When Olympian Nils van der Poel released his annual training program in 2022, there weren’t many surprises to be found. The Swede trained five days a week and allotted two days for rest. He had a target goal of 33 hours of cycling a week, split into three 7-hour rides and two 6-hour rides. In the winter, he focused his aerobic training on cross-country skiing or ski mountaineering. There was just one glaring detail: he wasn’t competing as a cyclist.
Nils van der Poel is a speedskater. He broke the world record in speedskating’s 10,000m at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and set the Olympic record for the 5,000m in the same Games (the distance in which he is also the current world record holder). What caught the attention of many when he released his program was his ability to train cycling so heavily in the off season yet remain dominant in his primary sport.
Van der Poel is one example in a growing trend of athletes who dedicate a significant amount of time to cross-training, or who like to compete in multiple sports over a single season. The training demands for a multisport athlete like this differ from a single-sport athlete, and their success in their respective disciplines depends on their level of experience and how well they can align cross-training with their athletic goals.
Prepare your athlete for trade-offs in training for multiple sports
There are unique challenges in coaching athletes in multiple sports, but both the amateur and pro athletes can benefit from having more variety in their training. For amateur athletes, there is less at stake, and competing in multiple sports will be a fun and educational experience. They may also discover a love for a new discipline and decide to refocus their training.
For professional athletes, it’s important to manage expectations. There are sacrifices that need to be made when training more than one sport, and it will come down to figuring out which sacrifices are worth taking. It’s also important to note that most athletes who are successful in multiple sports are that way because they predominantly train for one sport at a time.
Nils van der Poel did much of his aerobic training on the bike, but he has yet to compete at the elite level for cycling. His program also took advantage of the fact that cycling training translates well to speedskating, and that may not always be the case for your multisport athlete. In fact, out of the six athletes who have medaled at both the Summer and Winter Olympics, two were speedskaters who later pivoted to cycling, supporting the argument that the two sports are mutually beneficial.
Mathieu van der Poel (no relation to Nils) serves as a recent example of how challenging it can be to compete in several disciplines at once. The Dutch pro cyclist attempted to take the triple-crown of cyclocross, road, and mountain bike world champion in a single year, starting by winning the 2023 cyclocross world championship in February. When the road world championships came around in early August, Mathieu crashed late in the race and pulled off the elite men’s title following a valiant push to recover the lost time.
Less than a week later, he attempted the mountain bike crown, but crashed again, this time leaving him out of the race. He is currently contemplating ending his road season early to focus on his mountain bike form in hopes to qualify for the 2024 Olympics.
Two world champion titles in a single year are nothing to sniff at. But Mathieu also had several months after cyclocross worlds to prepare for road and mountain bike worlds. And even all that preparation didn’t stop him from repeating the tragedy that befell him at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics: crashing out of the mountain bike event after competing in road cycling.
Successful transitions and peak performance are all about timing
Being successful in multiple sports is not impossible, but incredibly difficult. Coach Trevor Connor says the block periodization model is best for training multiple sports and dealing with multiple peaks.
“If you look at a block periodization training plan,” he says, “an athlete might peak seven to eight times in a season. So, you’ll still have that base build, but it’s going to be shorter and then you’re going to build to one peak fairly quickly. Then you take a quick period of time off and then you go through that whole cycle again of build, peak, recover.”
Not only does block periodization protect against overtraining with multiple recovery periods throughout a season, but it also allows coaches and athletes to specialize. An athlete can peak for a triathlon competition early in the season and switch gears to focus on a big gravel event later on. The issue that arises, however, is that you can only build so much of one system.
“You can’t really take somebody and say, ‘OK, we’re going to build you really strong for crits and then we’re going to take four weeks and turn you into an endurance rider,’” says Connor. “You kind of transition of a bit, but you’re not going to make them great potentially at either.”
The versatile athlete is here to stay
Multisport athletes won’t be going away anytime soon. With local endurance events like road racing being few and far between, many athletes find it easier to train in other sports or disciplines just to stay busy during a season. Even with greater availability, endurance athletes like to jump around before finding one sport they like. Some athletes, like Nils, may find benefit in cross-training during their base period. Others, like Mathieu, may have a hard time settling on one preferred discipline or be drawn to the prestige that comes with winning titles across several sports. When coaches equip athletes with a smart training program and grounded expectations, athletes who train more than one sport can find success.
“There are people who are capable of doing this,” says Connor. “But I still think if you are doing multiple disciplines, you can’t be your absolute best at any one [sport], or it can be incredibly hard. You have to make sacrifices in the training.”