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Built for Speed

Performance enhancement program for speed skaters and other athletes

Vol. 21 • Issue 26 • Page 16

Facility Focus

Speed skating is a thrilling sport to watch as much for the speed gained on the track as for the athletic prowess of its competitors. It should come as no surprise that those who participate in man's fastest means of travel-which is not reliant on mechanical aid or gravity-are prone to injuries that range from muscle imbalances to those resulting from falls.

The Performance Enhancement Program (PEP) at Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin Sports Medicine Center in Milwaukee, WI, is designed to meet the needs of athletes such as speed skaters who are seeking treatment for an injury or those who may be looking to employ preventive measures. Athletes who have participated in this program develop a better understanding of their bodies and the importance of whole body fitness, which results in better outcomes in competition or recreation.

"We place a large emphasis on injury prevention in order to promote optimal performance for our athletes," shared Eileen Craighead, DPT, ATC, a physical therapist at Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin Sports Medicine Center. The Sports Medicine Center and Performance Enhancement Program together provide comprehensive care to promote the overall well-being of each athlete.

Program Points

According to Dr. Craighead, the most common injuries in speed skaters are lower-extremity problems and low-back pain. "The position that speed skaters are in while racing, as well as the explosiveness of the sport, tends to put a lot of stress on the lower back and the lower extremities," she explained. "And because they only skate counter-clockwise, muscle imbalances are also common in most skaters."

PEP is designed to help individuals improve their skills, learn techniques to prevent injury and reach their optimal athletic performance. Those who have benefited from PEP range from 10-year-old Little Leaguers to Olympiad Ryan Leveille, an American speed skater who competed in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

More recently, PEP has worked members of the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team including Trevor Marsicano, Jilleanne Rookard, and Mitch Whitmore.

The program's staff members, including Medical College of Wisconsin physicians, certified athletic trainers and physical therapists, work together to ensure that each athlete's training experience is as beneficial and rewarding as possible.

"Speed skaters most often suffer from muscle strains and low-back pain," shared Michael Ribar, LAT, PES, head athletic trainer and coordinator of the Performance Enhancement Program at Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin Sports Medicine Center.

According to Ribar, performing in the "skate" position is not a natural position for the body to be in and can put a lot of strain on the low back, especially when the skater becomes fatigued and biomechanics are altered.

Speed Enhancement

Experts at PEP work with speed skaters who train at the Pettit National Ice Center, a U.S. Olympic Training Site opened in 1992. The Pettit Center acts as a central hub for the training and development of U.S. Long Track and Short Track Speed Skating athletes.

Since speed skating became a Winter Olympic event, no single American sport has won more Olympic medals. Starting in 1967 with the outdoor Olympic Ice Rink at Wisconsin State Fair Park, Milwaukee has served as the center of U.S. speed skating. The old outdoor oval rink from the State Fair paved the way for the current facility.

According to the Pettit Center website, at least one speed skater from Wisconsin has been on each winter U.S. Olympic Team since 1932. Thirty-five percent of the U.S. medals won at the Olympic Winter Games are in speed skating events. Of those speed skating medals, 80 percent have been won by speed skaters who trained and/or competed at the Pettit Center.

The Sports Medicine Center employs a great team of health care providers who work together to provide the best care for the speed skaters. The center's experts provide services both on the ice and in the clinic.

According to Dr. Craighead, on-the-ice treatment is mostly tailored to stretching, soft-tissue mobilization, and taping in preparation for skating. Additionally, the center's athletic trainer is available during practices and competitions to provide care for any injury may occur while on the ice. Treatment at the clinic consists of injury prevention through PT, the Performance Enhancement Program and rehabilitation after an injury.

Dr. Craighead, who attended Marquette University for both undergraduate and graduate work, enjoyed being able to work with each of the university's athletic teams during the course of her education since she was trained as an athletic trainer as well as a physical therapist.

This background aptly prepared her for her role as a physical therapist at the Sports Medicine Center. In addition to her work with speed skaters, Dr. Craighead treats patients suffering from problems such as general shoulder pain, low back pain, tendinitis, sprains and strains as well as with patients with post-operative knees, hips and shoulders.

