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What Does Skating 10K Have to do with Running?

What's fascinating about the 62-page manifesto by World Record Speed Skater, Nils van der Poel

Speed skating and running. Training for running and skiing events

On February 6th, 2022 at around 6:10pm local time, a prominent Swedish athlete was closing in on completion of the Men’s 5,000m long track speed skate. It’s the Winter Olympics in Beijing, China. As the final two competitors took to the track, the time to beat was Dutchman Patrick Roest’s 6 minutes and 9.31 seconds. The Swedish favorite, 25-year-old Nils van der Poel, is trailing Roest’s splits by a little more than a second over the first six laps of the 12.5 lap race. Nine laps in, van der Poel’s losing time lap by lap. 

With three laps to go van der Poel is pacing to finish off of the podium- more than two seconds behind Roest. In a sport often decided by tenths or hundredths of a second, spectators start to slump as the grim reality sets in. Van der Poel surges as he comes through two laps to go, and he’s pulled the time deficit back down just a hair, to 1.8 seconds. Onlookers become more hopeful that he may be able to pull off bronze. 400 meters later, he’s cut the lead to just under one second, and a mere 400 meters after that, Nils van der Poel claims not just Olympic gold, but an Olympic Record in the Men’s 5000m skate with a time of 6:08.84; almost half a second faster that runner-up Patrick Roest.

Nils’ skating career will go down in history. His world records in both 5,000m and 10,000m speed skating still stand, but in the weeks following the Beijing games, he further cemented his place in history. 

Announcing his retirement from professional skating, van der Poel also published a 62-page manifesto, detailing the exact training he followed for the two and a half years leading up to his Olympic sweep of the 5 and 10K skate. The paper is eloquently titled How to skate a 10K … and also half a 10k. It was an exposé unlike anything any Olympic athlete had published before.

If you’re at all like me, you might’ve seen this news go by in February 2022. Reading How to skate had been on my to-do list for nearly two years. If you, too, saw this news go by but have yet to dive into van der Poel’s training log, perhaps I can pique your interest enough to finally cross this one off the to-do list.

Running in cold and gray winter months

A Brief History of the World’s Best Speed Skater

For those of us in the running world, van der Poel’s background is excitingly familiar. Prior to his Olympic bid, Nils was an avid trail and ultrarunner, completing multiple running races ranging from eight hours to multiple days in length as part of his “Aerobic Season”. During the late stages of his aerobic training phase, he’d log anywhere from six to eight hours a day on the bike, but he notes “If I would’ve been able to run, which I wasn’t due to injury, I would have lowered the hours a little [from 33h weekly on the bike] and settled for 25h weekly”.

Van der Poel also discusses his non-linear trajectory to speed skating greatness. A promising high school skater, he became burnt out and entered the military. He notes some losses in sport-specific fitness during this time but the significant base of strength he developed during this period.

"Most of us know that every athlete’s path to success looks different, and so trying to extrapolate too much for van der Poel’s training is a risky proposition."

What to make of "How to skate"?

There’s no part of me that looks at the training of the world’s greatest long track speed skater and thinks it represents the successful formula for endurance fitness development. Most of us know that every athlete’s path to success looks different, and so trying to extrapolate too much for van der Poel’s training is a risky proposition. At the same time, to close our minds entirely to the insights and experience that such an elite athlete is freely sharing, would be a tremendous waste of opportunity.

There’s a lot of interesting commentary in the paper on how and why van der Poel chose the strategy he did that’s well worth the read, but below is some of what I found most interesting about How to skate.

“5-2 Training”

Every week, van der Poel aimed to train for 5 consecutive days and to follow that with a minimum of two days complete rest. He highlights what he didn’t qualify as a rest day as well. He didn’t consider travel days to or from events rest days, and he didn’t consider strength, stretching, or any form of what we’d traditionally call “active recovery”, rest. If he was sick or tired or observed he was underperforming, he would take additional rest.

I think what van der Poel’s 5-2 training serves to remind us is that reaching our greatest fitness is about maximizing fitness adaptation. It is not about the number of hours training or number of sessions per week (or per month). It isn’t about the people doing more or less than you. It is about doing training sessions that reliably and efficiently yield the fitness we seek, and then resting however much we need in order to adapt to that training.

Bicycles with mountains - training aerobic development

Training Phases

Van der Poel discusses starting far from competition season with an aerobic base season, in which he did almost exclusively low intensity, aerobic training, and often for 30+ hours per week. He’d then transition to monstrous volumes of threshold training with workouts like 4x30 minutes and 6x15 minutes. And he would do these kinds of sessions EVERY DAY. Next, he’d progress to what he called the Specific season (what many of us would also call it Competition season). During this period, he refused to skate any slower than goal race pace (which was 30 seconds for a 400m lap, or 2-minute mile pace). He would do race pace skating laps completely alone, and again train like this EVERY DAY. He would choose to do his warmup on the bike rather than on skates so that whenever he was skating, he was skating with race-like technique and focus. Finally, following a period of competition, van der Poel proceeded with a short “Aerobic Season 2.0” in which he dropped all intensity training to hedge against overtraining risk, but he found that he could still train a ton during this period as long as it was at an aerobic base intensity.

Van der Poel’s training approach highlights, and he himself notes, that there is a distinct lack of progression within each training phase. Every workout is the same within each phase, with no changes in speed or time-at-intensity during the majority of each season. Conventional wisdom would have most of us worried about plateauing fitness with this approach, but his approach indeed demonstrates that it may take longer than many of us think to hit this threshold of diminishing returns.

"If you’re listening to the body when it whispers to you, you don't have to hear it scream" - Nils van der Poel

What’s most capturing to me about van der Poel’s training seasons is the completeness of his transitions. During his aerobic season, he included ZERO formal threshold or intensity training. He just logged hours at a nonchalant effort, for months on end. In threshold season, do the minimum warmup/cooldown possible and train at the same moderate intensity day after day, typically without any loss of performance due to fatigue. Then it’s all about race pace and nothing else; skate a 30-second lap or don’t skate at all. And in all of his 2.5 years of training towards the Olympic goal, no more than a handful of strength training sessions. 

The key to the success of this strategy that we can all take home is really the importance of monitoring performance. If his heart rate was abnormally low, if he felt junky, if his blood lactate was lower than normal, he would not force the session. “If you’re listening to the body when it whispers to you, you don't have to hear it scream”, van der Poel quotes.

Weight Gain in the Aerobic Season

Van der Poel notes that during his highest volume training phases he experienced some unique phenomena, like eating 7,000 calories a day, and “[...] usually I was experiencing a food coma and hunger at the same time. It’s quite a weird feeling.” He mentions that he’d usually gain up to 5kg during this training phase, which he notes was an acceptable temporary sacrifice in order to assure that he was eating enough to meet his energy needs.

That’s backwards from the intuition of a lot of endurance athletes. Many who train and compete in endurance athletics move to aerobic training in periods where they aim to shed a few extra pounds. Even if we’re under-fueled, the conventional logic goes, we can still putter along at our low intensities to burn some extra calories. It begs the question: is it better to fuel our bodies and train lots, or to deprive it of fuel and squeak out what training we can?

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