather & lace up for a very close fit.  They have wheels designed for the very quick manoeuvres required in hockey. Some models have a brake attachment.

Aggressive  - these skates are made for doing stunts on ramps & rails. They have smaller wheels & grind plates & are constructed to withstand extreme use. Brakes can get in the way & are not recommended when performing stunts, therefore the design of these skates does not include a brake attachment.

STEP 2. – How much do you want to spend?

You can spend anywhere between $30 to $500 on a pair of skates.  In most cases, the more you pay the better quality you will get.  For typical recreational skating, however, you should expect to pay from $80 to $170.  In this range you will get a sturdy, quality skate that meets the basic needs of most skaters.  However, one should observe this rule of thumb: a $140 pair of skates will be much better quality than a pair at $70, but it does not necessarily follow that a $300 pair of skates will improve on the quality of the $140 pair.  Rather, the more expensive skate will have more features, such as aluminium frames, power straps, better wheels & bearings.  If these features are desirable to you, & it has to be said that many of them do enhance the skating experience – you may wish to consider spending that bit more. Cheaper “toy” skates tend to have polypropylene plastic boots offering little support at the ankles & hard plastic wheels & brakes which afford the user little or no grip & no friction on stopping.  The skater only feels an unsupported sliding effect, which makes for a negative skating experience.

STEP 3. – learn about wheels & bearings.

 A considerable proportion of the price of a good pair of inline skates is in the wheels, as the constituent chemicals are expensive.

Wheels come in various sizes, profiles & hardness.  These three factors determine the way the skate will “ride” on the ground.  If your wheels roll easily, you will enjoy skating more.  However, a wheel that rolls too fast may put you outside of your comfort zone.  If the wheels are too hard for the surface you intend to skate on, you will have a very bumpy ride.  If, on the other hand, they are too soft, you will absorb more bumps & have a smoother ride, but the lifespan of the wheels will be much shorter & they are much slower than the harder wheels.  Racing wheels are bigger & have a narrow profile, whereas stunt wheels are smaller & harder with a flat profile.  Wheels & bearings are designed to be replaceable, so there are plenty of opportunities for you to experiment with different types to customise your ride.  There are six things you need to know about wheels:

1.         Size – the diameter of a wheel is the length across the widest part of the circle, measured in millimetres (mm).  The size is important because the larger the wheel, the faster it rolls.  Smaller wheels are more manoeuvrable & stable, but roll more slowly.  Most recreational skates come with 72 – 76 mm diameter wheels.  While you might want to start off with skating on a 72mm wheel, you may want to eventually upgrade to a bigger wheel. You must ensure that the skate frame is able to accommodate a bigger wheel. The standard width of an inline skate wheel is 24 mm. Toy skates may have narrower wheels of 18 mm or less, which will be difficult to replace, or find bearings for.

2.        Hardness – wheels are made from a compound called polyurethane, a plastic material with a rebound feature whose hardness can be varied. The hardness is measured on a durometer, with 0 being the softest & 100 being the hardest.  Most recreational skates are equipped with 78A or 82A wheels, with 78A considered to be on the softer side. Some K2 skates have a dualdensity wheel, with a 80A outer & a 70A inner, allowing a little more “shock absorption” & a smoother, bump free ride.  A wheel’s hardness is marked on its side.

3.        Bearings – wheels roll on ball bearings, which are inside the hubs of the wheels.  Higher priced skates will use bearings that are rated ABEC-1, ABEC-3, ABEC-5 or ABEC-7, with ABEC-7 being the most precise. The difference between ABEC-1 & ABEC-7 bearings is not usually a major factor to the beginning skater.  Lower priced skates will not use rated bearings, but are nonetheless fine for general use.  Remember that, like wheels, bearings can be upgraded at any time.

4.         Spacers - each wheel holds two bearings, with a nylon, plastic or aluminium spacer in between. Spacers provide exact bearing alignment for greater free wheel spin & add torsional strength to withstand tough impacts.  Aluminium spacers allow for better heat displacement than nylon & plastic.

