The free skating competition of figure skating, sometimes called the "free skate" or "long program", is usually the second of two phases in major figure skating competitions in single skating, pair skating and synchronized skating. It is the longer of the two programs, the other one being the short program. The time allowed for free skating is 4 minutes for senior ladies and 4 minutes and 30 seconds for senior men and pairs, plus or minus 10 seconds. Programs for juniors are 30 seconds shorter.
Originally, figure skating competitions consisted of compulsory figures and free skating only, and free skating was "free" in the sense that it was completely free from requirements; skaters could perform whatever combination of elements best suited their individual skills. However, the International Skating Union adopted requirements for a "well-balanced program" in pair skating in 1982, and in single skating in 1984, to counter the trend at that time for skaters to pack their programs with purely athletic elements such as jumps at the expense of spins and other movements demonstrating mastery of skating technique. For example, for many years the well-balanced program guidelines for singles required a minimum of 4 spins, and pairs were allowed to do 3 to 5 lifts.
After the ISU Judging System was adopted in 2004, these guidelines were further tightened up to specify a fixed number of each type of element. This effectively has given the free skating a specific list of required elements, since skaters get no credit and are penalized for extra elements and cannot achieve maximum points if they do not include the maximum number of elements allowed. In addition, the ISU Judging System discounts certain elements that were formerly common in free skating programs, such as Axel variants and other single and double jumps used as highlight moves or in jump sequences. Effectively, "free skating" under the IJS no longer allows the freedom to have unlimited attempts at elements, and skaters must include the exact number of allowable elements in their program.
The time to start and stop timing the program actually begins and ends from the skater starts and stops skating completely, not when the music starts or stops. Failing to finish within the allotted time results in accumulation of deductions.
Elements attempted after the halfway point in a free skate have a bonus of 10% added to their base value to reflect the difficulty in attempting an element later in the program versus earlier when a skater is less fatigued. For men and ladies, any jump after the halfway point receives this bonus. In pairs, side by side jumps, throw jumps, and lifts receive this bonus. All other elements (e.g. spins, spirals, death spirals, step sequences) do not qualify for this bonus.
The "Zayak Rule" is named after American and World Champion Elaine Zayak. Prior to 1982, skaters could attempt as many jumps of any type (i.e. takeoff edge) as they wished (e.g. a skater could include 7 triple toe loops in their program with no penalty). To encourage skaters to display a more diverse arsenal of jumps, the ISU passed a rule informally known as the "Zayak Rule" that states that only two types of triple or quadruple jumps may be attempted twice in a program, and if a type is repeated, one of the attempts must be in combination or in a sequence. Triple and quadruple jumps with the same takeoff edge are not considered as the same type of jump. Skaters that violated this rule were penalized with a 0.1 deduction for each infraction under the 6.0 system. The current implementation of the Zayak Rule under the ISU Judging System causes any jumping pass that includes a triple/quadruple jump that has already been repeated twice to receive no value, even if it is in combination or sequence with an otherwise valid jump. In the case of a skater repeating a jump, but fails to do either in combination, the later jump is scored as a jump sequence, and incurs the same devaluation to 80% of its original value.
In addition to the Zayak Rule, the ISU Judging System placed additional restrictions on jumps, limiting the number of jumps to a number of jumping "passes" (8 for men, 7 for ladies), meaning that a skater could not attempt unlimited double jumps or make another attempt at a botched jump later in the program without substituting another jumping pass for it. If a skater exceeds the maximum jumping passes, they receive no points for any jumps past the limit and earn a deduction for each extra element.
The implementation of the IJS also required that an Axel type jump be included in one of the jumping passes in the free skate, and as of 2010, the number of double Axels in the free skate is restricted to a maximum of 2.