My new favorite athlete might be Nils van der Poel. Heck, he might also be my favorite writer. After winning the Olympic gold medal in the 5000m and 10,000m (where he also set the world record), he published a PDF called “How To Skate A 10k …. and also half a 10k” that is simultaneously fascinating and funny, self-confident and self-depreciating. He gives us all the details. It’s an athlete emptying the contents of their suitcase of courage onto the floor, and saying “take a look, see what you find.” It’s revolutionary.
My guess is that this 62-page PDF becomes for endurance coaches what Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” became prior to the American Revolution, or something by Voltaire in the European courts–passed around as a provocation or confirmation, or perhaps a mix of both depending on your perspective. Or maybe it’s more like 50 Cent’s mix-tapes in late 1990s New York. It’s somewhere between training guide and manifesto and freestyle rap. As you can tell, I am extremely HERE FOR IT.
Let’s break it down! A few disclaimers. First, I am not an expert on the sport of speed-skating, unless watching 10 hours of it every four years makes me an expert (unlike snowboarding, where I watch 2 tricks and then feel very passionately about the necessity for judges to reward triple corks). In speed skating, van der Poel’s 10k world record is 12 minutes, 30 seconds, so it mixes aerobic principles with speed, thus should be applicable to running. But it’s also a unique beast of an event, with a different type of power generation more akin to cycling, even as it uses the same cellular-level processes. I apologize if I misstep at any point.
Second, I’m taking his word for it. I imagine that in the subculture of speed skating, there are rivalries that make the House of Representatives look like The Great British Bake-Off. So this summary is from a neutral fan, ignorant to some of the complex dynamics and training theory in the sport. Plus, there is not always perfect overlap between what athletes say they do and what athletes actually do.
Finally, as with all training theory (including last week’s article on the Norwegian training principles), be cautious when interpolating from outliers. A firecracker and an intercontinental ballistic missile both involve explosions, but users should not try to apply the same operating manual. Similarly, we all are humans with the same overarching physiology, but some of us can make a little bit of noise while others can destroy worlds.
Time to dig into one of the cooler training guides of all time!
RELATED:Aerobic Build Weeks
Principle One: Develop a massive aerobic base
He pulls no punches in assessing what makes a champion. “The physical ability that enabled my success was a very strong aerobic base.” Immediately after the competition season ended, for many months, van der Poel applied the theory that “more is more.” The rationale was two-fold. First, even though his events were less than 13 minutes long, that is still largely aerobic. Second, aerobic development would allow him to do more intense sessions later, while recovering from them faster. To put it in the language of physiologists, the aerobic focus allowed him to develop mitochondria, capillaries, and muscle fiber efficiency to their maximum extent. Later on, that would improve how his cells processed and shuttled lactate, and how his muscles resisted fatigue even at very hard efforts.
Interestingly, he “purified the aerobic season.” That equated to a mix of biking, running, cross-country skiing, and skimo without intense sessions (though he did allow for the leeway to add light threshold work at the end of the aerobic period, and sometimes sprinkled within it). But here’s the wild part: in 2021, he built up to 33 hours a week of cycling on just 5 days of training (we’ll get to that later). Sometimes, he’d take 4-day trips with friends and fit 30 hours of training in just 3 days. Due to a pelvic injury, he couldn’t run during that time–if he was fully healthy, he postulates that he would have reduced training volume to a slightly more human (but still inhuman) 25 hours a week.
While these hours were aerobic, they were not slow. He would often do 6-7 hour bikes at 250 watts average–equating to a relatively low percentage of his functional threshold power (which is around 1-hour power, for him over 400 watts), but still with plenty of tension on muscle fibers. He says that he could have added some intervals and reduced his workload, or even some sprints to start the week, but his injury prevented it. Maybe that was a blessing in disguise.
