Speed skating is the fastest propelled sport in the Winter Olympics. Skaters reach speeds of 35 to 40 miles per hour during the race. The key is to keep your speed while passing and maneuvering around the other skaters. Speed skating uses force and movement. In physics, it’s known as Newton’s first three laws of motion.
To win the race, skaters must follow the rules of the sport and laws of physics, starting with Newton’s First Law – an object at rest tends to remain at rest while an object in motion tends to remain in motion.
Skaters dig their front foot into the ice with the tip of their skate and plant their back foot behind them with the whole blade. In this position, they are at rest and will remain at rest. When the whistle blows, the skaters push straight back and accelerate forward.
This is Newton’s Second Law – force on an object produces acceleration. The greater the mass, the sum of all matter in the skater’s body and equipment, the more force he must generate to accelerate down the track.
Newton’s Third Law now comes into play – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If the skater pushes on the ice and exerts a force on the ice, the ice also pushes on the skater and exerts a force on them. The harder the skater pushes, the more rapidly they will accelerate down the track.
As the skater moves down the track, they are using the second part of Newton’s First Law – an object in motion remains in motion. The object, or skater, will continue moving in a straight line unless forces move them in another direction, like around a turn.
Force comes from the skater pushing to the outside of the turn while the ice pushes on the inside. When the skaters go around a turn, they are pushing so hard on the ice, the skates’ blade edges bite into the ice and make tiny trenches. The blade rides around the turn in the trench so it doesn’t slip. Sometimes this doesn’t work and the skaters fall.
The skater who can make the best use of all three laws of motion will cross the finish line first.
Get more information from NBCOlympics.com and the National Science Foundation. Lesson plan available on Short Track Speed Skating and Newton’s Laws of Motion at NBCLearn.com.