Nils van der Poel's How to Skate a 10k


Much of the writing on performance lacks credibility. Ask the internet and you'll find business advice from first-time founders, life guidance from living trainwrecks, growth hacks from people with a few thousand followers, and hundreds of variations on the same posturing trap.

Even if spared the dreck, I often feel that an author's most notable accomplishment is publishing the book I'm reading in the first place. And I naturally wonder if the truly exceptional performers are just getting on with the work without bothering with any of this. As the saying goes, those who can't do teach.

So I feel vindicated to see the themes I care about appear in Nils van der Poel's How to Skate a 10k (link).

If you've been living under a rock like me, Nils van der Poel just set the world record for the men's 10,000 meter skate, and his new book reveals his training regimen and his approach to becoming the best in the world. While it's a book for speed skaters, 10k also hits on the fundamentals of life and craft, as most of these books seem to do.

Practice what you want to improve

The book's first insight is its most important:

[T]he main idea of my training program was that you will become good at whatever it is that you train.

You get better at LeetCode problems by doing LeetCode problems; at interviews by doing interviews; at shipping projects by shipping projects; and at starting companies by starting companies. Cross-training can be useful, but if we avoid what we're really after because we feel afraid or unprepared, then we're just wasting time.

Growth mindset by embracing the challenge

Following along, I love this quote, which is pure growth mindset:

True self confidence comes from experience. My very race specific ice sessions supplied me with the facts of my capacity and the trust in myself. I wasn’t mentaly [sic] strong as a kid, I hated to compete ever since I started speed skating, I truly hated it. It is still a little anxiety provoking for me, I think it always will be when I test myself in an activity that I really care about. But today it’s a walk in the park compared to when I was a kid. This development was mainly acquired through continuous voluntary confrontation with the challenge (read that sentence again and emphasis voluntary). It was first when I understood that, or felt like, I volunteered, that I was able to compete with a free mind.

Continuous voluntary confrontation is also the basis of exposure and response prevention therapy, which I mentioned in my post on unlearning perfectionism.

Maximizing the process

Another on following the process and keeping things 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.

Building the habits for success

This whole section is so wonderful that I'll quote the entire thing. First, on making success a habit:

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 reducing stress elsewhere so that it could be applied to the training, specifically by making the environment pleasant and energizing:

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 taking responsibility (not blame) for every problem:

Also, I always aimed to solve problems as soon as they occured in order not to ache and waste energy on things not worthy of my attention. I was the one held responsible for solving those problems, even though my friends, family, coach etc. would help me. But since I held myself responsible for the solution to resolve itself, I wasn’t able to be upset that other people had not solved my problems for me. In this manner, I didn’t get stressed over other people not doing their job properly (or the way I wanted them to) and I had more energy to spend on training.

On not fixating on success or failure:

I held myself responsible for setting myself up for success, but whether or not I succeeded in the end was not only up to me. I didn’t consider losing honorably a waste of time either. Since losing didn’t scare me too much, I was relaxed and could take on even more stress and more training.

On lowering the resistance to following the habits of success:

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.

Things I'll do differently

  • I want to write longer pieces in the vein of my perfectionism post, so I've sent out pitch emails to a few magazines.

  • I don't do enough to actively reduce my day-to-day stress, so I'll spend more time deliberately relaxing by stretching, turning off devices, and doing relaxing activities like drawing. I'm also going to worry less about factors outside of my control.

  • I'll prioritize making the habits I want to practice daily easier and more fun. For example, I'll get all of my exercise clothes ready the night before so I don't have to hunt for them in the morning.