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If you’re listening to the body when it whispers to you, you don’t have to hear it scream.
~Nils van der Poel

This post is not another archetypal analysis of the 5 on – 2 off, big volume training program published by Nils, Instead, I’d like to look closer at something I’ve not seen anyone else discuss: reducing mental load and increasing confidence.

“I wasn’t mentally strong as a kid, I hated to compete ever since I started speed skating, I truly hated it.”

This point was made crystal clear in Nils’ “Sommarprat” 2021. In fact, he had a distinct disdain for endurance sports in general. So how the heck did he go from there to training upwards of 33 hours per week for months on end, and enjoying himself?! Simple, he got to know and trust himself, taking each day on its own.

“…the monotonous program exposed me to those sessions so often that they became very familiar mentally. In the beginning of each Season I was quite nervous prior to the hard or long sessions. But, as I repeated them over and over the anxiety level dropped and a few weeks into a training season I was totally unconcerned about tomorrow’s session as I went to bed. I’d built up a trust for myself…

Two keywords above are ‘monotonous’ and ‘trust’. In his three seasons, he scheduled the same sessions every week. Because he was living in the present he would also evaluate the readiness of his body for each day, not afraid to take more rest if it was needed. And since each week and much of every day was the same, Nils allowed himself to “become very familiar” with his mind and body. In my own words, he continually investigated the subtler and subtler aspects of his physiology and psychology.

I can relate to Nils approach. By repeatedly doing the same thing I see aspects not previously noticed and I become more confident in my ability to see, feel and carry out a task. There’s immense peace and clarity that comes with discrimination and attenuation. When I trained and competed in freefall skydiving on the international level we (my team) would repeat every possible combination of moves over and over again. This meant that in crunch time I could count on myself to do what needed to be done because I’d previously practised it hundreds of times. If something new appeared I had the mental and physical skills necessary to deal with it. I know that some people advocate for constant change so that the body is ready for anything. That might work (for them), but my cautionary question would be, Are you purposely creating variety because you can’t keep your mind on one thing? I don’t mean to judge but rather point out that jumping from one thing to another is exactly the habit of an untrained mind. (Note: I can think of one well-known Navy Seal who believes in mixing it up and definitely has a tough mind. However, he’s very consistent with the aerobic energy system used to push himself, and he’s persistent with it day after day, year after year.)

One last point about this, Nils clearly showed that monotony can provide the necessary stimulus for continuous development.

“One of the challenges of this program is that it’s very monotonous. At first, I was worried that if I always did the same sessions my body would eventually stop reacting to the stimulus. In my experience, this was not the case.”

How can the repetitive approach work? The athlete learns how to listen closely to the signals the body and mind provide; in sport, this is called an ‘associative cognitive strategy’. In a 2015 systematic review, McCormick, Meijen and Marcora found that “…active self-regulation strategies could be valuable for athletes who aim to optimize their endurance performance.” I think Nils’ own words explain this beautifully.

“When I repeated the same sessions over and over I learnt how much I could push it on the first, second, third… set in order to still complete the entire session at a good pace without having to increase or decrease the intensity towards the end of the session.”

An interesting twist to this is also something that speaks directly to my own experience and psyche. It is, however, something to which a few exercise physiologists might take opposition. I don’t discount the benefit of maximum tests but I agree wholeheartedly with Nils that getting to know oneself day in and day out and tracking the information both subjectively and objectively is far more useful in the long run.

“The monotonous program made me see improvement very easily. In this way, I did not have to waste time and effort on doing gruelling maximum tests in a lab or compete to know that I had developed. …The consistent use of the 5-2 gave us so much experience and statistics on how hard we could train, how much the heart rate could be allowed to drop during the week, without risking not to be recovered after the following two days of rest (without risking overtraining). I knew I trained enough, so whenever the body asked for even more rest I wasn’t scared of letting it have an extra few days off. …[My coach and I] settled for all the statistics we gathered thanks to the 5-2 program. We saw development clearly as I repeated the same sessions over and over and so the need for a maximum test was subdued.

Of course, Nils also comes back to where he started the entire document; he “hated” maximal effort tests. He instead focused his mental and physical energy where it could be used more effectively over time.

“We built simple and recurring training sessions that were measurable.”

There’s one final item that I’d like to point out. Nils is very clear about what he brings to society. In so doing, he provides space for others to raise their own character. He certainly sets an example for me to emulate.

❝ I never said anything I did not believe was true (good rule for life in general).
Sometimes I had to pause in order to consider for a moment what the truth actually was.

I never trash talked anyone, but I wasn’t afraid of talking about the performance or actions of others when I felt like I had something appropriate to say. However, as soon as I made an edgy comment on someone I always contacted them afterwards and explained myself, mostly they had just appreciated the comment.

Prior to an interview, I thought through what I wanted to say. Usually, I would try to come up with fun and unexpected things to say. As I said those things I gave the media the trust not to abuse my quotes and, since they appreciated my engagement in the interviews, they liked to keep that trust. So they treated me very delicately.
~Nils van der Poel

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