Ben Rowles, The Skateboard Physiotherapist
Photography by Reece Leung
Words by Will Harmon
‘Last November I was messing around doing a Barley grind and hurt my right ankle really bad. I went to hospital and had an X-ray, but all that proved was that my ankle wasn’t broken. That didn’t really help all that much… I never found out exactly which part of my ankle I’d hurt until I saw Ben…’ said Josh Cox.
Josh, a London skater and Mile End local, is referring to Ben Rowles. Some of you may have heard Ben’s name before, he’s even had skate photos featured in previous issues of this magazine. Well, in addition to being an incredible skateboarder Ben is now a trained and licensed physiotherapist working for the NHS in Ormskirk, UK. Recently, as a side gig, Ben has set up physiotherapy services for skateboarders. He’s held a few clinics in Manchester and London where he’s able to do one-on-one assessments. Josh attended his London clinic.
‘The assessment was so thorough,’ said Josh. ‘I had seen another physio through the NHS, and she was good, but she wasn’t as fussed about it as Ben was. Ben really took the time to figure out what parts of my ankle I must have damaged from movements I could and couldn’t do. He could see what was wrong and he really spent a long time with it. He showed me a lot of ways to improve my exercises that the NHS physio had given me. He had a way of just being very easy-going and he made me feel confident, which was nice. I couldn’t recommend him highly enough.’
I can’t exactly remember when I first met Ben, but I know it was around four or five years ago when he was living in London. Originally from New Mills (a small town 30 minutes outside of Manchester), Ben had moved down to go to Uni. Ben said it was during this stint in London that he got interested in physiotherapy. ‘I actually rolled my ankle really bad the week before I moved to London,’ recalls Ben. ‘I couldn’t skate for my first six months at Southbank University. So I saw an NHS physio, the first one said I was fine so I went off, skated again and then rolled it really badly. I had an MRI and I’d snapped a ligament. So they sent me to another NHS physio. I had about eight months with this person and it was just great. He was totally inspiring and I was always sort of asking questions.’
Ben explained that he had been skating with this huge ankle support brace for years, but after seeing this one particular physiotherapist, who introduced him to proprioception (something we’ll discuss later) and other exercises, within eight months he could skate without the brace.
‘My confidence was back and it was great. So I rang up after I was discharged and I asked him, “can I come observe a bit of physio because I’m thinking about actually trying to do it.” And he was like, “yeah sure, come in.”’
At Southbank Uni Ben was doing a media degree focused on photography, ‘just because it was something to do; I didn’t really think too much about it.’ If Ben wanted to actually learn physiotherapy he’d have to go to another college because he didn’t have any science-based qualifications. But he told me he was apprehensive about committing to that until he was sure he really wanted to study physiotherapy. So for two days Ben went to Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital by London Bridge and he was able to shadow this physiotherapist and two others. ‘After those two days I thought, “this is brilliant!” and that’s what got me hyped to actually pursue it.’
Ben admits that in his final year at Southbank Uni instead of doing a lot of work to finish his media degree, his mind was already switching up to thinking about physiotherapy and was focusing on getting into college for that. After speaking with his mate Woody (Garry Woodward, skateboarder from Manchester) who had himself just finished a physiotherapy degree, Ben decided to move to Manchester. The plan was to get on the same access course that Woody had and that’s exactly what Ben did. All this time Ben was a sponsored skateboarder riding for Etnies and Note. After completing the access course he enrolled at Sheffield-Hallam University for a 3-year physiotherapy degree. Whilst learning the ins and outs of physiotherapy in Sheffield, Ben managed to film two full video parts. In June 2018, just after he graduated (with a Bachelor’s Degree in Physiotherapy), Ben immediately got a job doing working for the NHS.
Being a skateboarder and working as a physiotherapist for your day job perhaps it’s only natural that these two disciplines intertwined. I asked Ben about why he decided to combine the two:
‘The reason I started the skate physiotherapy stuff is throughout my degree obviously I was still skating a lot, and when I mentioned to people I was studying physio people would just start telling me their injuries, like all the time,’ Ben said. But Ben wasn’t in a place to do anything about it because he was a student.
