What Does It Mean to ‘Train Like A Norwegian?’
With the help of high-performance coach Alan Couzens, our managing editor finds out exactly what the Nordic approach entails—and tests it herself.
Norwegian endurance athletes—from triathlon to the track to cross-country skiing—are capturing the world’s attention with their data-driven, double-threshold, numbers-heavy approach. But can it work for the regular triathlete?
Our managing editor Emma-Kate Lidbury has been putting the Norwegian methods to the test under the watchful eye of exercise physiologist and endurance coach Alan Couzens.
Here Lidbury first explains how they defined the Norwegian training model and then Couzens outlines what the regular athlete needs to get started and the terms you need to know.
What does it mean to ‘Train like a Norwegian?’
Kristian Blummenfelt turned himself inside out to win Olympic gold, 70.3 world champ Gustav Iden made his 7:42 Ironman debut look like a walk in the park, and on the track and snow, Norwegian endurance athletes have been breaking records, winning medals, and grabbing headlines. Considering Norway has a population of five million and it’s about half the size of Texas, it’s no surprise that their huge success—and unique training methodologies—have caught the attention of the wider endurance sports world.
Although the training protocols of Norway’s finest endurance athletes are nothing entirely new, they are still interesting—and remarkably different—compared to what the rest of the world is doing.
One of the key parts of the Norwegian approach is that it’s pyramidal versus polarized.
The Norwegian approach
While you might know a lot about Iden’s and Blummenfelt’s results, you might not know a huge amount about their approach to training. In summary, their training tends to differ from that of the average triathlete in that they appear to spend a lot of their training hours working out at a very easy intensity. And then, when they are training hard, it’s a calculated blend of moderate and hard work, with the training prescription being incredibly precise in order to ensure work is done at the correct intensity and recovery is not compromised. The hard work is also “clustered,” which means there are days of double threshold sessions. Intensity is closely monitored by lactate testing—their coaches are pricking their fingers (or ears) to test small samples of blood for lactate levels in order to make sure they’re working at precisely the prescribed levels. This keeps them at that sweet spot of intensity, but also ensures they’re able to back it up again and again.
While we realize this isn’t for everyone, we were curious about how this would play out in a program of our own. We wanted to do it properly and thoroughly, so we brought in Alan Couzens to write a training program that involved multiple lactate testing sessions and HRV (heart rate variability) monitoring. While it’s obviously very different writing a program for a full-time athlete like Blummenfelt or Iden than for one of our staff or readers, the key was to include the central tenets of the Norwegian approach.
Couzens explained that one of the key parts of the Norwegian approach is that it’s pyramidal versus polarized. Many training programs tend to lean towards work being done at just two ends of the intensity spectrum (polarized): Hard is very hard, easy is very easy. “The Norwegians, on the other hand, while also doing a lot of easy training, do a lot of work in the middle of the intensity range, between their two thresholds, known as Lactate Threshold 1 (LT1) and Lactate Threshold 2 (LT2),” Couzens said. “This is often termed a pyramidal approach—with each intensity level ‘stepping down’ in its contribution, i.e., most training is easy, a good portion is moderate, and a small amount is high intensity.”
As a result, frequent lactate monitoring is important—not just during test sets, but for key workouts too—to ensure the athlete isn’t working harder than they should be. This can be tough to do without the necessary testing equipment (included below). Here are the key parts we identified from the Norwegian approach:
- “Clustering” of multiple threshold sessions on a single day, i.e., the hard days are hard and the easy days are easy. And because the quality work of the hard days is performed at slightly lower intensities, the limiter often becomes glycogen depletion. By separating the workouts into “doubles” on their key days, the Norwegians can accumulate more total quality work without “taking the tank to empty,” Couzens said.
- It’s a high-volume, very low-intensity approach. While much attention is paid to the threshold emphasis of the Norwegian method, Couzens said it should be remembered that the low-intensity training makes up the largest portion by far and the Norwegians are equally strict in the intensity discipline of the low-intensity training, with most sessions under 1.0 mmol/L (this refers to the level of lactic acid in the blood, measured as millimoles per liter). “This is an incredibly low level of intensity that many amateurs will struggle to reach,” Couzens said. For example, 1500m runner Jakob Ingebrigtsen routinely runs ~110-mile training weeks with the bulk of the miles under 1mmol/L, which equates to ~7:30-7:40 minute/mile pace for the Olympic gold medalist.
Where does this approach come from?
Ever since the 1970s, the small but mighty country of Norway has been one of the key nations to adopt a centralized approach to elite sports. “Like many of these centralized programs, much of the developmental model and the training model was borrowed from the successful Eastern European approaches of the time, many of which had a very heavy emphasis on low intensity, lactate-controlled training,” Couzens said.
Success first came in sports like rowing, but was soon adopted by disciplines such as cross-country skiing (with the dominance of skiers like Bjorn Dahlie and Marit Bjorgen), then spread to the endurance world of middle-distance running (the collective success of the Ingebrigtsen brothers) and now triathlon—with the dominance of Blummenfelt and Iden most recently showcasing the benefits of this method—led by Arild Tveiten, head coach of the Norwegian Triathlon Federation.
What are the advantages?
The emphasis of this training approach is on balanced aerobic development. Although double-threshold days sound daunting, the focus is less about maximizing the ability of an athlete to “suffer through” higher and higher levels of acidosis (the overproduction of acid) and more on training their body to process the lactate to keep that burning feeling at bay.