During the aerobic season, he would set intermediate goals for motivation, like a 100km ultramarathon, or a 5-day stage race, or a 600km bike ride. He says “I’ve only ever cried after my own sporting event once, and that was tears of joy as I completed my 100-mile run.” That sense of motivation and purpose during the aerobic grind helped him stack tons of aerobic bricks up over time. Check out this sample week he provides for a window into the making of a legend.
|2h XC ski
Running is a unique challenge due to impact. If a runner tried to do anything close to these hours, they’d break into a million little pieces, then those pieces would be ground down to a fine powder, which could be mixed with water for a protein shake of lost dreams. In addition, the demands of biomechanics and running economy make there be diminishing returns with extra-high volume even if an athlete can stay healthy. And an athlete that only runs slowly would likely just become slow unless they reinforce some faster running. A “purified aerobic season” probably needs speed development unless an athlete is naturally very fast (and likely in their early 20s too).
Keep putting bricks in the wall like van der Poel, with most miles in zone 1. But don’t try to put all the bricks in the wall at once.
Principle Two: He periodized aerobic development into four seasons, with aerobic season followed by threshold season (10 weeks)
After months of that aerobic grind, van der Poel’s capillaries, mitochondria, muscle fibers, and metabolic system could be hooked up to the energy grid and solve the climate crisis. But they probably wouldn’t be race-ready for the massive power outputs necessary to set a world record. Time to throw some lactate into the aerobic fire (see last week’s article for the physiological rationale).
For 10 weeks, he “dropped the hours to 25 hours weekly and tried to do as many of those hours on threshold as possible.” He completed those threshold intervals under 4 mmol lactate, an effort that most advanced athletes could sustain for over an hour when fresh. So these intervals are not easy, but they also aren’t excessively hard, though the accumulation of time at threshold likely gets very difficult muscularly by the end of a session.
He started with sessions like 6 x 8 minutes at threshold to build into it (a mere mortal like me would consider this pants-crappingly hard). As he adapted, he attempted to increase the load to 8 hours a week of total threshold work with 5 days of consecutive workouts, which probably begins to hit a physiological limit of what anyone could do (he confirms that when he tried more, it backfired with overreaching). The sessions culminated in 4 x 30 minutes with 5 minutes rest, or 9 x 10 minutes with 3 minutes rest, all over 400 watts. Interestingly, if he wasn’t able to sustain the power targets, he considered canceling the session and taking 2 days of rest. Finally, he kept volume high by adding time after the threshold workouts, but he lowered the output to 220 watts from 250 to 265 watts during the base period to allow for more recovery.
Check out this sample week if you want to make like Kurtz and dive into the heart of world-class athletic darkness with me. Once you see this, you cannot unsee this.
4 x 30m 401W w/5m rest
5 x 20m 405W w/4m rest
6 x 15m 408W w/4m rest
4 x 20m 405W w/4m rest
9 x 10m 406W w/3m rest
For runners, a similar approach would be what the Norwegians are doing–2 days of double threshold workouts, a hills/intervals day, and a speed/strides day. A runner that stacks this quantity of threshold work would likely have so much muscular fatigue that they end up running the intervals slowly, creating a strong aerobic ox that can plow the countryside, but needs way too long to do it. Most approaches with running cap intervals around 6-10 minutes (and often much shorter, with the Norwegians doing some threshold sessions broken up into 1-minute intervals), to prevent athletes from slowing down. For example, a bigger session from the threshold-focused Norwegian system would be 5 x 6 minutes.
Of note is that van der Poel is not doing doubles, just massive singles. That underscores how the unique demands of running involve special considerations with distribution of volume and intensity.
Principle Three: Build race-specific speed development on top of that aerobic base
After that monstrous threshold block, he entered specific season a few weeks before his races. Now, I want to put in some narration to add some more disclaimers. Disclaimer me baby one more time. Van der Poel is clearly a beast endurance athlete that could likely excel at many sports. But while those workouts are legendary for a skater, they are not uncommon for a world-class cyclist. So how can he stay off skates for so much of the year and become dominant? Is it just work ethic mixed with ridiculous talent?
He addresses that concern in the very first paragraph of the whole PDF. “A friend of mine thinks that my success is mostly based on me being a talent. That the training plan that devoured me wouldn’t give anyone else the same results. Perhaps he’s right, perhaps he’s not. I actually think that he is a little right and a little wrong.”