5.         Profile – most recreational wheels have a standard elliptical profile, meaning that it has a narrow centre & graduated edges.  Extreme or aggressive skate wheels have a flat profile, as the finer points of edging are not included in this this type of skating.

6.         Core – if an internal core, or hub, is fitted on the wheel, this prevents the wheel coming into contact with the bearing & acts as an internal stiffener, to help the wheel maintain its shape under stress.  Cores should be made of nylon or glass filled nylon, which will keep the weight of the wheel to a minimum & they are usually ventilated in the larger diameter wheels to prevent heat build up & melting.  A wheel that does not have a hub will deform around the bearing, slowing it down as a result.

STEP 4 – learn about brakes & braking systems.

Inline skaters slow down & stop by applying a brake that is usually attached to the heel of the boot. All braking systems can be worn on either the left or the right boot to enable use of the stronger leg. The brake consists of a rubber pad that drags on the pavement when the toe is lifted.  Some skate manufacturers recognise that braking remains one of the most critical tasks for beginners to master & have developed brakes which can be activated without lifting the toe, such as Rollerblade Active Brake Technology (ABT).  While these special braking systems generally increase the cost of the skates, many beginners prefer them for learning. Ultrawheels have DBS (disc brake system) which they describe as a brake system that lets you stop more easily, more gradually & with more control.  You can brake while turning, going downhill (perfect for beginners), traveling over uneven surfaces & even going backwards!  It is important to understand how the brake works before buying your skates. The skill needed to execute this manoeuvre is easily learnt especially if taught by an ISA Qualified Instructor. Under no circumstances should you remove your brake unless you have superior skating skills, nor should you succumb to the friendly “advice” from people who insist that inline skaters do not need brakes.

STEP 5 – learn about the boot.

The boot holds your foot in place.  Most boots have two parts: a shell that surrounds the foot & a cuff that surrounds the ankle.  Usually both parts are made of engineering plastic that is flexible yet supportive. The final fitting to the specific contours of the foot is provided by a cloth & foam liner & footbed inside the boot.  The soft boot skates have eliminated or cut away some of the plastic.  Some of these have a moulded cuff; some have gel around the ankle, making the skates themselves more form fitting. The majority of boots are ventilated allowing the air to circulate better in the boot keeping the feet cool.

When trying on skates with a separate liner & foot bed, the liner should be removed from the boot & placed on the foot.  If it fits comfortably, it should then be put into the skate & the fitting process repeated to ensure that the boot itself is shaped properly.

Boots must be attached securely to the foot. There are three different ways to do this: laces, buckles, or a lace & buckle combination.  Buckle closure systems should have two to three adjustable buckles. The buckles are permanently attached to the skate & it should be noted that if their position grips your foot in uncomfortable places you should try a different model. Laces are generally only used on speciality skates, such as hockey, racing & freestyle or figure skates.  Laces give a custom fit, but are not as quick & easy to use & do not provide adequate support for the beginner. Lace & buckle combinations use the buckle around the ankle & laces over the foot.  A more expensive version of the skate may have the added advantage of a built in “power strap” which adds more valuable support, especially for the beginner.

Some manufacturers, for example Salomon, Hypno & K2 make women’s specific designs for their inline skates. These skates have a lower, specially shaped cuff for a more comfortable fit around the lower leg & some have a higher instep profile.

Take your time & be careful when trying on skates.  Be prepared to try on several brands & models.  Every manufacturer makes its boots to its own specifications. Sizes will vary even within brands. Take into consideration the type of socks you like to wear (it is recommended you wear a medium weight athletic sock) & remember that skates are NOT like shoes – they will not stretch, though some liners have a “memory” & will conform to your foot in time.

