What top-tier athletes can teach you about how to structure your own life

© Tweeter Linder 2022 – All rights reserved. Photo by iStock.

The double gold medal winner in speed skating at the winter games published his training program after the event. This 62-page odyssey outlines the magic behind the scene before entering the major sports arenas. For the rest of us, the paper is a fantastic read with a portfolio of ideas that can make us perform AND achieve a better life-work balance. Thoughts we can explore as we enter the hybrid office work life. 

What in Nils van der Poel’s training program can boost business life

Speed skating at 5k and 10k is a brutal sport. Skating for six or twelve and a half minutes, continuously doing one-leg squats at maximum heart rate with perfect corner-taking technique. Perhaps the worst lactic acid and mental exercise in any sport. 

Reading the training program, I found the level of innovation made around straightforward base principles interesting. I found five approaches that translate well to business life. 

  • The weekly plan consists of five workout days and two days for resting, much like a typical work week model. 
  • Focus – building strength around two performance levers, similar to critical success factors in business life.
  • Practice at race pace – maximize the effort to practice what you will do when you compete, treating every meeting or deliverable as a customer-facing meeting.
  • Four distinct seasons in a year, with a radical difference in activities, corresponds to the shifts from heads-down cranking and heads-up exploration in business life. 
  • Strong close, planning races to skate faster in the second half of the races, making sure we conserve the energy required to get the whole job done in a project. 

These five blocks can come in handy as we pivot into the hybrid office era, where our job demands a new approach to productivity and to find a better work-life balance than we have experienced during the pandemic. 

Five workout days and two resting days in a 33-hour work week 

The first thing that stands out is the weekly planning with five days in a row for workouts and two days for resting. Planned with exercises from Monday to Friday and time to rest during the weekend. Sounds familiar? 

In the weeks with the most training, the athlete spends 33 hours on a bike. Seven hours during three days and six hours during the other two days. Just short of an average week in time but more intense. You can find days with 160km/100mi runs and 615km/382mi bike rides when you read the details. 

By structuring his weekly plan like this, Nils van der Poel allows himself to enjoy things in life beyond his sport. It is a choice to make room for other things in life and align with calendars for ordinary people. He points out that travel is not part of resting, which limits how much travel is part of his plan.

Ask yourself if you are equally good at keeping weekends free from work and filled with enjoyable things you prioritize in life. 

Focus on two performance levers that matter the most

The second thing that stands out in the plan is the analysis of performance levers and Nils van der Poel’s decision to focus on two levers. The performance metrics athletes can choose from to improve their skating and any other professional sport is broad. Many athletes build training programs to enhance a portfolio of metrics as lead indicators for their overall performance, such as: 

  • maximum heart rate 
  • strong core muscles 
  • strong leg muscles – 
  • high VO2max – the aerobic capacity measured as peak oxygen uptake
  • Technique – especially for perfect corner taking at high speed 
  • High flexibility 
  • Outstanding balance – needed both on straights and in corners 

Skating 10km is an endurance game requiring a combination of incredible technique, enormous strengths, and phenomenal fitness. This athlete’s plan focuses on only two capacities as the leading performance indicators for improving skating time, competition speed and aerobic capacity

In business, we face a similar challenge in adopting metrics we can use to measure and manage our progress. It is a tough trade-off between metrics that matter and detailed performance indicators and results. It is not uncommon to see double-digit “key” metrics in KPIs and OKRs guiding a unit in a large organization, driving the need for complex spreadsheets or special tools to track progress on hundreds of metrics. Challenge yourself as a leader and pick the three most important ones at the top. If you put high enough focus on these, you can most likely eliminate several smaller kPIs and OkRs that are more minor keys to your results. 

Practice at race pace, to become the best in racing situations

The third insight is about what happens when Nils van der Poel is on ice. He doesn’t warm up on the ice, and every single lap he does on ice is at race pace. If you want to be good at racing, you should practice racing. There is no real difference between practice and race laps; all practice goes into becoming great at what matters. 

When practicing for 10km skating, he skates 240 30-second laps a week and practices for the same distance for the whole week. He practices a length equivalent to twelve entire races in one week, with every lap at race pace. The weeks he practices for 5km, he does 180 29-second laps or eighteen total race distances at race pace. 

