What Is the Physics of Figure Skating?

Figure skating is an artistic sport in which athletes glide over ice and perform moves such as spins and jumps. Some people figure-skate for pleasure, but others devote their lives to the sport hoping to win championships or Olympic medals. Regardless of a skater's skill level, all figure skaters rely on the principles of physics in order to perform. Once a skater understands these principles, how figure skating works mechanically makes more sense.

  1. Properties of Ice

    • As explained by Christie Nicholson and Eric Olsen of Scientificamerican.com, molecules of water at the surface of the ice form loose chains, creating layer on the ice that is nearly frictionless. Friction, which is resistance between two objects, is what slows objects down, so without as much friction on the surface of the ice, the skater is able to glide along with relative ease.


    • As shown by Nicholson and Olsen, figure skaters have to create friction somehow to slow down. Skaters do this by turning their hips, legs and feet to the side and digging the blades into the ice. A figure skater also creates friction between their skate and the ice when they push off, so friction also is necessary for a figure skater to get started in a movement.


    • As figure skaters travel over the ice, they have momentum, which is the product of a mass of an object and its velocity. The heavier a figure skater is, the more momentum he will have. Furthermore, the laws of physics state that momentum has to be preserved. Figure skaters get really concerned with this when they do spins. As explained by Nicholson and Olsen and Clara Moskowitz of Livescience.com, when a figure skater spins, his momentum depends on how far he extends from the central point around which he spins and the rotational speed. When a skater brings his arms and legs in close to his body, the momentum he has has to be preserved, so the speed of his spin increases. To slow down, a skater extends outward.

    Newton's Third Law and Torque

    • Newton's Third Law states that for every reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton's Third Law really comes into play when a skater wants to spin. To spin, a skater has to create torque. Torque, as defined by the University of Guelph Department of Physics, is the measurement of how much a force acting on an object causes that object to rotate. The more force a skater exerts on the ice and the ice exerts against the skater, the more torque the skater will have and the faster he can spin.

    Improving Performance

    • Improving a figure skating performance means improving control over the physics involved in figure skating. For example, when a figure skater learns to hold his limbs in tight to his body, he affects the momentum he has and therefore gets faster spins. This is why professional figure skaters train so hard even when they're physically fit--they're constantly looking to find ways to get physics to work for rather than against them.

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  • Photo Credit Figure Skates image by Alaskajade from Fotolia.com

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