The High-Speed Physics of How Bobsled, Luge and Skeleton Send Humans Hurtling at Incredible Speed

Bobsled, luge and skeleton athletes descend twisting, steep tracks at speeds upward of 80 mph (130 kmh). Speed alone may be the factor that draws many sports fans to the bobsled, luge, and skeleton events at this year’s Beijing Winter Olympics. But beneath the thrilling descents of the winding, ice-covered track, a myriad of concepts…

Female Athlete Luge Race

Bobsled, luge and skeleton athletes descend twisting, steep tracks at speeds upward of 80 mph (130 kmh).

Velocity by myself could perhaps perhaps be the command that draws many sports followers to the bobsled, luge, and skeleton occasions at this 365 days’s Beijing Chilly weather Olympics. But below the thrilling descents of the winding, ice-lined be conscious, a myriad of ideas from physics are at play. It is how the athletes react to the physics that one contrivance or the other determines the quickest runs from the leisure of the pack.

I seek the physics of sports. Phenomenal of the buzz of a luge bustle is easy to omit – the athletes’ actions are fundamentally too small to glimpse as they fly by having a check fancy nothing bigger than a blur for your tv. It will most likely perhaps also be easy to catch that the competitors are merely falling or sliding down a be conscious on the whim of gravity. But that thought merely scratches the surface of the complete delicate physics that scuttle into a gold-medal-worthwhile efficiency.

2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics Track

Tracks for sliding occasions – fancy the Olympic be conscious from the 2018 Pyeongchang Chilly weather Olympics – descend heaps of of toes and possess many tight turns. Credit: Korean Custom and Knowledge Carrier

Gravity and energy

Gravity is what powers the sleds down the ice-lined tracks in bobsled, luge and skeleton occasions. The monumental-characterize physics is modest – open at some height after which tumble to a decrease height, letting gravity urge athletes to speeds coming near near 90 mph (145 kph).

This 365 days’s races are taking location on the Yanqing National Sliding Heart. The be conscious is roughly a mile long (1.6 km), drops 397 toes of elevation (121 meters) – with the steepest portion being a out of the ordinary 18% grade – and comprises 16 curves.

Riders within the sledding occasions reach their mercurial speeds due to the the conversion of gravitational ability energy into kinetic energy. Gravitational ability energy represents stored energy and will enhance as an object is raised farther from Earth’s surface. The most likely energy is converted to 1 more originate of energy as soon as the object starts falling. Kinetic energy is the energy of circulate. The cause a flying baseball will rupture the glass if it hits a window is that the ball transfers its kinetic energy to the glass. Each gravitational ability energy and kinetic energy lengthen as weight will enhance, that contrivance there is more energy in a four-person bobsled group than there is in a one-person luge or skeleton for a given trek.

Racers are going through quite a lot of kinetic energy and sturdy forces. When athletes enter a turn at 80 mph (129 kph) they ride accelerations that could perhaps reach five times that of typical gravitational acceleration. Though bobsled, luge and skeleton could perhaps perhaps glimpse easy, genuinely they’re the leisure but.

Male Athlete Luge Race

Racers must quiet be as aerodynamic as that that you should judge of to decrease creep and scuttle faster.


Most tracks are round a mile long (1.6 km), and the athletes duvet that distance in proper below a minute. Closing times are calculated by adding four runs together. The adaptation between the gold medal and silver medal within the men’s singles luge on the 2018 Chilly weather Olympics used to be proper 0.026 seconds. Even exiguous mistakes made by doubtlessly the most productive athletes on the planet can tag a medal.

The general athletes open on the same height and scuttle down the same be conscious. So the variation between gold and a disappointing outcome comes not from gravity and ability energy, but from a immediate open, being as aerodynamic as that that you should judge of and taking the shortest course down the be conscious.

Whereas gravity pulls the athletes and their sleds downhill, they’re continuously colliding with air particles that develop a power called air creep, which pushes lend a hand on the athletes and sleds in a route opposite to their bustle. The more aerodynamic an athlete or group is, the larger the rate.

Bobsled Racing

Bobsled groups must tuck themselves within the lend a hand of the leading fringe of the sled to defend away from the oncoming air.

To decrease creep from the air, luge riders – who are face up – lie as flat as that that you should judge of. Downward-going through skeleton riders attain the same. Whether in a bunch of two or four, bobsled riders end tucked tightly inner the sled to decrease the house available for air to rupture into. Any physique positioning mistakes can develop athletes less aerodynamic and outcome in exiguous will enhance in time that could perhaps tag them a medal. And these mistakes are difficult to right on the high accelerations and forces of a bustle.

The shortest contrivance down

Moreover being as aerodynamic as that that you should judge of, the assorted basic difference between a immediate and a late bustle is the chase riders capture. If they decrease the complete size taken by their sleds and defend away from zigzagging all around the be conscious, riders will duvet less distance. As well to merely not having to head as a ways to shadowy the dwell line, shortening the chase contrivance going through less creep from air and losing less trek from friction with the be conscious.

Skeleton Sport Racing

Skeleton racers don’t possess a mode of straight away controlling the runners, so that they possess to exercise delicate physique actions to flex the sled and provoke turns.

Fans fundamentally omit the subtleties fascinated about turning and steering. The sleds for the complete occasions take a seat on metal blades called runners. Bobsleds possess two sets of runners that develop contact with the ice. The entrance rider pulls on rings related to pulleys that turn the entrance runners. Runners on luge sleds possess zigzag bows on the entrance where riders location their calves. By transferring their head and shoulders or flexing their calves, athletes can turn the luge. Skeleton riders lack these controls and must flex the sled itself using their shoulders and knee to provoke a turn. Even a exiguous head circulate can reason the skeleton to switch off the optimal course.

All of these delicate actions are laborious to glimpse on tv, however the penalties will be vital – oversteering could perhaps perhaps outcome in collisions with the be conscious wall or even crashes. Frightful steering could perhaps perhaps outcome in shadowy turns that tag riders time.

Though it could perhaps in reality perhaps appear that the riders merely fade down the wintry be conscious at immense speeds after they secure going, there’s a lot more happening. Viewers must pay shut attention to the athletes on these mercurial-transferring sleds to detect the spicy facets of physics in action.

Written by John Eric Goff, Professor of Physics, College of Lynchburg.

This article used to be first printed in The Dialog.The Conversation