‘As much as I had an understanding I couldn’t do anything because I wasn’t qualified and it wouldn’t have been right. So as soon as I graduated I started work and people were still telling me about their injuries I was like, “whoa, yeah I can help you out now because I’m registered and I have the right insurance. It’s all sorted with the Chartered Society of Physios so I can actually do this. But instead of just doing it sort of like whatever, let’s set something up.” So I made my own website, put an Instagram up (@theskateboardphysiotherapist) and found a therapy room to hire. So I just thought, “let’s just see if anyone wants to come and see me?” and then people were keen straight away. I do my work for the NHS; that’s where I get all my experience and build upon my knowledge as a general physiotherapist. And then I thought I could do the skate physio on the side and I can use that knowledge to help skateboarders. I’ve been a skateboarder for so long (15 years), we all know what that’s like… You’re always gonna be a skateboarder, but recently I’ve been going so far into the physio world, so it’s nice to be able to combine the two.’
Now Ben isn’t claiming to be the first physiotherapist skateboarder out there, there are others… In addition to Woody that we mentioned earlier, there’s also Jeroen Stam (@skateboardphysio) from the Netherlands. Whilst researching for this article I came across the website thedailypush.com for which Jeroen is a contributor. Created by Matt Beare (a skater from the UK now living in Barcelona), the daily push is a website dedicated to skate physiotherapy. It’s filled with helpful interviews, useful stretches and exercising tips, I highly recommend it. On the other side of the pond is Kyle Brown (@dr.kylebrown), a skater/physiotherapist who lives in LA. His Instagram posts are filled with physio exercise videos that are specifically tailored towards skateboarders. Kyle has been working with skaters out there on the West Coast such as Kelly Hart, Sebo Walker and Walker Ryan.
In February, just after he had finished his London clinic, Ben met me at the new ledge spot by London Bridge. We chatted a bit and he handed me his business card. ‘The Skateboard Physiotherapist’ it read and included his contact info.
‘One of the best ways to be effective in physiotherapy is to know the area you are rehabbing,’ said Ben. ‘Since I know skateboarding it means that when a skateboarder has an injury, I know what they’re trying to get back to because I’ve been there myself. So that means I can adapt my treatment to a skateboarder. Whereas you might go to a general physiotherapist, and they may be great physio, but if they don’t quite understand a skater’s needs, then you might not get the precise treatment you require.’
It makes sense really, and it brought to mind something that Tom Zealand (a skater from Harrogate) said about Ben’s services: ‘It’s great to get advised what to do if I’m going skate-boarding, rather than be told not too.’
We chatted a bit more and I mentioned to Ben that my foot had been giving me problems, so we decided it might be a good idea if he did an assessment on me. This way I could learn a lot more about what a skate physiotherapy assessment was like and also perhaps it could help me with my own injury.
I broke my foot pretty bad in 2017; I had what was called a lisfranc fracture. It was actually a cycling accident, but it’s still been affecting the way I skate. I know a few other skaters who have broken or injured their metatarsals like me, notably Evan Smith, Corey Duffel and Martino Cattaneo. So it may not be a typical skate injury, but it does happen. I had surgery on my foot back then after I broke it, but I’ve been trying ever since to make it feel normal again so I can skate the way I’d like.
So a few weeks later in early March I got the train up to Manchester. After a quick stop at Note, Jim Craven and I made our way through the rain to the Pumpcage skatepark to meet Ben. When Ben arrived we had a skate… I kept switching my insoles because my left foot kept hurting me. Ben said we could address that in a bit and after an hour skate we decided to head to the therapy room Ben had rented out for the evening.
