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Like many Olympic tales, this is a story that transcends sport. When Swedish speed skater Nils van der Poel toed the starting line of the 10,000m at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, he visualized that he’d already won. After his expected smashing of the competition – earning a world record in the process – van der Poel told everyone how he had done it. In a comprehensive guide called, “How to skate a 10k… and also a half 10k.” van der Poel detailed his training from May 2019 to February 2022.
In this document, van der Poel (unrelated to that van der Poel, by the way) bore all. Not only did he include his day-by-day training calendar, but he also penned a personalized story that was much a diary as a clinical study.
There is a lot to glean from this article – it is 62 pages long – let’s look at it in the context of cycling. It’s no secret that elite-level cyclists and speed skaters often trade sports for a season, and you may have heard the name Eric Heiden, who won five gold medals at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, and then co-founded the 7-Eleven Cycling Team before going on to ride the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France.
What’s baffling about Nils van der Poel’s training is that you’d never guess that he was a speed skater. Based on this training profile, he rides a bike 98% of the time, in addition to skiing, running, and weight lifting. Speed skating is almost an afterthought, although it remains his focus.
Let’s take a closer look at the training plan of a professional cycli… I mean an Olympic speed skater.
Who is Nils van der Poel?
To put this all into context, van der Poel is both talented and dedicated. The casual demeanor in which he describes his training regime is nothing short of remarkable. Van der Poel said that after a left the Swedish army in May 2019, he was “decent in the gym squatting 125kg,” and could run 10km in 40 minutes (6:24/mile pace). By the time he transitioned to training focused on speed skating, he was starting with a very strong fitness base.
Why van der Poel rides 30 hours/week
Van der Poel’s overarching training principle is to develop a strong aerobic base before anything else. This allows him to “perform more high-intensity work than ever before,” and that is why he didn’t even compete in speed skating from May 2019 to August 2020. With the Winter Olympics less than two years away, van der Poel was on his bike for 4-7 hours per day.
The reason for this is that van der Poel sees 10km speed skating performance as the result of two factors: “(1) Competition speed capacity, and (2) aerobic capacity.” In other words, it is your ability to go fast, and your ability to go long and recover.
In order to increase his aerobic capacity, van der Poel began his Aerobic training season as soon as the speed skating season ended (around February) and continued through the end of July. There was no off-season for van der Poel, but he did take two consecutive rest days, each and every week.
Van der Poel follows a unique 5-2 training program in which he completes five consecutive days of long, hard training, followed by two days of complete rest. The main reason for this is that van der Poel wanted to live a normal life. He wanted to go out with his friends on weekends, and maybe have a few beers. In the world of endurance sports and ‘marginal gains,” I think there’s something to be said about an Olympic champion who takes two days off each week.
This substantial rest helped keep van der Poel motivated for his Monday training sessions, which were 7-hour bike rides during the Aerobic season. Throughout each training period, van der Poel engaged in many different forms of exercise including cycling, XC skiing, running, and ski mountaineering. With an occasional speed skating session.
For the Aerobic season, van der Poel set a goal of 33 hours/weeks of cycling…in five days. He would complete three 7-hour rides, and two 6-hour rides, substituting equivalent hours of running or XC skiing if possible. To get through the mental slogs, van der Poel sometimes rode before breakfast, stopped for a long lunch, or ate candy to stay fueled. He also partook in endurance challenges to spike his motivation, such as a 600km (372.8mi) bike ride, or a 5-day running stage race of 280km (174mi). Casual.
As with all great training plans, van der Poel followed the principle of progressive overload in both training volume and intensity. He worked his way up to 30+ hours of weekly aerobic training and began at 200w (2.4w/kg) at his aerobic threshold. By the end of the “Aerobic season,” he was pushing 250w (3w/kg) for 6-7 hours. For context, van der Poel said he was heaviest in October, around 85kg (187 lbs.), before cutting down to ~80kg (176 lbs.) by January. The rest of the year, he stayed around 82-83kg (180-182 lbs.) to achieve the best balance between strength and bodyweight.
To maintain his energy levels during the massive five-day training blocks, van der Poel ate around 7,000 kcal per day, and was sometimes “drinking whip cream during sessions.” Another side note that van der Poel added was that if he wanted to go on a trip with friends from Thursday through Sunday, he would fit his 30 hours of training into Monday through Wednesday – that’s 10 hours of training per day.
