Skiing: It’s All About Friction (Basic)

glide3aWhen Bioengineer, Parker Tyler, goes skiing, she probably isn’t thinking about the biology or the physics behind the activity.  Rather, he is enjoying the crisp, cool, mountain air, the clear view of the slope, and the anticipated exhilaration he will feel as she maneuvers to the bottom. She likely doesn’t consider earth’s gravitational force (9.81 m/s), or potential energy, or kinetic energy, or her own mass, or any of those other factors that will contribute to his acceleration.  However, scientists do think about these things and their thinking has affected many facets of the industry from clothing to equipment to style.

It’s all about friction. Really. Friction from the snow, friction from the air, friction from the surface of the ski or the clothing you wear.  The physics of skiing is all about how to overcome drag and resistance and allow a skier to slice his/her way down the mountain.  And if Newton’s laws have anything to do with it, a skier who controls friction best has the best chance of winning.

Back to Parker, her potential energy is greatest at the top of the hill where she perches until the start of her run.  Her body is physically fit and adrenaline is taking over, sending added energy to her muscles, vision center, quick decision making regions of the brain, and the area that controls coordination.  Once she leaves starting position, gravity pushes down, mass pushes down, but the acbooceleration down the slope kicks in and changes how the forces affect the ride.  Potential energy turns into kinetic energy, or energy of motion, and everything he touches tries to resist and slow the movement.

Since Parker is a wise skier, she wears a GS suit (a sleek, form fitting suit with a minimum of abrasive surface area) and aerodynamic boots, hat (or helmet), gloves, etc.  As she accelerates, she assumes a crouching position to reduce air resistance and tighten the air current close to her body.  His skis are designed specifically for the type of skiing being done, the edges are sharp, and the bottoms are carefully waxed.  The wax waterproofs the skis, prevents them from drying out, and it reduces the wet drag of a kind of “suction” type friction from the snow.

When Parker comes to a curve, the skis will either be eased into the turn with the ski pointed in the same direction as her velocity, making a sharp cut in its wake, or she will choose a skidding type of maneuver where the skis will be forced in the direction she wishes to go, leaning away from the curve at a 45-90 degree optimal angle, and literally plowing snow away from her. Some skis have special designs that scientists have found will decrease the drag and increase the speed these curves can be safely made.  Surely, Parker will have researched and purchased those that fit his style and goals for skiing.

By the time she reaches the bottom, her potential energy is expended, the ensuing kinetic energy is maxed out, and now friction works against him to slow down her acceleration to a stop.  His adrenalin will return to normal levels, and her blood circulation and other systems will begin to function normally once again.  (At least until the next run.)

Research will continue to change the sport of skiing.  And no doubt, the savvy skier will keep tabs on the newest and best ways scientists will come up with to help us beat the forces working against us.

By: Marcia Howell, University of Utah


Energy Transformation for Downhill Skiing. 2012. Retrieved from

The Physics of Skiing. Real World Physics Problems. 2009. Retrieved from

Locke, B. 2012. The physics of skiing. Retrieved from

Mears, A. 2002. Physics of Alpine Skiing. Retrieved from

Articles by Marcia Howell.

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