Just watching an Olympic figure skater churn out a series of spins is enough to make you a little dizzy on your couch at home. So how do the athletes themselves manage to glide out of it without toppling over?
To answer that, it’s necessary to understand what causes dizziness in the first place. It starts in your inner ear’s vestibular system, which contains three semicircular canals filled with fluid. Inside the fluid are hair cells, as HowStuffWorks explains. When you move, the fluid moves, stimulating the hair cells to send messages to your brain about your movement. Thanks to inertia, this process gets muddled when rapid rotation is involved.
“If you took a glass of water and put it on a lazy Susan, and you spin it just a little and then you stop it, the water won’t be moving,” Brandeis University neuroscientist Paul DiZio told Live Science. Spin the lazy Susan longer and faster, and when you abruptly halt it, the water will slosh around.
Inner ear fluid works in a similar way: The fluid will initially resist moving in the direction of your movement, but all the spinning will quickly exert enough force to cause it to do so. When you and your inner ear fluid are moving in the same direction at the same rate, the hair cells stop sending signals to the brain. But as soon as you stop, the fluid’s momentum will keep it going, the hair cells will send more messages, and your brain will think you’re moving when you’re not. Other parts of your body—especially your eyes—operate based on signals from your brain that you’re spinning, which can make you feel dizzy.
Figure skaters don’t have some sort of superhuman inner ear fluid; they get dizzy, too. Their secret is essentially just endless practice. Novice skaters start out slow, with a rotation or two, and work their way up. There are even spinning harnesses they practice with off the ice so they can acclimate to the sensation. By exposing themselves repeatedly to dizzying conditions, they’re teaching their brain to get used to the feeling so its negative effects will be less severe—and they can snap out of it more quickly than the rest of us.
Skaters do have tricks to help them reorient themselves after rotations. Bradie Tennell, a member of 2018’s bronze medal-winning U.S. Olympic team, told TODAY that she tends to blink rapidly right after a spin. Other coaches advise their athletes to pick one spot to stare at as they stop turning.
And just because a skater is used to shaking off dizziness doesn’t mean they’re completely immune. Tennell said if she spins even after just several days off, she’ll get dizzy. (But still probably less dizzy than you’d feel.)
[h/t Live Science]