There wasn’t much variety during van der Poel’s Aerobic season, as each day (Monday-Friday) consisted of six to seven hours of cycling at 250-260w. Simple as that. After van der Poel progressed through the “Aerobic season,” he would then move into the “Threshold season,” followed by the Specific season, and finally the “Aerobic season 2.0.”
Lasting 10 weeks, from the beginning of August, van der Poel’s “Threshold season” consisted of some of the most horrid bike workouts I’ve ever seen. He decreased his training volume to 25 hours per week and tried to do as many hours at threshold effort as possible. It all began with 6x8min threshold sessions a few times per week but quickly progressed to 4x30min and 6x15min.
These threshold sessions are not done once or twice a week, they are done on five consecutive days, Monday through Friday, every week during van der Poel’s Threshold season. What is van der Poel’s “threshold,” you may be wondering? Somewhere around 390-420w (4.7w/kg–5.1w/kg).
Here’s an example threshold session: 5min at 200w, 6min at 260w, 5x20min at 405w with 4min rest, 3h at 220w.
Based on the workouts and overall context, I’m guessing that van der Poel’s “threshold” work is performed just under FTP. Normally, it would be impossible for an average cyclist to complete this much time at FTP. But for an Olympic champion, I wouldn’t put it past him.
What really stands out to me is the tiny warm-up and short rest periods used by van der Poel. Many cycling coaches prescribe long periods of rest between long (15+ minute) intervals, but van der Poel keeps the rest periods as short as possible.
After more than nine months of aerobic and threshold training on the bike, van der Poel is finally ready to speed skate. The Specific season and “Aerobic Season 2.0” consist of mostly speed skating sessions and easy cycling sessions of two to three hours at 210w (2.5w/kg).
‘Specific season’ and ‘Aerobic Season 2.0’
Before his speed skating workouts, van der Poel would warm up on a bike trainer in his skating speed suit. I’m not kidding. This serves a practical purpose, and that is because van der Poel cannot warm up on the ice before a speed skating competition – the rink is being used by other competitors, so he has no choice but to sit on the sidelines. The bike trainer is the perfect solution, allowing him to warm up before touching the ice.
Van der Poel uses the same bike warmup for training as he does in competition: 5min at 200w, 6min at 260w, then 3x30sec at 400w with 30sec rest, then 2min at 400w before running to the ice eight minutes the start of the session or race.
The “Specific Season” includes the beginning of competition season, and only lasts for a few weeks. In order to peak for his biggest race of the season (i.e., Winter Olympics), van der Poel returned to strictly aerobic training after the first World Cup block in December. According to van der Poel, this “easy” period allowed him to maintain a healthy balance between training fitness and peak form and is the reason that he can skip the off-season after competition season has ended.
For the “Aerobic Season 2.0,” van der Poel does six hours at 210w (2.5w/kg) from Monday through Thursday, with just one 10k skating session on Friday followed by three hours on the bike at 210w. What about the weekend? Rest, of course.
Nils van der Poel is truly a remarkable athlete, not only for his physical abilities but also for his dedication and mental fortitude in such a structured and high-volume training program. The Swede’s aerobic training rides are longer than most professional cyclists’, and his threshold training sessions are like no other. His 5/2 training schedule is quite intriguing, and there is something to be said about his desire to be like a normal human.
Van der Poel himself warns readers of trying this training program themselves. Instead, he reminds us to start slow, and increase the training one step at a time. It took van der Poel many years to get to this point – the point of training 30+ hours a week – and this is not a training program that you can try out for fun.
Alas, human curiosity may get the best of us, and I know that I, for one, will certainly try one of his workouts. I’m eyeing up that 5x20min threshold workout for my training. Nevertheless, it’s probably good to listen to an Olympic athlete who rose to the top of their sport. Nils van der Poel knows the importance of rest, and he mentions the “Limit” many times throughout his article, likely referring to the feeling of overtraining.
Stay smart, train hard, and keep it fun. I’m sure Nils van der Poel would agree.
I wanted to share my favorite quote from van der Poel’s journal, a quote which is simultaneously funny and impactful.
“The biggest challenge of my training program was to be able to keep wanting to do it. Motivation was key. If something kept me motivated I considered it to be good. Sometimes all I needed was a beer, or eight beers.”