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The Physics of Figure Skating

Let’s break down some of the crucial elements behind figure skating's moves, like the loop, flip, salchow, axel, and lutz.

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
Episode #273

To pull off a jump that involves a quadruple spin, a skater will need to maintain an average rotational speed of around 340 revolutions per minute (depending, of course, on the hang time). Skaters are known to reach peak or maximum speeds, however, of up to 440 revolutions per minute. Speeds approaching 500 revolutions per minute would be required to execute a quintuple jump which has led experts to question whether a quintuple jump is even humanly possible.

Equipment

Although strength, talent, and athleticism are essential ingredients for a successful figure skating jump, having the right equipment also helps. The leather skates worn by figure skaters are stiffer than those worn by hockey players or speed skaters in order to provide more ankle support. This trade off in flexibility for support is necessary due to the repeated hard landings onto the unforgiving ice.

Researchers at Brigham Young University attached sensors to the bottoms of skates to see just how intense those landings are. They found the impact to be five to eight times the skater’s body weight. Now imagine taking that hit 50 times or more a day!

Skaters also rely on friction to start and stop their movements across the ice.

Friction

Skaters also rely on friction, a force that causes energy to dissipate, to start and stop their movements across the ice. To best harness the power of friction, a figure skater actually has two blades: one inner blade and one outer blade with a groove in the center. These blades are cut at an angle to help skaters steer themselves around tight corners and to provide extra grip against the ice. This additional grip translates into a stronger force from the skater downward onto the ice which is then countered by a stronger force upward from the ice onto the skater and thus an additional push into each jump.

The blades also have toe picks, or pointed teeth at the front, to dig into the ice when they want enough friction to come to a stop or to help launch into a jump. In contrast, speed skater’s skates tend to have longer, wider blades with the goal of generating more heat as they move along the ice. This heat will cause the ice to melt a little and this melt water is great for gliding during speed skating but not so great when you have to make quick changes in your movements as in figure skating.

The Winter Olympics and other ice skating competitions will also employ a large number of ice technicians to keep the ice smooth and, well, icy. The ice is made from water treated with both reverse osmosis and deionization techniques  in order to remove contaminants like fluoride found in regular tap water that tend to pool together and thus can cause ripples when the water is frozen.  

Since figure skaters are in constant motion, small divots in the ice are okay and will not throw a skater off balance, for example. In sports like curling, however, even the slightest imperfection can affect the results of the competition, so continuous patching of the ice is required. Although it doesn’t affect performance, for most sports, the ice is also painted in order to make it sparkle.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of shutterstock

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