Norway, “the Northern Way” has long been known for producing some of the world’s best cross-country skiers, but in recent years the Nordic country has also been producing several other world-class endurance athletes. Kristian Blummenfelt took home the gold in the men’s triathlon at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, winning at the Sub7 Project, Gustav Iden is the two-time Ironman 70.3 world champion and recently won by the PTO Canadian open by sprinting to the line.
And then there are the Ingebrigtsen brothers who are amongst the world’s most famous track athletes, with Jakob taking gold at the Olympic 1,500m final.
So, for a relatively smaller country (although it is 1.3 times bigger than the Uk but with a population of 55million less) the questions is this; just how are so many incredible athlete’s being developed?
The answer is Doctor and coach Marius Bakken. He recently published a detailed article about the Norwegian training system, and their approach may surprise you.
The article, which can be read in full here, is very lengthy and includes an incredible amount of detail. It can feel a little heavy if it isn’t your thing, so I have extrapolated out the main points to give you an overview that you can apply to some of your training using the principles contained within the full report.
However, there are a few important things to keep in context. The first is that these training principles have exclusively only been tested on elite athletes, who are different from the average athlete. This doesn’t mean that any of these principles can’t be applied into your training but understand that your outcomes may be different based upon a number of factors such as age, sex and experience.
So what are the big takeaways from Bakken’s paper:
Control the intensity and the big volumes will deliver success
The Norwegian training model has athletes control their intensity by monitoring their lactate levels, with a large portion of their volume done at an easy pace or zone one. The majority of their interval training is done at an intensity that is just below their lactate threshold (zone two), and a very small amount of their training is done at zone three (high intensity).
This is important because there are two factors that might cause you to slow down during a race or a hard effort: mechanical factors (your musculoskeletal, neuromuscular and biomechanical systems) and your aerobic system (your heart, lungs and cells). For many athletes, their aerobic system tends to be the limiting factor between the two.
This is where the lactate threshold comes in. Lactate is a by-product of glucose metabolism and energy production, and your body can re-cycle that lactate to be used to produce even more energy using a lactate-shuttling mechanism. When that mechanism is over-stressed, your lactate levels rise, you accumulate fatigue, and you have to slow down. Raising your lactate threshold (the point at which lactate begins to accumulate) can produce significant performance benefits.
This is the reason why the Norwegians focus the majority of their interval work at that lactate threshold zone. Could they go faster? Absolutely. But they would be missing out on the aerobic benefits. Of course, most recreational athletes don’t have the tools to monitor their lactate threshold, but you can keep yourself within that zone 2 range during an interval workout using effort-based range like the Borg Scale. An example being running a pace you can maintain for an hour, running 15K or half-marathon pace or simply by avoiding that muscle-burning feeling (a guaranteed sign you’ve accumulated lactate).
Running at this pace also allows you to do a much greater volume of interval, but it is critical that you have the acquired base to do so. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have heard an athlete say but I have a huge base, I don’t need to work on it anymore, if you take that approach then you will only have one possible outcome, a reduction in that base which will ultimately hurt your performance.
A high quality but small amount of high intensity work.
As already noted, the Norwegians don’t neglect high-intensity work altogether. In Bakken’s description of the training system, they still include top-end, high-intensity (zone 3) work, but it is primarily made up of fast strides and short hill repeats. This type of work will develop those mechanical limiters/factors mentioned earlier, which will improve your speed and power.
The Norwegian training approach operates on the principle that you don’t need a tonne of volume at that intensity to elicit the desired training effect. This is because, for most athletes, the speed you can run will be largely dictated by your aerobic capacity.
Two is better than one, sometimes
According to Bakken’s paper, one of the biggest differences between the Norwegian training model and other training models is the inclusion of days when the athlete does not one, but two threshold workouts. Of course, the concept of doubling (especially for triathletes) is not new. In fact, it is a very commonplace practice for most elite runners. In most cases, though, the athlete will do one workout and one recovery run in the same day, not two workouts.
If doing two hard workouts in one day sounds outrageous to you, remember that both of these sessions are measured to their exact needs and are threshold workouts, the athletes are not running at their all-out max. When these workouts are run at the correct intensity, athletes don’t accumulate too much fatigue so they can turn around and do it again a few hours later. This allows them to do a greater volume of work than they could if they tried to do one big session.
The most important takeaway
According to the Norwegian training principles, developing your aerobic system should be your highest priority as an endurance athlete. This means the majority of your sessions should be done at your lactate threshold pace/power and shouldn’t leave you completely spent at the end. In other words, save your race for race day.
Developing speed is still important, but it should only make up a small part of your training program.
Always keep your easy days easy. Patience and Control is key.