Why Figure Skaters Don’t Seem Dizzy After
Spinning Dizziness is controlled by the vestibular
system in your upper inner ear. Within the vestibular system, there are three canals
that contain fluid called endolymph, as well as sensory nerve cells that look sort of like
little hairs. When you move your head, the endolymph resists change in motion and lags
behind, stimulating the nerve cells. Those cells send messages to the brain, telling
it which way the head moved. Now, when you spin, the endolymph lags behind
at first, but then moves at the same rate that you’re spinning around. When you stop,
the endolymph resists change in motion again, and keeps going for a while. This sends a
message to your brain that your head is still spinning even if it isn’t, resulting in
the dizzy feeling. The endolymph slows down eventually, making you feel normal again.
Dancers and figure skaters have captivated audiences by spinning around and around on
a fixed point. Afterwards, they’ll often leap straight into another move. Part of the
reason this is so interesting to the people watching is that many people can’t understand
how they could possibly remain standing without so much as a wobble after spinning around
so much, let alone leaping into another move. Don’t they get dizzy?
Dancers tend to get around this problem by keeping their eyes locked on a fixed point
and whipping their heads around when their neck can’t turn any more. The result? While
the rest of their bodies are spinning, their eyes trick the brain into feeling like they’re
standing still. In this case, the endolymph doesn’t have a chance to move around and
alert the nerve cells to tell the brain that the head is spinning.
So, the same principle should apply to figure skaters too, right?
With the help of the ice, figure skaters are able to spin at much greater speeds than dancers
can, which means this method isn’t really safe to practice in these high speed rotations.
They will stare at a fixed point at the end of each spin move, but they typically don’t
whip their heads around continually during it, as this could cause injury to their necks
at the rotational speeds they achieve. Because of this, they aren’t easily able to trick
their brain as well into thinking the head isn’t moving at all.
So how do they do it after these high speed spins? The answer is the somewhat anti-climactic,
but perhaps more impressive, “they just get used to it.” Figure skaters do typically
get a little dizzy, but a lot of training means they are usually able to ignore the
sensation and carry on as normal, without the audience ever noticing.
The beginner figure skater will start off doing just one or two rotations per spin and
slowly work up to more. They also start out with “easier” spins before trying out
the more dizzying variations. With years of practice, they are able to work past the sensation
of dizziness so that it doesn’t upset their routine. While you might have trouble walking
in a straight line after a few spins, they have trained themselves to essentially “fake
it.” As Olympic Gold figure skater Evan Lysacek
explains, Oh, you definitely get dizzy, but your body
learns to build a tolerance for it. It’s like when you go upside down on a really fast
roller coaster, you’re going too quickly to realize you’re upside down. So I guess,
when you’re going so fast that everything’s a blur, you don’t get as dizzy as if you
are spinning more slowly and see specific objects going by, if that makes any sense.
There are tricks other than “spotting” that coaches will teach their pupils as well.
Breathing exercises between rotations in the early stages of training help the figure skaters
regain control after spinning. In addition, at the end of a long spin, some figure skaters
will incorporate a dance move into their routine before a jump, which requires more balance.
The dance move not only masks their temporary dizziness, but also provides a short reprieve,
allowing their endolymph to settle back down. Bonus Facts:
• Astronauts often get dizzy because of being in a continual free-fall state while
in orbit. NASA studied 1956 Olympic silver medal winner Ronnie Robertson in an attempt
to figure out how they could help astronauts deal with this, but they found that Robertson
never got dizzy, even when spinning 500 revolutions per minute. That certainly gave him a leg-up
on his competitors! If you guessed he was known for his spinning, you’d be right.
• Olympic skaters can typically spin so fast it looks like they’re a blur. How do
they do it? By starting with their arms and leg (and sometimes head) out, and then tucking
their appendages in while aligning their head with their body. This works thanks to the
law of conservation of angular momentum, with the skaters picking up speed by reducing their
rotational inertia as they bring the mass in closer to their body. This could be a separate
episode on its own, which we may do at some point, but for those curious for more detail
on the physics of this check the link in the show notes.