It can be mesmerizing to watch well-trained ice skaters move gracefully across the ice. Figure skaters, hockey skaters, and speed skaters all use their ice skates to perform dazzling maneuvers. You might be wondering how they accomplish this, and how ice skates work.
Ice skates glide by causing friction and pressure from the weight of the skater. This friction causes a tiny layer of water, which allows skaters to slide across the ice without becoming stuck. The movements that you can do with ice skates are a result of manipulating the positions of the blades.
There’s an incredible amount of physics involved in ice skating. The type of ice skates you’re wearing also dictates what you can do on the rink. Below, we’ll examine in detail just how all this makes ice skating possible.
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Ice skates do melt the ice below them. The friction from the blades moving across the ice causes it to melt beneath. It does not, however, melt the ice enough for you to fall through in artificial rinks, although it can become a risk on natural bodies of ice such as lakes.
The weight of the skater pressing down on two narrow blades causes a tremendous amount of pressure, combine that with any friction that comes from moving across the ice, and you get an almost minuscule layer of ice being melted, enabling you to glide across it.
This very slight melting effect causes you to be able to glide without needing tons of momentum, but it still requires a lot of effort to maintain any speed. This only works because of the nature of ice, as water is malleable and can respond to changes in heat and pressure.
You might be concerned that your skates will cause you to melt through the ice, but this isn’t something to worry about and is almost impossible on a man-made ice rink. You aren’t going to melt through the ice in an artificially created rink, but there are situations where you should exercise caution.
The artificial climate in a man-made ice rink all but ensures it stays completely frozen over. The almost microscopic layer of ice on the top that melts due to friction freezes over again almost immediately. An artificial rink will also have an even amount of ice across the whole rink, meaning there are no thinner or weaker sections.
This can change when you’re skating on a frozen lake or other natural body of water. You should always exercise caution when ice skating outdoors, check the density of the ice and make sure there are no weak sections. It’s not unheard of for people to melt right through very thin sections of ice.
Most of an ice skate’s function comes from the blades, as the way these blades are positioned dictates what you can and can’t do. Narrow blades are what allow you to perform quick turns and spins, but this is what makes it so hard to learn how to balance on ice skates.
The blades dig into the ice, this is what gives you grip and a tiny bit of stability, but if the blades cut too deeply, it’d be very difficult to go anywhere. Ice is also a very smooth and slippery surface, and this is what enables the blades to carry on going without constantly sticking.
Having to position blades correctly to stop, start, and accelerate all depends on the user’s skills, this is one of the main reasons it takes a long time to master even simple ice skating skills. It’s mostly about position and balance while moving at fast speeds.
Finally, not all ice skates are created equal, as blade shapes, attachments, and overall performance changes drastically depending upon what kind of skates you’re wearing. Ice hockey skates work completely differently when compared to figure skates.
Figure skates are unique compared to most other skates. Figure skates are designed for agility and have blades that work differently. You might sometimes see these as an option for rental skates.
Figure skates have a slightly longer blade than the boot, which is to ensure a good mix of balance and acceleration. They have a concave blade which helps the user stay upright a little bit more, this is because if the blade was shaped like a triangle, it’d be all but impossible to maintain balance.
Figure skates always come with a sharp toe pick, as they use this to gouge into the ice. Toe picks allow figure skaters to perform jumps and they will often land on the toe pick while coming down onto the blades. There’s a specific part of the blade near the ball of the foot that they use to do pivots and quick rotations.
It requires a lot of skill to use a figure skate properly, but the skater can only perform these complex jumps, spins, and rotations because of physics. Many think that figure skaters pivot on a single point, but it’s the blade’s interaction with the icy surface that enables most techniques in modern figure skating.
Hockey skates have a completely different layout compared to figure skates. It’s easy to think of hockey players as brutes, but there’s some serious coordination required. Ice hockey skates have thick boots, and the blades are usually about the same length as the boot.
Ice hockey players need a strong grip on the ice so they can slow down or come to a complete stop quickly. It’s also important they can change direction, so while a figure skater might want more agility and a shallower grip, many ice hockey players want their skates to grip the ice deeply.
The more deeply a blade can grip the ice, the better your control is. If you’ve ever watched a hockey match and you saw a player come to a complete halt, you might see a huge spray of ice. The deeper grip the skate has on the ice practically shears the top layer off. This is because hockey players need to sacrifice some speed for control.
Just like figure skating, ice hockey skates need a ton of skill to work correctly. Most ice hockey players will use the inside edge of the blades to come to a stop, as if they use the wrong edge they’ll catapult themselves over.
Speed skates, on the other hand, are fully optimized for speed, as the name suggests. They have a blade that’s much longer than the boot, as the boot tends to be smaller, almost like a shoe, for increased ankle mobility.
Speed skates also come with a hinge and a flat blade, as the speed skater needs all this to produce the maximum amount of glide, so less effort is used up accelerating. The shape of the blade is also slightly different than a figure skate or hockey skate.
Speed skates have a 90-degree blade at the bottom. Basically, it’s a complete flat blade, as mentioned before. Speed skates have flat blades because it completely minimizes drag and friction.
The longer blades also allow speed skaters to push off from an angle, almost 90 degrees, as skaters need to propel themselves with the outside edge. Sometimes it’s almost like watching a pair of windscreen wipers.
However, with great power comes great balance issues. Speed skaters are notorious for falling because they need to keep their blades as flat to the ground as they can when striding. A hinge allows them to keep this blade as flat as possible, but if they miss time any strides, it’s very easy to fall over, as there’s not much gripping them to the ice.
Ice skates do in fact melt the ice beneath them, but not enough to cause them to fall through on artificial rinks. Ice skates work due to a combination of physics, how the blades are designed to interact with the ice, and also based on the user’s skill and knowledge of them.