Train of thought

Train of thought

Theron Sands trains like a 20-something.

The 53-year-old Champaign man races against competitors half his age in speedskating races, and he trains alongside them too.

“I base his training on his capacity at the time. There’s no concession made to age,” said Jeff Klaiber, Sands’ Milwaukee-based coach. “He’s really an incredibly fit guy. He can continue to pound out the laps, when other people would fall by the wayside and wouldn’t be able to sustain the pace.”

Sands skated in the Olympic speedskating long-track team trials in early January in Milwaukee, where he skated the 5,000 meters, finishing 10th out of 13 skaters, and the 10,000 meters, earning a silver medal in a two-man race. In late January, he set a new world record for his age group in the 5,000 meters, skating six minutes, 56.71 seconds at the AmCup2 race in Milwaukee.

Sands took up speedskating on ice in his early 40s after competing at a younger age in roller skating competitions. As he made the transition to racing on ice, he also learned from his coaches how to train at an elite level. His training has become more intense as he’s moved to higher levels in the sport.

Blog PhotoHe trained on the ice five days per week before the Olympic trials -- Wednesday night in Champaign and Thursday through Sunday at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee, an Olympic Training Site for speedskating. His workouts -- each several hours -- include those specifically for building endurance, such as skating an “inverted cone” -- intervals starting with seven minutes, followed by six minutes, then five minutes, continuing on in a similar pattern. Workouts designed for generating speed include sprinting a half to three-quarters of a lap to get up to speed as fast as possible, and skating one- to three-lap intervals.

Although he skates every distance from 500 meters to 10,000 meters, he specializes in the longer distances -- 5,000 and 10,000 meters.

“The workouts are the same as for the young guys,” Sands said. “The younger guys pull away from me in the sprints, and I pull away from them in distance.”

He also does dry land training, including using a slide board that is 8 feet wide by 28 inches deep, with stops on both ends. Sands slides across the board in nylon booties, mimicking the skating position he uses on the ice. Another technique to strengthen his body for the skating position is “dry skating” -- walking in a crouch around a track.

He also does a lot of road biking in the summer, and he runs stairs. Strength training includes leg presses, abdominal work, one-leg squats and side jumps that replicate the skating push.

His workouts have paid off in an adjusted skating position, with Sands skating several inches lower to the ice than he did a year ago.

“You’re always pushing yourself to find another half-inch or inch lower,” he said. “That’s huge because it cuts down on wind resistance, and wind resistance is the No. 1 factor you are fighting.”

After last month’s Olympic Trials, Sands and Klaiber analyzed video of his races and made some changes to his technique to reduce his friction on the straightaways and build speed in the turns.

“That is one of things that enamors me with this sport. You can always find something to improve on,” Sands said.

One area where Sands’ age does make a difference is in recovery and injury prevention. He does more stretching before he skates now, and he takes ice baths after his workouts.

“I’m much more sensitive to trying to prevent injury,” he said. “I realize, much more than the younger skaters, you’re not going to do this for the rest of your life. You can only push your body that hard for so long. I didn’t want any injuries I would have to carry with me for the rest of my life.”

Just as important is the mental aspect of the sport. Sands performs better in training than in the stressful atmosphere of a race, so Klaiber has worked with him on focusing, distraction control and visualization techniques.

“The 10K is such a long, grueling race. Only once have I skated it where I didn’t have to argue with myself about standing up and quitting toward the end. It is such a grueling event, such a mental battle,” he said.

With the pressure of the Olympic trials behind him, Sands was relaxed skating at the AmCup event. He knew he was skating well when he saw his lap times during the 12 ½-lap 5,000-meter race varied by only 5/10 of a second. He also skated the 1,500 meters at that event, and his 3 ¾ laps were within 3/10 of a second of each other.

“When you’re out there in the zone, you can tell, but to be able to turn that on and turn that off, that’s a very difficult skill to master,” Sands said. “I get there from time to time. (At AmCup2) when I set the (5,000-meter) world record, I was definitely in the zone.

“That was just a day where everything fell in place.”


Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at, or follow her at Her blog is at


Photo: Theron Sands competes in the 5,000-meter long-track speedskating event on Jan. 27 in Milwaukee. Sands, 53, set the world record for his age group in the event. Photo by Karl E. Hokanson



Sections (1):Living


Login or register to post comments