On the drive over in Ben’s car I asked him what were the most common skate injuries he’s assessed so far: ‘Ankle rolling, tweaked ankles and tweaked knees,’ he said. Ben couldn’t really mention skater’s names without their permission due to patient confidentiality. ‘If you ask every skater they’re going to say they’ve rolled their ankle at least once. As a skater you learn to live with the fact that you’re going to tweak your ankle a bit. I’ve been seeing a lot of shoulder injuries too.’
We arrived at the therapy room and as Ben set up I changed into some shorts and t-shirt. When Ben was ready we started the assessment by discussing my injury history. I told him about breaking my foot a couple years back and how I did go to the NHS for physio until the end of 2017, but after I could walk with ease they discharged me. I was thankful they got me to that state, but I still needed some fine-tuning to get my injured foot to be able to skate again properly. It was nice to be able to tell him that I couldn’t pop my halfcab flips like I used to and have him actually understand what I meant. Then he asked me about my goals… Ben explained that patient care is all individualised. For each client he’d ask him or her what it is that they want to get back to doing. ‘If I’m in my day job and someone says to me: “I just want to get back to be able to walk to the shops.” I would say, “OK, what are your goals?” and they say, “I want to be able to go to the shop and back pain free or not with a walking stick,” and then that would be our goal. And so a skater comes to me and says, “I want to be able to film for this video” or like yourself, if you don’t mind me saying, “I want to be able to skate for more than two hours without my foot hurting and skate two days in a row.” So for you that’s what we’d go for. It literally all depends on the person and what they want, so you try to achieve that.’
Next we went over to the therapy table. I sat back on the table and Ben checked my feet and legs for mobility and flexibility. Then he had me stand up and he checked my balance. We went over to the wall and I practiced balancing on one foot. This is one of the exercises I kept doing from my NHS physio days in 2017 so I was quite good at it. Then Ben brought out a wobble board. I tried to balance on one foot on the wobble board without touching the wall. With a bit of wiggling I think I managed 20 seconds. Then Ben said, ‘now try the same thing with your eyes closed.’ This was much harder; I barely got to seven seconds balancing before I had to touch the wall.
Ben told me that this was testing my proprioception. ‘Proprioception is basically your own awareness of your body parts in space or in the environment,’ he explained. ‘It means when you put your hand behind your back and you shut your eyes, you are still aware of where your arm is even though you can’t see it. There are proprioceptive receptors in your muscles, joints and tendons. So if you injure a joint, say if you roll your ankle, you can damage some of those receptors. When you injure yourself you lose some of that proprioception. If you lose proprioception this is often linked to people having recurring injuries, like when you keep on rolling your ankle or buckling your knee. It’s because you’ve lost that awareness of where that body part is in a sense.’ Ben said that an important part of skate rehab is to build back that proprioception through balance work to challenge those sensors. ‘Standing on a wobble cushion or jumping on one leg, those kind of things will have to make your brain think about where your ankle is for example. So in the future, if you’re about to roll your ankle, your brain knows where your ankle is so it’s easier for it to do something to prevent it from rolling over.’ Ben stressed that proprioception is a very key step in rehabbing skate injuries.
The next thing we did was Ben showed me a series of exercises that hopefully would ease the pain I’d been experiencing in the ball and side of my foot. These included calf stretches, hamstring stretches, and foot exercises with an elastic exercise band. He recommended I get a wobble board (or stand on two pillows) and practice proprioception at home as well.
I asked him if there’s anything in particular skaters could do to prevent injuries. ‘It’s basically just about looking after your body; things like warming up and cooling down. Warming up is a really good way to prevent muscle strains and pulls and things like that, which can cause little injuries here and there and those can all have a bit of a knock on effect. In football they warm up and cool down all the time, it’s a standard part of it, but in skating that takes a lot of discipline. Just for the first 5-10 minutes just take it nice and steady, do a few stretches it doesn’t have to be much, but it’s enough just to warm your body up.’ Ben said.