OK, back to the good stuff. Now, his cells and muscles had mitochondria, capillaries, general strength, and fantastic lactate shuttling, all of which are also key in events that are much harder than threshold. Time to light the fire with specific training.
He completely cut away any of that threshold work, and started putting on skates. Fascinatingly, he never skated slower than competition speed. Those italics are the words starting to fall on their faces from being awestruck. His rationale had to do with speed-skating specific principles related to form and the importance of saving energy for the hard work. He continued aerobic work on the bike, but now down around 200 watts, under half of his threshold. The training amounted to 5 consecutive days of interval work each week, with the key 10k session being 3 x 4 minutes at race pace with 80 seconds rest, 30 minutes easy on the bike, then another 3 x 4 minutes at race pace with 80 seconds rest. He followed that up with 2.5 to 3 hours of easy biking for all 5 days. If his output dropped even 0.3 seconds per lap, he’d consider stopping the session and adding rest.
Interestingly, this type of session overlaps with some of the research on VO2 max work, which shows 4 minutes is a sweet-spot interval length for highly advanced athletes. This approach takes a stunning aerobic base, plus talent. If anyone else tries this many repeated sessions, it’s probably like seeing the girl in The Ring, and you overtrain 7 days later.
For runners, a lesson is to avoid focusing on fatigue resistance at the expense of making higher outputs take less energy. Going hard, but having that effort equate to lower outputs due to fatigue, is a quick path to just getting a bit slower overall.
A cool wrinkle is that he’d intentionally induce overreaching before big events, followed by a 6-12 day taper. The overreach involved a few days of rest, then the 10k session most days at the start, followed by 5K sessions–2 x (3 x 2 minutes) faster with 1:20 recovery between intervals and 10 minutes on the bike easy between sets. This is rather anaerobic, possibly like a pro track runner hammering fast 800s at 3k effort. About a week before competition, he really shut down for the taper, which included 3 days of rest mixed with an easy 30-minute bike, and 2 days of sharpening skating with 1K at 5K effort.
Maybe there’s a lesson there for running tapers, where athletes might excel with the final week being dialed back immensely. Or maybe it’s totally different due to the role of biomechanics. The taper almost looks similar to some old training logs from Roger Bannister prior to running the first 4-minute mile back in 1954, mixed with some modern understandings of functional overreaching. This is so cool!
Principle Four: Continually rebuild aerobic base during competition season
After the specific season began, van der Poel would do an “aerobic season 2.0” for a few weeks where he’d do 4 days of 6 hour bikes and one of those 10k skating sessions plus 3 hours biking. Even around races, he tried to avoid neglecting the aerobic system. In one of the greatest lines in the history of training theory, he says: “An easy way to add extra aerobic hours during competition season was to squeeze them in after races. I celebrated my 5k [world record] for three hours with a champagne bottle on my bike.”
Similarly, runners should keep most training easy year-round, and consider doing aerobic build weeks as needed.
Principle Five: Do not sacrifice aerobic training for other activities
That’s a lot of training time, someone might think. How does he make time for all of the little things like strength and stretching?
He didn’t, at least not in a systematic way. In another piece of fantastic writing, van der Poel describes streamlining his training life. “I completely cut what I thought were the sub-optimal sessions in order to increase the optimal ones.” That meant limiting things like core and drills in favor of putting in the monotonous work. As he says, “Those ‘prehab’ sessions I believe should be approached with an attitude of ‘how little of this is enough?’”
Given the injury risk of running, that probably wouldn’t work–you should likely do some strength training, even if the routine is a few minutes a week. But limiting excess stress is a good lesson for everyone. The goal is not to get good at lifting or core work, it’s to support faster and healthier running.
Principle Six: Take rest days, often 2 per week
If you’ve read this far, you probably saw Chekhov’s gun introduced at the start of the article but not commented on yet. TWO REST DAYS A WEEK?! I think I am known as a big fan of rest (23% of the days of the year), but even I think that’s a lot. What’s the rationale?
