We Put the Norwegian Training Methods to the Test
Double threshold workout days, long slow runs, and lactate tests galore: What happens when you try to train like a Norwegian?
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
One of the joys of working for Triathlete is that we’re all diehard tri nerds who love to talk about our sport—a lot. Some days our ideas never make it beyond our Slack channel (and that’s no bad thing, believe me)—and other days, well, we impress ourselves with our journalistic creativity and endeavor. I think this Norwegian “experiment” lands somewhere between the two (and I say that as the guinea pig in the middle of it). It was around the time that this article was first published that we were debating: What would happen if we asked an age-group athlete to follow the Norwegian training approach (which is, essentially, doing two threshold workouts per day for two or three days each week and keeping the remainder of their training very easy)? Would they make huge breakthroughs and crack all-time PRs? Would they burn out or blow up? Would they even want to start something like this in the first place?
After consulting with coach Alan Couzens we decided to throw me into the experiment instead. I’m not entirely sure if this is one of those “right place, right time” or “wrong place, wrong time”-type scenarios, but I’ve been following Couzens’ program since early March and it’ll conclude at the end of May, around which time we’ll do some final testing. In the meantime, we’ll bring you updates on how it’s all going, some of the background and science behind this approach, as well as some sample workouts.
See how we defined the Nordic training methods and approach: What Does It Mean to ‘Train Like a Norwegian?’
When I first agreed to undertake this experiment back in February, I was what you might call “deconditioned.” My expired subscription to TrainingPeaks showed me logging about six hours of “training” per week, most of which involved gentle 2K dips in the pool and social runs with friends. Since I’m most definitely an athlete who has spent the bulk of her athletic career doing aerobic work, the thought of diving into track sessions and double run days close to maximum heart rate was daunting.
But after following the first couple of weeks of Couzens’ Norwegian-inspired program, I was quite surprised by what I was finding hardest. What was toughest, especially to begin with, was running slowly enough to stay under the capped heart rate of 115-120 bpm for easy runs. I felt awful and actually struggled to even find the right run form (my cadence dropped significantly, and I even got sore from an easy 90-minute run!). However, by week 3 I was finding it much easier (and more enjoyable) to run slowly. I also understood a lot more of the science behind why it was important—and once you’ve done a few hard double days, you welcome the chance to take easy days super easy.
Towards the end of week 3 of the program, Couzens gathered together his lactate testing equipment and we met at a local track in Boulder for a test set: 7 x 1-mile repeats starting with the first mile at a heart rate of 110 bpm and increasing that 10 bpm per mile until I’d hit number seven at maximum heart rate. It was not hugely surprising, perhaps, that I struggled to hit and hold maximum heart rate on that final repeat. As someone who has undertaken almost entirely lower aerobic endurance work since retiring from full-time training and racing, getting my heart rate north of 130 bpm is a big day out.
That said, it’s something that has improved considerably these past few weeks. And, if you’re someone who trains similarly (most folks racing Ironman can probably identify with this) and you’re interested in trying your own similar experiment, then you might be pleased to hear the other big surprise has been that the hard workouts aren’t as hard as I first feared they might be. Yes, they were challenging (especially if you have a second run looming at the end of a full work day—something the Norwegians don’t have to worry about), but working just under LT2 (your second lactate threshold; see the glossary below for a full explanation of these terms) it now actually feels as though it’s “conversational at a push.” One of my first 10 x 400m sessions at the track with a friend was filled with talking and catching up. I watched my pace and kept it dialed at the prescribed 1:45/400m, and we were able to continue chatting throughout. My takeaway here wasn’t, “Oh great, I can chat and run at LT2,” but rather that the Norwegians are working very, very cleverly at dialing in this sweet spot for the harder work to ensure the recovery from it is optimized and it’s never so hard that it impacts training the next day. In short, you can achieve some great gains by working very closely to that LT2 marker and you don’t incur that huge fatigue—but if you exceed the marker (which it’s often tempting to do, especially if you’re feeling good), then you will suffer for it later. It’s a fine line these Norwegians are riding (and that’s why the lactate testing they do is so important).
For me, so far, it’s been the recovery from the double days that’s been the hardest part. For a full-time athlete like Iden or Blummenfelt, sleeping 10-12 hours/night is part of the job, but for the average age-grouper with a full-time job, this can be incredibly hard to achieve. On one of my double days last week I was struggling to get “up” for my second workout of the day after a long work day. I opted to skip the track and instead put myself on the treadmill, knowing that as soon as I hit the “go” button my legs would respond and start turning over well (and they did). It’s also forced me to hone in on recovery in a way that’s often not easy for an amateur athlete to do: After double days, I’ve found myself turning off my phone, running a hot bubble bath, and going to bed at 8:30 p.m., wrapping up the evening with meditation and stretching or yoga poses.
There have also been times when monitoring my heart-rate variability (HRV—which I’d not monitored before) has shown that non-training stress had spilled over into my training. We can’t always cut work, but we can adapt workouts. It was a very visible reminder: Stress is stress, even for Type A triathletes!
RELATED: Stress Can Cancel Out Your Fitness
I’m now beginning week 9 of this program—with the goal of racing a 10K at the end of May—and I’ve noticed a few interesting changes. At the start of this experiment I really struggled working above heart rate 140 bpm. Now, that feels relatively smooth and easy, and just last week I did a double threshold day that involved around 80 minutes of total running, plenty of which was between 140-150 bpm. For the easier work, I’ve also started to notice my pace going from 9:30-10-minute miles at a heart rate of 115-120 bpm to 8:00-8:15-minute miles. We plan to do a second test session in the next couple of weeks and we’ll be posting updates on how that goes and what else we’re learning along the way. Stay tuned!
Acidosis: The production of acid in the body
HRV: A measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat, which offers an insight into the body’s autonomic nervous system. In general, if the system is in more of a “fight or flight” mode, the variation between heartbeats tends to be lower. If the system is more relaxed, the variation between beats may be higher.
Lactate test: A test designed to measure lactate levels, usually ramping in intensity
Lactate Threshold 1 (LT1): The first point at which lactate starts to rise (from baseline levels)
Lactate Threshold 2 (LT2): The second point at which the lactate curve kicks up; this is the point at which the body can no longer keep up with (and clear) the amount of lactate that the muscle is producing
Morning Readiness: An indicator of the body’s ability to perform, based on HRV and RHR data e.g., if HRV is lower than normal and RHR is higher it might be prudent to scale back training intensity
Mmol/L: Millimoles per liter, the unit of measurement for lactate acid in the blood
MHR: Maximum heart rate, the maximum number of times your heart can beat in one minute
RHR: Resting heart rate is your heart rate taken first thing in the morning upon waking and is a good indicator of fatigue
TSS: Training Stress Score, a score used by the TrainingPeaks platform to indicate the estimated physiological stress and load created by a training session (based on duration and intensity)
Want to Know More? Read What Does It Mean to ‘Train Like a Norwegian?’