I can relate a lot to this approach. I competed in slalom and giant slalom in my teens and early twenties. The standard drill was to keep your outer layer clothes on during practices and not practice in your race suits. During my last season, I started practicing giant slalom runs in my race suit, a key to unlocking the final bit of performance. Four to five race runs in a two-hour session. At races, I just had to do what I had practiced with a familiar feeling. That was the year I started to win, just once with a margin of 2/100 of a second. I know exactly where I found that margin. 

The connection in business is how we treat internal versus external meetings and deliverables. We can choose to raise the bar and treat every meeting and deliverable as if it is customer-facing. We can increase the quality of internal meetings and deliverables and make the delta when we have to perform in front of customers tiny. The only way to be able to perform at our best in what we do is to do fewer things. Ask yourself what it would take to treat every meeting or deliverable as a customer-facing one? 

Finding optimal business seasons does not start with digging into a calendar

Years in any professional athlete’s life include the competition season and the off-season. A broad variety of competition seasons ranging from multi-day events (tennis, golf), weekly events (football, soccer, skiing), multiple events per week (hockey, basket), daily events (baseball), and more unique formats. The off-season consists of recovery/vacation and build-up for the next season. Offseasons are shorter for teams going all the way in post-season playoffs. But for most athletes, there is a vacation element after each season for recovery. 

Nils van der Poel’s program does not have an explicit off-season and is more of a continuum across four seasons in a year. The length of each season varies depending on the focus and priorities. Such a program relies on finding joy in the activities pursued each season. A tricky balance when pushing your limits can and will not always be fun. 

In business life, we also face different seasons during a year, with less of an on- and off-season and more of four competition seasons; Q1, Q2, Q3, and Q4. The business offseason, vacation, varies substantially between a month in Europe and week/s in the US. Four competition seasons of equal length expose you to a risk of gradually losing performance. You and your business can benefit from defining the seasons that suit your business best. Dare to plan your business seasons with different lengths and different focuses. Competing in ninety-day quarters will not make you compete at 💯 percent of your potential. 

Race strategy to go fast in the second half of a race 

The final insight is about how to find an optimal race strategy. Nils van der Poel deliberately plans to go faster in the race’s second half. Knowing that he will catch up towards the end because he plans to, not because he has to. He wants to have energy left to offset the risk of making easy technical mistakes from being too tired in the end. 

The twenty five lap times during his world record-breaking 10km race at the winter games 2022 were as follows: 

  • 0-2km; 34.81, 29.60, 30.38, 30.10, 30.26
  • 2-4km; 30.10, 30.04, 30.00, 30.11, 30.02, 
  • 4-6km; 30.10, 29.90, 30.06, 29.95, 29.99, 
  • 6-8km; 29.87, 29.83, 29.88, 29.76, 29.64, 
  • 8-10km; 29.86, 29.51, 29.46, 28.91, 28.60

During this race, he won by 13.85 seconds and broke his previous world record by 2.21 seconds. The actual time, 12.30.74, was 74/100 off his target 🎯 practice pace at 30-second laps, repeated 25 times. But what stands out is the strong start, leading by 8.99 seconds after 12 laps, and the last four laps where he beat the second-place finisher with 4.12 seconds and shaved off 2.54 seconds from his previous world record

In business life, this relates to how successful marketing and sales teams make their yearly and quarterly plans. Marketing must peak in the first half to enable sales teams to close strong in the second half. It would be best if you planned for strategic marketing efforts to peak in the year’s first half with longer lead times between actions and outcomes. Aim for significant marketing events and meetings in the first 45 days of a quarter and not collide with closing efforts in the second half. For an organization to succeed with this, they need sales and marketing goals to be firm on the first day of the year or quarter. 

Questions to ask yourself and your team

  1. What is the closest 5+2 plan I should aim for to achieve a good work-life balance? 
  2. What changes to 5 or 2 will make my weekly plan even better? 
  3. Which 2-3 performance levers should I focus on in my professional or private life? 
  4. What performance metrics do I use for your professional and personal success? 
  5. What does it take me to treat every meeting or deliverable like a customer-facing one? 
  6. How can I best define the four seasons in my life? 
  7. When do I need to peak to secure a strong close?  

Additional reading suggestions 

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