How Does Luge Work?

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If you’re one of those people who get nervous going 90 mph even in the relatively safe confines of a car on a highway designed for speed, then the idea of going at this speed on a sled just inches above an unforgiving and icy surface probably seems unbelievably terrifying. But this is exactly what lugers do on a routine basis. And if flying down a hill at 90 mph with no brakes and no protection beyond a plastic helmet seems dangerous, that’s because it is. The numerous deaths of lugers over the years are testament to this fact.

Luging is one of those Olympic sports that is almost ridiculously prohibitive to get into, but it’s actually a lot easier than events like bobsledding or ski jumping where you pretty much have to have a wealthy backer in order to become competitive. After all, luging is basically just one person and one sled sliding down a hill. If I had to guess, I’d say this must be one of the oldest winter sports in the world.

And you don’t need a fancy luge track in order to be a luger. There’s actually a well-organized sector of the sport known as “natural-track luge,” in which participants slide down tracks made on naturally snowy hillsides. The opposite is “artificial-track luge,” which is the one that Olympics fans are familiar with. In this more high-tech form of luging, the athletes slide down highly engineered and artificially refrigerated tracks made of reinforced concrete containing internal evaporators to keep the surface cool.

Most casual viewers don’t pick up on the complicated physics of luging. Lugers commonly face 5 g’s of force when coming around the turns, which means that one’s head is basically five times heavier than one’s body weight, which obviously makes it challenging to keep one’s head upright. This feat requires years of training and a powerful core.

The equipment involved in luging is very simple. There’s the sled, which is basically a piece of fiberglass hooked to two steel runners. Weighing up to 60 pounds—or even more, in the case of two-person luges—these aren’t the plastic sleds we used as kids. Beyond that, there’s the racing suit, the boots, the gloves, and the helmet. For today’s world-class lugers, each of these elements is designed to contribute to the aerodynamic form of the luger while also enhancing safety and performance.

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