J.A. Abels, 66, is a financial planner by day.
But when he's not working, Abels is a serious Masters track competitor. In fact, he's a national champion, winner of the 2009 indoor 400-meter run in the 65-69 age group.
He ran that 400-meter race in 65.72 seconds. He attributes that victory to one thing: interval training.
"There's no doubt in my mind that interval training is what got me the national championship," the Papillion, Neb., runner said.
Intervals — a training technique that incorporates running at race speed for short, predetermined distances followed by slower-paced intervals — can benefit older runners, whether they're competing in Masters events or just jogging in neighborhood fun runs.
Pete Magill, 48, the 2009 USA Masters 5K national champion in the 45-49 age group and a running coach who lives in South Pasadena, Calif., touts the benefits. "It's inconceivable to me that anyone would attempt to run a good race without (interval training)."
What is interval training?
Interval training teaches your body to go faster. "The only way to get faster is to run faster," said Ross Dunton, 77, a Masters competitor and coach, who lives in Sevierville, Tenn.
With intervals, however, you start running faster in small chunks, in manageable stretches of distance. If your goal is to run a 5K in about 25 minutes — or at about an 8-minute per mile pace — a typical interval training distance would be 400 meters run in about 120 seconds.
This effort would be followed by a 200-meter interval run at a much slower pace. The jog is then followed by another 400-meter run at about 120 seconds.
You would continue in this manner until running 12 of the 400-meter stints at race pace. Overall, including the 200-meter jogging intervals, you'll cover a 7K. Gradually, you can build up to running longer intervals at race pace, with shorter jogging intervals.
How it works
Physiologically, the increased speed helps build the body on a cellular level. The increased effort builds new blood vessels and creates new and more muscle cells. Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge explain how the process works in their book "Younger Next Year":
"When you exercise fairly hard, you stress your muscles … You wear out little bits that need to be replaced after each use, requiring lots of fine tuning and minor repairs. This type of injury is called adaptive micro-trauma, and it's critical to your growth and health. It's the signal to your body that it needs to repair the damage — and then some. It needs to make the muscle just a little stronger."
Intervals are hard work and require recovery time, so coaches recommend doing one long-distance, aerobic-focused interval workout a week. Magill said runners can add another weekly interval workout using much shorter distances, such as 40 meters or 100 meters. This kind of drill is classified under "speedwork" and is an anaerobic workout.
Magill cautions runners to start interval training slowly to avoid injury. "A lot of people start out way too hard," he said.
To get started, Magill suggests adding 15- to 20-second segments of faster-paced running during regular jogs. After a few weeks, build up to true interval training.
But again, Magill cautions against overdoing it. "When you finish your intervals, if you don't feel like you can run another interval at that pace, you ran too hard," he says.
Michael Deck, 41, is coached by Magill and swears by interval training. Deck decided to complete a marathon four years ago, after not having run for about 20 years.
After struggling to the finish line in about four hours, Deck decided to change his training. He altered his regimen and improved his next marathon, qualifying for the 2009 Boston Marathon.
After that experience, he wanted to go even faster. He found Magill and his interval training. Within about five months, Deck said, his training had him on pace to run a sub-three-hour marathon. "It was phenomenal," he said of the training.
Abels also remains a true believer in interval training, which he started in 2007 under Dunton. Abels had started running again in his early 60s. The last time he ran was during competition in high school.
He had some early success after returning to the track, winning an age-group race in the Cornhusker State Games in 2005, but he was plagued with injuries.
He traveled to Tennessee to train with Dunton. The coach changed Abel's stride, but, more important, he introduced a new approach to intervals. The changes almost eliminated injuries, and in about five weeks, he got faster.
"I went from 2:40 to 2:30 in the 800 meters," Abels said, "and that's a huge difference in a race like that."
Enough to move from an also-ran to the podium.
A 10-week interval progression for a 5k
Coach Pete Magill offers a sample interval training program for a 5K race below. Here's how to implement the program.
First, pick a reasonable goal for the race. For example, if you'd like to finish in about 25 minutes, your goal will be about an 8-minute mile pace.
For training, your "race pace" would be 1 minute for each 200-meter distance.
Week 1: 12 x 400 meters at race pace, with 400-meter jog rest
Week 2: 12 x 400 meters at race pace, with 300-meter jog rest
Week 3: 12 x 400 meters at race pace, with 200-meter jog rest
Week 4: 6 x 800 meters at race pace, with 400-meter jog rest
Week 5: 12 x 400 meters at race pace, with 100-meter jog rest
Week 6: 6 x 800 meters at race pace, with 200-meter jog rest
Week 7: 12 x 400 meters at race pace, with 100-meter jog rest
Week 8: 5 x 1000 meters at race pace, with 400-meter jog rest
Week 9: 12 x 400 meters at race pace, with 100-meter jog rest
Week 10: Race