Link to the document discussed here. It's FREE.
Whilst this short book is not the training log of a runner, having spent a few days going over Nils’ words and training records, there are a lot of take always that I feel are transferable to running and in fact, to life in general.
I uploaded the freely available pdf document to my ReMarkable 2 tablet (if you haven’t seen this device, you should take a look at it) and I scribbled notes all over it. I’ll try to condense my scribbles into something coherent.
For those that don’t know, Nils is a Swedish speed skater. He holds the World Records for the 5000m and 10,000m events. He’s also the Olympic champion. He skated 5km in 6:01:56. It’s an unbelievable speed really, to a non-skater like me.
After the Olympics he posted what I feel is an instant classic - his detailed training records for the 3 years leading up to the Winter Olympic Games in February 2022, as well as his commentary as to why he trains as he does. It’s a fascinating insight into what it takes to be a champion, to be great, to excel at your chosen sport, and most likely, a set of guidelines for life in general.
- THE BASICS
Nils states from the outset that he is training to be a speed skater, nothing else. He came out of the military decently fit, but states in the second paragraph “Instead of training to stay healthy, fit or athletic, I started training to become a speedskater. there’s a vital difference.” He broke down the sport to it’s basics, and decided that the best approach was to build a HUGE aerobic base. He built a massive foundation with one of the most boring schedules I can possibly imagine, but he was dedicated.
2. PRACTICE WHAT YOU WANT TO IMPROVE
“The main idea of my training program was that you will become good at whatever it is that you train.” This bears repeating. If you want to be good at running hills, run hills. If you want to be good at descending, bomb the descents. If you want to be a power lifter, you’re gonna have to lift some heavy shit. It’s not rocket science, but one hears about the myriads of ultra runners doing track workouts in the weeks before UTMB in Chamonix. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.
3. DO A LOT OF EASY TRAINING; VOLUME IS KING
In building his aerobic base - “aerobic season” as he called it, also calling it “food season”, he did 5 days a week on the bike trainer. These sessions were 6 to 7 hours long!! On his bike trainer! This training was also ‘easy’, as he was spinning at around 220W, well below his threshold of over 400 Watts. So he was spinning along for 6 or 7 hours daily at just over 50% of his threshold power. The running take-away? Easy training is vital. And lots of it. As much as you can tolerate both physically and mentally if you want to be a champion, but for most of us mere mortals, you can’t go far wrong by doing a higher volume of easy activity.
He took 2 rest days a week, so it was 5 on, 2 off, and if he felt fatigued, he just took extra days off without worrying. Don’t stress if you’re tired, take a day off!
4. REMOVE EXTRANEOUS DISTRACTIONS; PRIORITIZE SLEEP
Van Der Poel was focused entirely on his training, except on his days off, when he hung out with his friends. He went to bed early - mentioning 4pm at one point (!!). His instagram account is non-existent. He didn’t go to the gym much, and he did as little additional strength training as he felt he could get away with ie almost none! He didn’t bother with any stretching as he felt he could spent his time better: “If you need to stretch then go ahead and bend over.” I’m a big fan of strength training, but likely runners should aim to find the ‘lowest effective dose’. I also think that running tends to break one down a lot more than cycling and skating, so this may not be the best advice for runners.
5. KEEP IT SIMPLE
“My training program was very simple and therefore very robust. It was cheap and reliable. Not fancy nor extraordinary. I tried not to involve things that I could not control. I did not become reliant on equipment that I could not easily access. I did not make plans that I did not understand. I did not follow a culture of buying a bike too expensive to bring about in the rain. To me speedskating was just a one legged squat, repeated over and over during maximum heart rate. It was all just very simple and I kept it that way.” Nothing fancy.
6. FUEL, FUEL, FUEL
He obviously needed a lot of fuel to sustain all of this training. He ate a lot of ice cream and was even consuming whipped cream on the bike just to get in calories - round 7000 kcals/day. As far as alcohol went, he states I drank beers like any other 25 year old would, during aerobic season. With his training he states “Motivation was key. If something kept me motivated I considered it to be good. Sometimes all I needed was a beer, or eight beers.” Takeaways for runners? You gotta fuel the training, and beer tastes good.
7. CREATE AN ENVIRONMENT
This whole section is absolutely wonderful. I’m just going to quote the whole thing here.
“My job as an athlete was simple: set myself up for success. I could not control all aspects of the outcome of the competitions. But the things I could control I made sure to give an effort to control, at least to the extent I was willing to go to.”
On stress reduction:
“I believed that the more stress stimulus I could give my body through training the more my body would develop. But the thing is, I could only withstand a certain level of total stress in my life. If I had problems in my life outside of training this would increase the total amount of stress on me and so I had to drop the amount of training I could perform, in order to drop the total stress volume to a comprehensible level. So, therefore, in order to be able to train at a high level I also needed a good social environment. I tried to only work with people I liked, I was fortunate enough to be able to choose this to some extent.”
On removing friction:
“I aimed to lower the resistance as much as possible, by creating a smooth environment, free of hassle. It is not the one who suffers the most during preseason who prospers when the winter comes, but he who gets the most aerobically fit. I wasn’t proud when I hated my session because I knew that in the long run I risked starting to drop hours if they weren’t fun enough. Doing boring sessions I considered to be a failure of making the training stimulating. I assessed this issue. For example, I hated bike trainer rides, so I bought Gore-tex clothing, mudflaps and spike tiers (for the winter); I did not enjoy running in the fields, so I moved to the mountains. I set myself up for success by regarding my weaknesses.”
8. GET SPECIFIC CLOSER TO YOUR EVENT
There are a lot of other life lessons in here, too many to unwrap in a short blog post, but one final takeaway. After his huge Aerobic season, Nils did an 8 week threshold block (mostly on the bike) and amazingly, he only put his skates on a few weeks before the start of the season! And all of his on ice sessions were done at race pace. It doesn’t get more specific than that. As runners, if you’re training for a 5km, you need to do some speed work as you approach your event, and if you’re planning a mountain 100 miler, as you approach your event, practice hiking, climb some mountains, slow down and do some long runs. Night runs are valuable too.
I’ll leave it there. Go read the paper, it’s a fascinating document from a great champion, and a relatively short read; also it's not some influencer offering you the next great life-hack!