How Do Figure Skaters Spin So Quickly?

What is your preferred winter sport? Some children enjoy watching football games when the weather gets cold. Others may have a preference for ice hockey. However, for certain individuals, nothing can surpass the speed and artistry of figure skating.

When professional figure skaters step onto the ice, something magical happens. A well-executed routine resembles an intricate dance performed on the ice. The audience responds with “oohs” and “ahhs” after every jump and spin.

One of the most impressive moves is when a figure skater leaps into the air and immediately transitions into a rapid spin upon landing. The skater may almost touch the ice before rising and pulling her arms towards her body, accelerating her spin until she becomes a blur.

Although it may seem like figure skaters defy the laws of physics, it is actually these laws that explain how they are able to achieve what we witness on the ice. Specifically, when it comes to spinning, we must comprehend the principle of momentum conservation.

Figure skaters can skate at such high speeds because the icy surface beneath their skates offers minimal friction to impede their movement once they are in motion. When a skater moves in a straight line, linear momentum is the product of the skater’s mass and velocity.

However, when spinning, linear momentum transforms into angular momentum. Angular momentum is dependent on angular velocity and moment of inertia.

Angular velocity measures how rapidly an object is spinning, while moment of inertia is determined by the object’s mass and how far the mass extends from the axis of motion.

The principle of angular momentum conservation states that an object’s angular momentum will remain constant unless acted upon by an external force. This is why a figure skater spins faster when she pulls her arms close to her body.

When she begins spinning with her arms extended away from her body, she possesses a larger moment of inertia because more of her mass is located farther away from her axis of movement (her body). When she tucks her arms close to her body, her moment of inertia decreases.

If angular momentum must remain constant, then basic mathematics provides us with the answer. With constant angular momentum, angular velocity must increase as moment of inertia decreases. If she extends her arms again, her moment of inertia will increase and the speed of her spin will decrease once more.

If you have ever observed figure skaters spinning on the ice, you may have wondered why they do not become dizzy. In reality, they often do experience dizziness, and it is only through years of training that they are able to overcome it and perform multiple revolutions per spin.

At times, skaters employ simple tricks to reduce dizziness. For example, some skaters fix their gaze on a stationary point at the end of a spin to help their brains refocus more quickly. Others may incorporate small dance movements at the beginning and end of spins to conceal any balance issues caused by dizziness.

Try It Out

Are you ready to spin? Ask a friend or family member to help you try out the following activities:

  • Do you have an ice skating rink near your home? Ask someone you know to take you ice skating one afternoon soon. Have you ever tried ice skating before? Once you become comfortable with skating, try spinning in a circle. Can you spin like a professional figure skater?
  • Were you aware that there are different types of figure-skating spins? Go online and check out Basic Ice Skating Spins to learn about more than 10 different types of spins. Which one do you think would be the most challenging? Why?
  • Why are we able to skate on ice? Watch I Didn’t Know That: The Science Behind Ice-Skating by National Geographic to find out. Isn’t it amazing how we can overcome friction? In what everyday activities is friction beneficial? How about when you want to stop your bicycle? Share your newfound knowledge with a friend or family member.

Sources of Wonder

  • https://www.themarysue.com/figure-skaters-spinning-science/
  • https://www.livescience.com/6120-physics-figure-skating.html
  • https://www.stevespanglerscience.com/lab/experiments/ice-skating-spin/

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