Racing in pairs, counterclockwise, on two lanes of a 400 m oval track, the skaters change lanes every lap in order to equalize the distance covered. The skater in the outside lane has the right-of-way at the crossover if the skaters arrive at the same time. At most competitions, four distances are raced — 500, 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000m for women and 500, 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000m for the men.
Pairs are selected by a draw held by the referee the night before the first race. As a rule, skaters are grouped by performance. A random draw designates the starting lanes, inner or outer, and the starting order for each group. Separate draws are held for each race. Group one, the fastest skaters, usually races first. The skater starting in the inner lane wears a white armband and the skater in the outer lane wears a red armband.
The skaters race against the clock and their times from each race are converted into a point system known as the Sammelagt Point System, which simply means total points. Each racer's point total is based on his or her performance time over a given distance. The points for the 500 m race are determined by a skater's time in seconds. For example, if a skater covers the distance in 37.65 seconds, he or she has 37.650 points. In order for each distance to contribute equally to the total, the skater's time for longer races is converted into seconds then divided by the number of 500 m in the event. The final results are determined by adding each skater's points for the four distances raced. The overall winner is the skater with the fewest points.
As the chief official in a speed skating competition, the referee oversees the draw for racing pairs, decides when to resurface the ice, monitors the races, and ensures the orderly progression of the competition. Other officials are: the starter, who ensures fair start for all competitors; the timers, who provide manual backup to the electronic timing system; the judges, who determine the final placings of each pair; and the track stewards, who maintain the lane markers and watch for infractions to the rules. The lap recorder keeps track of the laps remaining in each race, indicates the number to the skaters, and rings a bell to warn of the start of the last lap. The recorder keeps track of race results and compiles the final race standings. Starting commands are simple. The skaters approach the start on the command, “Go to the start.” On “Ready” they assume their starting positions. Both skaters must be motionless for 1 to 1.5 seconds before the starter fires the gun.
Skaters are allowed only one false start before they are disqualified. They are not allowed to skate inside their individual lane markers. The inside skate may cross the lane line when entering a corner, providing the gliding skate, the one bearing the skater's weight, remains outside. Skaters must cross over on every lap. The skater moving from the outer lane to the inner lane has the right-of-way when both skaters exit the corner simultaneously.
Coaches work closely with the skaters during races, particularly the longer distances, using pre-planned schedules to help the skaters maintain consistent lap times. Before racing, skaters select a time that they feel they can skate, based on the weather, ice conditions, their physical capabilities, and the times the other competitors are skating. The key to a good long track performance is to skate each lap at the same speed. By comparing split times, which are taken each time the skater crosses the finish line, coaches can let the skaters know how they are doing. Coaches stand at the side of the track near the top of the backstretch and communicate verbally, visually with a lap-board that displays numbers and with hand signals. Sometimes the coach simply calls out the lap time and the more experienced skaters convert it into a final time.
Force is maximized in speed skating by adopting the crouched position which reduces air resistance and which is characteristic of the sport. The lower the crouch, the more the leg can extend to the side during the push, lengthening the time spent applying force to the ice.
With conventional, fixed-blade speed skates, good technical speed skating is almost soundless — except during the start — because the push is delivered through the middle of the skate, not the toe. The new clapskate, however, permits skaters to push with their toe, thus utilising their calf muscles more efficiently and generating more speed. Clapskates also prevent the tip of the blade from digging into the ice and more importantly, they let the blade stay in contact longer with the ice.
Most skaters adopt a starting position with their weight evenly distributed between the two skates. The front foot is placed on the ice, perpendicular to the starting line. The back foot is placed at an angle to the starting line so that the initial push is as powerful as possible. Some skaters run off the starting line, going for maximum leg speed; others try to skate off concentrating on maximum push and leg extension. More recently, due to the influence of inline skating, some athletes are using a down-start position. The down-start is closer to a running start technique, where the athlete has his skates slightly behind him and rests some weight on one hand placed on the ice creating a three point position. Whatever the technique, all skaters strive for a smooth transition from the short steps of the start to the long, smooth efficient push of full speed skating.
The blade ranges from 38 to 45 cm in length and is about 1.25 mm thick. The high-tempered, carbon steel blade has very little rocker, or curve, compared to hockey and figure skates and permits speed skaters to glide in long, straight lines. The blade on a clapskate detaches at the heel and there is a spring-loaded hinge under the ball of the foot which serves to snap the blade back into its original position.
Speed skates are hand-sharpened, a procedure that takes 15 to 20 minutes for one pair. For maximum efficiency during the push, the edges must be at perfect 90 degree angles. Over time, the angles get rounded off causing the skate to lose sharpness, thus causing slips during the push. High-performance skaters sharpen their blades after every race.
The speed skate boot is made of leather and fits like a glove. The only rigid part of the boot is the heel, which is reinforced for extra stability. Some skaters now use boots similiar to short track boots with a molded fibreglass bottom. The upper part of the boot is less rigid than a short track boot and it is cut lower on the ankle. Some skaters do not wear socks in order to increase the feel of the skates on the ice.
Speed skaters minimize air resistance by wearing tight-fitting lycra suits complete with an aerodynamic hood and thumb loops. Highly specialized aerodynamic fabric is used in strategic places on the speed suit; and most skaters use eyewear to enhance vision or to prevent their eyes from tearing caused by the wind.