And then Ben brought something up that I had never thought about really, my cardiovascular system. ‘Skaters probably don’t think about their hearts so much, but you got to warm that up in a healthy way as well.’ Ben continued: ‘Things like if you’ve been working at such a high intensity of exercise… Say you’ve been trying a trick for ages and ages, you’re absolutely knackered, but you still just want to have another go but you feel like you’re done for the day. Your heart is going to be beating at certain amount of beats per minute and if you just stop skating at that point you know everyone’s at risk of your heart going into a funny rhythm. And that’s what we teach in cardio rehab; we’re saying, “right you’ve been working at this level, you need to cool down.” and that’s for anyone at any age and any activity. So if you’ve been skating for ages and quite intensely, then the last ten minutes just cruise around, let your cardiovascular system come back to normal as well as letting your muscles come back to normal. It sounds sometimes lame to warm up and cool down, but you can do it in such a non-obvious way, you’re just cruising around, but in your head you’re thinking “I’m actually looking after my body here a little bit” and it’ll have a good effect in the long run.’
‘With injuries, if you’re stretching out and keeping up on strengthening exercises generally you are less likely to injure yourself.’ Ben added. ‘But if you do injure yourself, you’ll have a quicker recovery if you are already at a good level of strength and flexibility.’ We spoke about Korahn Gayle, who is pro for Skateboard Café, but also is into personal training and is qualified in sports massage. Since Korahn is in such good shape, when he gets hurt, he bounces back pretty quick. ‘I’m constantly rehabbing/prehabbing,‘ Korahn told me once.
‘One of my educators at Uni used to say to his patients: “physio is something you do, not something you have.” So you’ll come to me as a physiotherapist and I’ll help you take control of your issues and with my advice, I don’t sort you out, I just help you sort yourself out,’ said Ben.
Ben wrote down a little exercise list for me and said he’d follow up in a few days with a detailed email. This concluded my assessment. I was eager to try the exercises Ben recommended and when we left I felt really positive about the whole experience.
We both stayed at Jim’s flat that night and the next morning, over breakfast, I asked Ben what he had planned next. ‘At the moment I provide two services: one is the one-on-one consultations like we did and then I do a follow up. For the people that live further away, like yourself, I do a Skype service. You always want to be able to do a face-to-face assessment first, but it does help for the follow up to use Skype for the long distance situations. I also encourage people to use the facilities in their area. For instance, if you need to end up going to see a Podiatrist for your foot, I could recommend one for you in your area. The second thing I do is sports massage, as some people require that.’ Then Ben told me that moving forward he’d like to bring out two extra services: one for skate brands and the other is skateboard events. ‘What I’d love to start doing is working with skate brands… Say they are working on a video and their TM comes to me and says: “one of my riders is injured, but we’d like for him to have a full part,” and at that point I could come to them. Say for example they had a rider that was injured I could give him three sessions or however many sessions they would want and I could create these packages like “an initial consultation and two follow-ups is this much” and it can be totally flexible – just whatever works for them.’ The skate events service he explained was basically what it sounds like: making his physiotherapy services available at skate comps or events. ‘All I’d need was a little pop-up tent, I would have my own treatment bed and I could just have people come in. I could do sports massage all day and help with physio advice for those that needed it. I think it would be a lot of fun and people would be able to freely come up and have a chat with me.’
We finished breakfast and our original plan was to go skating that day, but it was wet so I decided to head back to London. A couple days later an email from Ben came through to my inbox. It included a PDF with step-by-step illustrated instructions of the exercises we had talked about as well as additional helpful physio advice. Since my assessment I’ve been keeping up with the exercises Ben showed me and my foot’s been feeling pretty good. We’ve arranged a follow-up Skype for just after this issue goes to print. As for Josh Cox, he’s been skating again and has just gotten back from a skate trip to SF. ‘My ankle is at about 80 per cent; it’s feeling good.’ He told me. ‘In a month or two I’ll take off the support and I should be back to normal.’ I told him to maybe just avoid the Barley grinds for a bit, ha ha!
If you’re interested in Ben’s physiotherapy services head to: theskateboardphysiotherapist.co.uk