It’s a mix of physiology and psychology. He didn’t train at all during rest days, instead just living a normal life with friends. It made him excited for the coming week of epicness. He reset his hormones, rested his muscles, turned the fire down to a simmer so he didn’t burn himself alive. But perhaps most importantly, he broadened his sense of self to accommodate an identity that included badass-boss athlete and well-rounded person. “I spent a lot of time figuring out what I wanted to do with all this time and it really pushed me out of my comfort zone. Creating meaning and value in life outside of the speed skating oval helped me get through tough training periods.”
He also monitored his response, particularly with power on the bike, speed on the oval, and heart rate, to make sure he was performing optimally. If numbers flagged, he rested more.
Running is a different sport, and it’s unlikely that 2 rest days in a row weekly would work since cross-training can’t take an immense amount of training volume (biking and skating have much more overlap than running and biking…or running and anything). But the general rationale with the endocrine, nervous, and musculoskeletal systems applies to all athletes.
Principle Seven: Eat lots
He describes eating around 7000 calories per day during the aerobic base season. That’s the only thing that allowed him to do the work, although he admits that it’s a challenge to eat that quantity. Interesting wrinkle: he describes that “My dental health was shit during this period from all the eating and I wish I would’ve addressed that issue earlier on in my career. Brushing my teeth three times a day was the way to go, but I realized this way too late.”
He wasn’t focusing on any specific nutrition approach. “To down all the calories I was drinking whip cream during sessions, another recurring routine was to eat potato chips after dinner until I went to bed.”
All the training in the world won’t mean shit without eating enough to fuel the work, always. In fact, recent research indicates that overtraining and underfueling are linked in most cases. And the importance of fueling goes beyond training performance, extending to overall health.
I just had a piece of fried chicken after writing that last point, and now I’m back. I also made today a bonus rest day to write the article. I may or may not become a champion, but no matter what I’ll have the endocrine system of a beast.
His training principles are such a cool formulation of classic training theory. Basic overview: Big aerobic base working into threshold strength working into specific speed, all while reinforcing the aerobic base throughout the cycles outside of the taper period. Also, brush your teeth.
Runners need to consider the specific biomechanical and musculoskeletal demands of the sport–a runner that approximates these specific principles in the same way will likely be slow or get injured or both (van der Poel himself was not the champion ultrarunner that he was champion skater and boss biker). But applying the general principles is wise for everyone, particularly the long-term emphasis on aerobic development.
Reading the PDF though, what I really think elevates van der Poel is his constant focus on learning, growing, and adapting. He mentions the saying: “If you’re listening to the body when it whispers to you, you don’t have to hear it scream.” Like the Norwegians discussed last week, he’s tuning into signals, both from quantitative sources like lactate monitors and internal metrics like exertion. He developed confidence from experience, describing a “continuous voluntary confrontation with the challenge.” Finally, he trusted himself (and his coach) to adapt as context changed.
The PDF is a snapshot of an evolving system, one that accommodates growth and responds to data that does not confirm the hypothesis. It’s infused with the humor of someone who has seen the shit of an athletic life and grown from it. He realized that “motivation is not infinite, but rather finite.” In the Olympic season, he was incredibly focused, of course. But the foundation for that focus was years of training where “having fun was a lot more important, as that made me want to keep on going.”
“And to achieve big goals I had to keep on going.”
He kept on going all right, all the way to a couple gold medals. That gold won’t shine forever, though, and he knows that, just like his training system won’t work for everyone and might not even work for him in the future. The quote that inscribes the PDF is from Carl Ljung: “It seems that all true things must change and only that which changes remains true.”
I think he’s sending a message that accepting and accommodating change is what it’s all about, including in the monotonous grind of training. And perhaps that emphasis on change is most apt for an athlete on top of a medal stand.
Because sure, those medals are shiny now. But with time, the luster will wear off, and they’ll appear a lot like two extra-large coins. A wild journey summarized by memories, growth, striving… and a couple pieces of oversized pocket change.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.