The science of skiing: three things that help Winter Olympians on the slopes

From an armchair point of view, skiing might seem like a sport that hasn’t changed much since the first Winter Olympics in 1924. But there’s been plenty of scientific research and engineering that’s gone into keeping skiers on the slopes. Here’s three ways science has helped skiers to succeed.

1. Mixing materials

The days of simple wooden skis are long gone. Researchers are always looking for new materials to make skis from, and many have found that combining several different things provides the best advantages.

“Combining two or more existing materials allows a superposition of their properties,” says Associate Professor Marc Zupan, from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Maryland, US.

Carbon fibre, made from graphene, has been tremendously useful – but it sits alongside metal alloys and a variety of other things to get the best performance.

“Modern ski-hybrid-materials combinations may include more than 30 different sub-components created from various material types,” says Zupan.

“They can give a progressive change in stiffness or other mechanical response along the length of the ski. The design provides the combination of properties that offer performance, safety, and response while keeping the weight low.”

2. Monitoring muscles

While marathon runners need months to recover from a marathon, cross-country skiers can routinely recover from 50 kilometre races in a few weeks.

Professor Ken Nosaka, Lead of Exercise and Sports Science at Edith Cowan University, thinks this isn’t because skiing is less exhausting than running – the metabolic demand is actually higher – but because of the muscles it puts pressure on.

“The difference between skiers and runners could be that cross-country skiers suffer less muscle damage in competition,” says Nosaka.

“Changes in blood markers of muscle damage are less following a cross-country ski race than a marathon race.”

3. Keeping warm – and cool

It happens in a chilly environment, but skiing heats you up quickly. Either of these things can be dangerous to skiers.

“The main thing is to try and keep our core temperature in the optimal range,” says Associate Professor Paul Collins, a researcher in engineering design and product development at Deakin University.

“If the muscles are all warmed up, the likelihood of injury is a lot less.”

On the other hand, it’s also easy to get too warm. “If you’ve got a core temperature that rises one and a half, two degrees, your performance really drops off,” says Collins.

Clothing is one of the most important ways to regulate this. A lot of work goes into making skiers’ suits amenable the cold air when they start, and breathable once they’re exerting themselves.

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