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Short track vs long track speed skating

There are several visible differences between short and long track speed skating. The cornering, the number of skaters in an event, the helmets, or lack thereof to name just a few. But as a science nerd I was wondering what kind of invisible differences there may be and it didn’t take me long to find something cool.

Speed skaters are always bent over and they always turn left. Well those two things together affect how well their legs are able to keep and maintain oxygen levels throughout a race.

The leg an athlete is gliding on and pushing with is losing oxygen (it is using the oxygen available in that leg to do the work). The leg that is in the air is getting oxygen back. There are higher rates of deoxygenation in the legs compared to some other sports due to the body position which restricts blood flow.

There is a distinct difference between short and long track on the corners when it comes to using up and restoring oxygen in the legs. In long track, skaters have a more even rhythm between their two legs. As a consequence they maintain similar levels of oxygen. However, in short track the right leg becomes more deoxygenated while the left leg is able to replenish its oxygen.

Another area that differed between the two sports was how long it takes to recover. Even though the athletes achieved similar heart rates, produced similar amounts of lactic acid (the stuff that makes your muscles burn as you use them), and experienced similar levels of exhaustion they took longer to recover after the short track trial compared to the long track one. The researchers hypothesized that this was due to the differences in rates of oxygen use (depletion) and restoration.

So, if you’re like me and watching all the Olympics that you didn’t have time to watch during the Olympics check out the short and long track speed skating events and see if you can spot the reasons for these differences.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.

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