If you're anything like me, you know next to nothing about speed skating. But for fans of the sport, Nils van der Poel is a legend. Among a long list of accolades, the Swedish Olympian took home gold medals in the 5k and 10k distances in Beijing and also holds the world record in both events.
All of which is fascinating for winter sports aficionados, but why am I mentioning van der Poel on a website for entrepreneurs? Because van der Poel has not only been incredibly successful in his chosen area of excellence, he's also been incredibly open about how he managed to become so successful. Some of his lessons are just as valuable for business excellence as they are for those who want to go really, really fast around an oval of ice.
Everything you ever wanted to know about how an Olympian practices
The whole world sees the amazing athletic feats at the Olympics, but we rarely get to learn much about the hard work and struggles that make such achievements possible. Van der Poel is the exception to that general rule. A few weeks ago, the skater published an epic 62-page guide outlining exactly how he trains.
"I like to think that I earned my success. I also wish for the sport to keep developing and for my records to be broken. I will not be the one to break 6.00,00 nor 12.30,00, but maybe someone else will. For those who might want to, I wrote this document," he writes in the intro. He may have intended his opus for young speed skaters, but it's drawing wider attention.
I came across it on, of all places, the economics blog Marginal Revolution, where George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen called it "an excellent piece on how to practice, ice skating is the accidental topic." When I read it, I saw why.
There's of course lots in the piece about how to improve your aerobic capacity and recovery times (just reading about them made me exhausted), but van der Poel also offers insight into how he manages his time and builds mental resilience. These insights could apply to just about anyone looking to accomplish difficult and impressive things.
The 5-2 Rule
A case in point is van der Poel's 5-2 rule. It's not fancy. Unlike a lot of other professional athletes, he resolved to train like crazy five days a week and then completely step away from skating on the weekends. In short, he had a normal workweek. That may sound easy, but for van der Poel, and for a great many workaholic overachievers, it can be a huge challenge.
"Forty-eight hours of no training weekly. For some it's a dream, for some it's a nightmare," van der Poel writes. "A lot of athletes are not used to having all this spare time and, to get accustomed to it, a hobby and some friends are needed."
Van der Poel confesses, "I did not rest and did not explore myself as a teenager. Instead I identified fully with the sport and its culture." That meant when he later decided to adopt a 5-2 training schedule, "it was not an easy thing to all of a sudden start living like a normal person." He had to actively spend time figuring out how to spend his free time and meeting new people.
All of which may sound familiar to those with obsessive tendencies. When you're captivated by big dreams, it can be easy to let the other parts of life fall by the wayside. Relentless focus may seem like it will help you reach your goals, but van der Poel writes eloquently about why forcing himself away from training on the weekends actually helped him be a better skater.
There were the physical benefits of extended rest and recovery, of course (and athletes can read a ton more about that in the complete document), but for those with goals that are less physical and more mental, other advantages are worth stressing.
"Creating meaning and value in life outside of the speed skating oval helped me get through tough training periods. When the training wasn't going great, perhaps something else in life did and that cheered me up. Later on, when I became more successful and there was a media hype around me, the normal part of my life helped me keep myself grounded. I knew who I was and I was not just a speed skater," van der Poel writes.
He continues: "I believe that it was the value I created outside of the sport, and not the success within it, that made it worthwhile to live in this manner; to face the horrific fact that only one of us will win the competition and all the others will lose; that injury or sickness can sabotage four years of work. It was not my success that justified my sacrifices, it was my friends, and I owed it to them to try to live up to my full potential."
Having a life outside of his work made van der Poel more resilient (if you're the kind that needs studies to believe anything, here are a few backing him up). It also made him braver and more determined as an athlete, which improved his performance.
"I was very distracted by the multifaceted lifestyle of mine up until the 2018 OG. But, as it became clear to me why and how I wanted to skate, I learned to handle the distractions, I learnt to apply discipline and it made me free," he explains. "After learning how to master discipline, the meaning I created in my life, outside of my sport, no longer distracted me, instead it made me comfortable with the idea of losing, and so speed skating became much more relaxed and a lot more fun.... It also made me more determined to work hard, because training was not my last resort, it was my voluntary choice endured at my own conditions."
If a gold medalist can manage it, so can you
This is all of course a beautiful and generous glimpse of what it's really like to be an elite athlete. But it may also sound eerily familiar to a lot of you strivers out there who feel tempted to allow your obsessions to become your whole identity. Van der Poel's training guide is one of the best explanations I've ever read of why that's not a good idea.
Being a well-rounded person isn't a distraction. It's a source of strength, resilience, courage, and joy. Which is why everyone, no matter how ambitious, should consider sticking to the spirit, if not the letter, of van der Poel's 5-2 rule. If a gold medalist in the run-up to the Olympics can manage to find time to be a human being outside of work, so can the rest of us.