Gaining Speed

The treatment plan for any given skater focuses on injury prevention as well as promoting optimal performance. "If an injury occurs, each skater continues to receive comprehensive care from our team to provide the quickest recovery and return to activity," shared Dr. Craighead. "The plan for each skater differs based on that skater's specific needs."

Because of the extreme position that speed skaters are in while racing, it is important for them to work to maintain a strong core to help support the spine. "The tuck position that skaters are in while racing does not promote the best body mechanics, but skaters can avoid injuries while skating by focusing on a comprehensive core program outside of on-the-ice training," observed Dr. Craighead.

Because speed skating is such a unique sport, Dr. Craighead stresses the importance of working with the skaters not only on general strengthening, flexibility and explosiveness, but also to work on activities that promote these things and carry over into their sport.

According to Ribar, the center has a contract with the U.S. Speed Skating Organization to provide medical care for skaters at different levels of ability and performance. The staff provides a comprehensive treatment approach that includes on-ice as well as clinical treatment.

Ribar's interest in sports medicine spans injury prevention and biomechanics. In his role at the Sports Medicine Center, Ribar performs the initial performance evaluations and creates training parameters for the athletes.

"Not only do we increase the on-ice performance, but we also consistently provide evidence-based injury prevention techniques for the skaters to follow," explained Ribar. The experts provide every athlete with a comprehensive evaluation, which allows them to identify weaknesses, inefficiencies and imbalances.

The staff's findings are used to create a customized training routine that includes one-on-one attention as well as athlete "homework."

A typical treatment plan for speed skater includes stretching, an active warm-up routine, functional strengthening, stability strengthening and sports-specific strengthening, according to Ribar. "The sports specific strengthening consists of resistance exercises in the skate position with the correct mechanics," he said.

Ribar recently worked with an Olympic speed skater who wanted to have a stronger core and increase stability after he suffered a spine fracture from crashing in to a wall. "We worked on his stability and core strength, making large strides in his ability to push down on the ice without altering his mechanics," he shared.

The particular athlete's lower-extremity power has greatly improved and he has returned to competing at a high level.

Enhancement and Prevention

Through PEP, the PTs and ATCs can customize programs for ages 10 and up and all levels of ability. According to Ribar, PEP specializes in programs for throwing athletes, golfers and endurance athletes.

PEP's Motion Analysis System can provide objective data and biomechanical feedback for athletes that desire to perfect their throw, swing, or running style. PEP also provides team and group training.

According to Ribar, the program is designed to provide services for all types of sports, from ballroom dancing to skateboarding and motocross. The majority of the clinic's client base enjoys soccer, basketball, football or volleyball.

There are a number of specialties and features that set the facility apart from other performance enhancement facilities. First, the PTs and ATCs provide evidence based practices and do not rely on anecdotal evidence. Second, each of its programs is customized according to the athlete and his needs. "We do not perform cookie-cutter training techniques," says Ribar. "We employ licensed and certified health care professionals to take care of our athletes. The level of education in our program may be second to none."

Athletes who are treated in the Performance Enhancement Program gain knowledge about their current injury but also learn how to prevent injuries of many kinds down the road.

The center stresses prevention through tailored programs designed to address the specific needs of each individual athlete to prevent an injury from happening in the first place.

"Physical therapy is an important component in not only the recovery phase of an athlete's injury but also in the prevention of future injuries," shared Dr. Craighead. "Athletes who undergo comprehensive physical therapy from our team after an injury are better prepared for optimal performance in the future." 

Rebecca Mayer is senior regional editor of ADVANCE and can be reached at


Dear Mrs. Mayer,

I am a student phyical therapist assistant doing an article review on your article in the above subject heading. I have a technical question and if you can lead me in the right direction, that would be great.

I would like to know how to properly cite this article according to APA format. I have found this article electronically via the ADVANCE website. It states it came from Vol. 21 Issue 26 page 16 ans is written by yourself and published by Merion Mathers.

Thank you so much for your help!


Eric M. Mola

Eric Mola,  Student,  Naugatuck Valley Comm CollegeMarch 16, 2011
Waterbury, CT


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