USOC Trainer- Brandon Siakel

By: Terri Milner Tarquini


June 1, 2016
   In The Loop Extended Articles

An injured athlete cannot perform.

A simple concept, but in the world of figure skating it is the topic of intense speculation about boot manufacturing, force absorption, and over-training.

In the 1,460 days between Winter Games, keeping a skater healthy could be the most vital thing to their success.
“The number one benefit to off-ice strength and conditioning is injury reduction,” said Brandon Siakel, strength and conditioning trainer for the USOC. “The national governing bodies of figure skating had a need. Injuries were occurring, and that was a clear indication that strength and conditioning was necessary.”

Keeping a skater on the ice is only the beginning of the ultimate mission of elite competitors. There’s also the matter of performing up to snuff.

“The second biggest benefit of strength and conditioning is increased performance potential,” Siakel said. “I say ‘potential’ because there are so many other variables, such as nutrition, psychology, sleep, skill level. We get them stronger and more powerful on our end, and the athlete and coach can use the attributes they’ve gained through off-ice training to improve their on-ice performances.”

In his three years with the USOC, Siakel has worked with a wide range of sports and athletes. In skating he has trained Ashley Wagner, Adam Rippon, Jason Brown, and Nathan Chen, among others. After setting the record for the most quadruple jumps in a short and long program at the U.S. Championships in January, Chen suffered a hip avulsion injury during an exhibition practice, putting him off the ice for eight to ten weeks, whichlead to him pulling out of the World Championships.

“A large component of Nathan’s injuries stemmed from growth and maturation,” said Siakel, who began working with Chen in March 2015. “He was in the middle of a growth spurt. He’s still young and growing - that’s the nature of the beast. Skaters are getting younger and younger and that’s a big factor we have to take into consideration. Because they are still growing, we need to be careful and monitor the type, intensity, duration, and frequency of training we are having them do on and off the ice.”

Constructing a plan for a skater is no exercise in blindly throwing a dart at a board and hoping to hit a bullseye. The strength and conditioning training of today is factual and formulaic.

“The things we do are research-based and scientifically backed,” Siakel said. “We have exercise physiologists, nutritionists, and sports medicine practitioners who perform a variety of assessments and tests through different periods of training to ensure the training plan is in line with the training goals.”

But, before any strategy can be put in place, there is still the personal component that is key.

“The biggest thing is building a relationship with the athlete and coach,” he said. “Before I devise any plan, I sit down with the athlete and discuss their goals and identify strengths and weaknesses in their current training as well as their lifestyle. This allows me to see if there are any gaps in their life where I can reach out to other specialists, including sports nutritionists, sports medicine, sports psychologists, and exercise physiologists. We incorporate all different directions in their training so the athlete is best prepared for their performances.”

Even once a plan is devised, it is dynamic in nature, with specific times to test and reassess the strategy.

“With Nathan, we definitely have learned a few things about what we can do better from an overall standpoint,” Siakel said. “Through the assessments I do when the injury occurred, I was able to go back and look at those assessments and make changes, so I could tweak things to make it work better. Injuries and timetables are tricky, but he is definitely on track. We are looking forward to next season. I believe he is going to be as good or better as he has ever been.”

Figure skating being a sport where aesthetics matter, the idea of off-ice training took a bit to catch on.

“Some equate strength to getting bigger,” Siakel said. “With skating, it’s not about building bigger muscles, it’s strength from a neurological standpoint, activating the muscle fibers and sending those messages faster.”
Some of the areas Siakel concentrates on with figure skaters are mobility, specifically pertaining to the ankle, hip, and thoracic spine; trunk stability, focusing on the athlete’s ability to stabilize the pelvis, which helps the forces of jumping transfer through the body, making jumps more efficient and greatly reducing injury; and the posterior chain, where an imbalance of strength can cause injuries.

“Most people are front-side body dominant,” Siakel said. “This means their quads are stronger than their hamstrings and their chest is stronger than their upper back. For skaters, considering the forces they are generating, it is especially important that they have strong backsides, hamstrings, and glutes.”

In an effort to improve jump quality, as well as decrease the effects of force, balance is another area that is worked on through double- and single-leg jumping and landing mechanics.

“How a skater jumps dictates their efficiency, their power, and the height of their jump,” Siakel said. “With the landing, we can help with how to absorb force properly to reduce injury risk. Strength and conditioning coaches have to be knowledgeable and aware that these athletes are jumping in multiple practice sessions a day. That might mean that we have to reduce the jumps we are doing off ice.”

Siakel has skaters give him their on-ice jump count so he can adjust his off-ice training accordingly and also so he can track their advancement or deterioration.

“I can look at their on-ice jump counts from week to week and compare it to see if there’s been improvement with more or less jumps,” he said. “If, for instance, there was a huge increase in jumps and we saw some issues, then I’d talk to the coach. Everyone needs to be aware of where an athlete performs well. It’s such an individual thing. Some athletes can tolerate more jumps, some cannot.”

While there are the short-term goals which provide milestones for how an athlete is responding to their training, when it comes to elite figure skaters, they are always looking toward the ultimate stage.

“There’s a four-year cycle from one Olympics to the next, so we have a good idea of where an athlete needs to be in a certain amount of time,” Siakel said. “I think a four-year plan is a little unrealistic; there are just too many variables. So I come up with one-year roadmaps and break that up into training blocks. With skating, there’s April to September, which is somewhat of an off-season; there’s September to January, where there are some of the more introductory competitions; and then there’s January through the end of March, with the A-level competitions like Nationals and Worlds. Through those three blocks of training, I can assess how the athlete is responding, where the athlete is with their goals, and we can make changes to the approach whenever necessary.”

Putting so much effort into training off ice for a sport that is performed entirely on ice might have at one time been a little counterintuitive for coaches, but that mindset is evolving.

“The word is getting out that strength and conditioning helps with injury reduction and improves performance potential,” Siakel said. “When coaches see skaters who are involved in a structured off-ice training program having results, they want to get their skaters involved in it too. There has definitely been a positive shift in the culture.”

And what about watching the skaters he works with when they lace up their skates and perform on their cold canvases?

“It makes me absolutely nervous,” he laughed. “But it is so awesome to see them on TV having success - and even having failure, because you learn from that too. But it’s not about me, and it’s not about the other service providers they work with. We are such a small fraction of why these athletes are where they are. In the end, it all goes back to the athlete putting in their work and doing what they have to do. It makes me so happy to be helping them do what they love.”