There’s more to skeleton than meets the ice

Our researchers are working with British Skeleton and UK Sport to learn more about the science behind the Winter Olympic sport.

Image of athlete training on the push-start track at the University of Bath.
A skeleton athlete launches onto the push-start track at the University (Credit: Dr Aki Salo).

Improving the skeleton start has long been considered a necessary skill for sliding success, because for a sport where fractions of a second matter, speed gains made at the start can be the difference at the finish line.

To learn more about the skeleton start, British Skeleton and UK Sport teamed up with researchers in our Department for Health to identify the physical requirements of a good start that could be used to better inform athletes’ training.

In recently-published research, available via the Journal of Sports Sciences, the team reveal how athletes can fine tune their start to perform more effectively.

Optimal loading

Skeleton athletes start from a stationary position and push the sled ahead of them down a shallow slope (approximately 2 degrees). This becomes significantly steeper later in the start phase.

The first challenge for athletes is to sprint in an awkward bent-over position, but they also need to make a decision about when best to launch themselves forward to ‘load’ the sled. This generally happens around the 25-30 metre mark from the starting position, depending on the track and how steep the slope is at that stage. Naturally, the steeper the slope, the harder it is to run on it.

Some of the team’s previous research - published in International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance and Sports Biomechanics - showed that despite an unconventional sprinting position in comparison to athletics, one of the key elements of skeleton start performance was pure, upright sprinting speed.

Yet, in the next stage of the project, the team found that improving sprinting speed did not necessarily transfer immediately to improvements in the start phase.

Intervention research study

Using insights from their research, the team led by Dr Aki Salo with Danny Holdcroft (British Skeleton Head of Performance), created an intervention research study - a rarity for elite athletes. Athletes were asked to load the sled at their preferred distance, but also earlier and later than they would normally do.

For skeleton athletes they found that taking fewer steps and loading earlier proved relatively easy, but taking more steps to load later took individuals beyond their normal comfort zone. With help from UK Sport and the Sport Technology Group at Sheffield Hallam University, the team was able to look at the ‘velocity profile’ of the sled during the start and the loading phase in great detail to evaluate how effective athletes were when loading at different distances.

The results showed that by increasing loading distances, athletes were able to continue to accelerate the sled and reach higher velocities. An important consequence of this, however, was that some athletes were then less able to load the sled effectively at higher speeds.

Many athletes achieved their best performance on their preferred loading distance. But, there were athletes whose results did not demonstrate such a clear preference and one athlete clearly benefitted from running further with the sled before loading. Overall, the research demonstrated that the influence of loading distance on start performance was very individual and varied across different athletes with unique qualities.

The main research officer, Dr Steffi Colyer from our Department for Health, explains: “Our previous research suggested that we were perhaps not capturing all of the elements needed to perform a quick start, and that other factors relating to how athletes loaded the sled could also be at play”.

“The results of our study demonstrated an important trade-off between pushing the sled fast and actually being able to the load the sled well. We showed the importance of considering this strategy for each individual athlete and their specific loading technique training requirements.”

Danny Holdcfroft of British Skeleton added: “As a repeated Olympic medal winning programme, British Skeleton consistently looks to be innovative and challenge theory and current knowledge. Utilising partnerships such as this one with the University of Bath, provides the opportunity for us to challenge ourselves and evolve and stay ahead of the game as the margins in success get smaller and smaller.”

Our collaborative work with British Skeleton continues through the University’s Centre for the Analysis of Motion, Entertainment Research and Applications (CAMERA).

The University is also home to the UK’s only bobsleigh and skeleton push-start track and hosts the British Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association.

‘Utilising partnerships such as this one with the University of Bath, provides the opportunity for us to challenge ourselves and evolve and stay ahead of the game as the margins in success get smaller and smaller.’
Danny Holdcroft, British Skeleton


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