Techniques of the Winter Games Part 3: What are the Differences Between the Luge and the Skeleton ?

Most of us think about the luge and skeleton competitions once every four years during the Winter Olympics, if at all. Regardless, watching these competitions will get the tension up for anyone. Sliding down an icy curvy course at speeds of over 130 kph without breaks, with very little to protect you looks crazy dangerous….thus the thrill.

Just in case you’re interested, there are a few significant differences between two sliding events that seem similar to the untrained eye: the luge and the skeleton. The most obvious difference is that luge competitors race down the sliding course feet first, face looking to the sky, while skeleton competitors zip down the course head first. Here are a few more:

skeleton sled vs luge sled
skeleton sled top, luge sled below

Runners: Luges have razor-sharp blades for runners while skeleton sleds have metal tubes for runners.

Starting Point: Luges for individual competitors (as well as bobsleigh) start higher up the course than skeleton (although women at a lower point than men)

Starting Method: Luge competitors start from a sitting position, pushing off from the starting point with their hands, while skeleton competitors sprint at the start like bobsleigh teams, running for about 40 meters, admittedly somewhat awkwardly as the sled is very low to the ground.

Steering: Lugers on their backs with their feet at the front and so the way the luge is designed is for the luger to steer with their legs, pushing down on the left “kufen,” the hook-shaped part of the runner, for example. The challenge is steering without being able to see. Skeleton competitors can see very clearly, and since they are nestled in a “saddle” attached to the skeleton sled, they can steer more easily than lugers with subtle shifts in body weight can alter the direction of the sled.

Speed: All factors being considered, lugers are able to hit faster speeds than skeleton competitors. Lugers start higher up the course, and their feet-first approach is more aerodynamic than the head-first approach of skeleton sliders. Clearly, a round helmet creates greater air resistance than two feet pointed straight ahead. According to the science guy, Bill Nye, “so serious are luge sliders about drag, the soles of their shoes have no tread, and the heels are permanently set to keep them walking on tiptoes to the starting gate.” As a result lugers can hit speeds of 145 to 150 kph, while skeleton sliders max out at around 130 kph.