STEP 6. – learn about the frame.
The frame attaches the wheels to the boot. The better the skate, the more likely that the frame will be rigid, aligned properly & securely attached. Frames are made of plastic or metal, the metal frames being carbon or aluminium. Frames on racing & most hockey skates are made of aluminium. Some frames (Salomon for example) can be loosened from the boot & aligned in a slightly different direction, important to skaters who have orthopaedic problems, whereas some K2 skates have a toe-in frame which provides a longer natural stroke. A plastic frame can become too-flexible which dissipates the skater’s energy. The resulting poor alignment can cause a degree of “toeing out” which puts the skater persistently on the inside edges, causing discomfort, poor skating technique & “high speed wobble”.

Simply put, the wheels deliver a better & straighter ride if they are all going in the same direction at the same time, as on a carbon or aluminum frame.

Frames should allow for larger or smaller wheels to be used.  Salomon skates have the size range conveniently engraved on the skate frame.

A relatively new phenomenon is the “commuter” skate, for example Hypno & the Rollerblade Derby, with detachable frames. Reach an unskateable surface, simply unclip the boot & walk.  With these skates there is no excuse for not skating!

STEP 7.- Plan ahead – upgrade or downgrade.
Wheels are an important factor in determining how a skate performs.  Most recreational skates are sold with wheels of moderate size.  This prevents the skater from going too fast for the skill level normally exhibited by a beginner.However, as the skater gains skill, experience & confidence, he or she may want to try a faster wheel when the original wheels wear out.  Most recreational skates are made with a frame that will accept a larger wheel; however, the increase in size permitted by the frame may be minimal.  The skater can avoid this problem by buying the skates he or she wants to “grow” into & replace the large wheels with smaller ones. The skater can then build on skills using the more comfortable training wheels, replacing these with the original bigger wheels when they have gained sufficient experience. 

STEP 8.- Gear Up!  Take a Lesson
Inline skating is a safe sport.  Its injury rate is lower than that for bicycling & football.  However, the most vulnerable period for the beginner is literally the first few steps.  The use of protective gear can reduce the risk of most inline injuries which, with the important exception of head injuries, are mainly of the scrape & bruise variety.  In addition, protected skaters report skating to be more enjoyable because they are more relaxed & can skate with greater confidence.  Full protective equipment includes a helmet, knee pads, elbow pads & wrist guards.  All pieces should be worn together, as protective gear is designed to work as a team.  During a fall, a skater should first drop forward to the knees, as kneepads are used as the first point of dispersion of impact forces. Elbow pads also protect in sideways falls, while wrist guards allow the skater to slide while reducing impact.

Helmets help prevent injury to all areas of the head & should be EN approved.  A helmet should be buckled & fit snugly on the top of the head.  It is essential that a helmet be worn at all times.  The biggest mistake that a skater can make is to defer the purchase of a helmet.  A large proportion of the energy of an impact is absorbed by a helmet, thereby reducing the force of the blow sustained by the head.  Always wear a helmet when you skate, regardless of the amount of experience you develop.  Remember that you can repair a broken bone, but head injuries are more serious & full recovery can never be guaranteed. 

Take A Lesson

The ISA trains & assesses inline skating instructors who can give you the training to get started properly, as well as to improve your skating & learn new sport-specific skills, such as hockey, ramp riding, skate-to-ski etc. Be sure to take lessons from ISA Qualified Instructors, as they will all teach the same, safe, proven skill-building techniques.  Do not hesitate to ask your Instructor if you can see a copy of his/her qualification & insurance document.

STEP 9. - Buy your skates
An inline skate consumer should follow the same rules used to buy any other product: allow plenty of time, know what you are buying, feel comfortable with the store & its staff, assure yourself that there will be after-sales help if needed, & get a fair price.  Do not go for the first skate you see & take time to shop around as you may get a better price for the same skate elsewhere.

STEP 10. - Have fun
Inline skating is a great way to combine fitness with fun; it is a sport suitable for all ages & can be done almost anywhere.  So grab a friend or family member, get outside & enjoy your new skates!

This document was prepared by Dawn Irwin, ISA Director of Training for the United Kingdom Inline Skates Association (ISA)