“The key point of caution for the average age-grouper looking to implement this approach is to not discount the huge low-intensity base that supports these massive threshold days,” Couzens said. “The Norwegians spend a lot of time and volume to build the metabolic base that enables them to sustain the threshold work.”
Couzens cited how Ingebrigtsen famously does ~30 miles of threshold work per week, but his total weekly volume is ~110 miles—meaning the intensity work comprises about 25% of his total week. Any athlete looking to implement this approach should scale accordingly, he advised.
The key point of caution for the average age-grouper looking to implement this approach is to not discount the huge low-intensity base that supports these massive threshold days.
Alan Couzens breaks down how they do it
Written by: Alan Couzens. A coach to world champion triathletes and professional cyclists, Couzens has a Masters of Science in exercise physiology and created our ‘Train Like A Norwegian’ plan.
The most important lesson that the average amateur can take from the Norwegian approach, especially when it comes to “doing no harm,” is proper intensity control. In my experience, there is a strong tendency for age groupers to overestimate where the second lactate threshold occurs, i.e., when your typical amateur thinks they are doing a threshold workout, they are really doing a workout above threshold that is challenging not their aerobic, but rather their anaerobic capacity. The problem with this is that there is a huge difference in the recovery cost of doing a session even 0.5 mmol/L over threshold versus 0.5 mmol/L under threshold. Therefore, following the Norwegians’ lead in implementing regular lactate checks to ensure that the workload of the “quality” sessions is appropriate for the athlete would be something that, I think, all of us non-Norwegians could benefit from.
When we do a lactate test with an athlete, we see two thresholds, commonly called Lactate Threshold 1 (LT1) and Lactate Threshold 2 (LT2). We find these by progressively stepping up the intensity of the test every five minutes or so. Initially, for the first two or three stages, the lactate values will stay low and stable despite the increasing intensity. At a certain point (LT1), the lactate will start its first rise from those initial baseline numbers. As we continue to increase the intensity, at a certain point the grade of the lactate rise will change again and become steeper. This second change in the grade is the second lactate threshold (LT2). In practice, to find LT2, we draw a line from LT1 to the maximal lactate value and we look for the part of the curve that falls farthest from this line. This is LT2.
Once known, these two thresholds are the focal point for Norwegian training. When an athlete knows these two points, the majority of “hard” days are just below LT2 and the majority of easy days are below LT1.
The week is then divided up accordingly and might look a little like this:
|Monday||Easy < LT1|
|Tuesday||Hard < LT2|
|Wednesday||Easy < LT1|
|Thursday||Hard < LT2|
|Friday||Easy < LT1|
|Saturday||Hard < LT2|
|Sunday||Long < LT1|
What you need to get started
While it likely comes as no surprise that the number one tool I would recommend to the athlete wanting to give the Norwegian approach a try is a portable lactate tester, it may be a surprise just how challenging it can be to get your hands on one.
I have personally used and recommended the Lactate Pro and Lactate Pro 2 for many years, however, the recent supply chain issues coupled with increasing restrictions on importing “medical” equipment has led to some difficulty in procuring both testers and lactate strips in the U.S. Fortunately, the Lactate Edge ($200, edge-usa.com) is available domestically and is a similarly good unit.
Other than the tester itself, the budding Norwegian will need a ready supply of lactate test strips (expect to go through 10-15 of these per test, available for around $50 for 25), a lancet—you can grab one of these from any pharmacy (the same type that diabetics use to test)—some alcohol swabs, some gauze, and some rubber gloves.
Couple the above with your trusty heart-rate monitor and a bike with a power meter (if cycling), and you have your own mobile lab that you can use to establish your zones and track your improvement as often as you like. I would typically recommend testing every four to six weeks.Section divider
As we start to exercise, and energy demands increase, the body starts to break down more sugar for energy anaerobically and, as it does, the by-product lactate begins to rise. At a certain point, it reaches a critical “threshold.” The term “lactate threshold” is one of those nebulous terms that is widely used but not often fully defined. For the sake of clarity, here’s our Threshold 101:
- When exercising at low intensities, lactate exists in a steady state—increases in lactate production from the breakdown of sugars are matched by the body’s ability to process the lactate.
- As exercise intensity increases, this dance continues: The body produces 3mmol/L, muscles ramp up their ability to clear 3mmol/L, so then it increases to 4mmol/L, etc. At a certain point, the mitochondria can no longer keep up with the amount of lactate that the muscle is producing. We call this point the lactate threshold (LT2).
- When exercise intensity goes above this threshold, lactate and the associated acidic hydrogen ions start to accumulate in the muscles and interfere with muscle contraction, ultimately causing that familiar muscle burn and, eventually, the need to stop.
- For very fit Norwegian athletes, their LT1 may be as low as 1.0 mmol/L and LT2 may be as low as 3.0 mmol/L, but this only comes with a huge bank of endurance training, so for amateur athletes, 1.0 mmol/L might translate to walking. For this reason, it is important to determine your own individual thresholds via lactate testing. This is all part of the process of focusing on building a strong base to support the higher-intensity efforts.
- Intensity control applies not only to the speed that you run or ride, but also to how long those sets are. For quality work, lactate will tend to gradually rise over the course of the workout. For example, on a set of 10 x 1000m at threshold, the lactate may start at 3 mmol/L on the first rep and elevate to 4 mmol/L by the 10th. If the athlete was to continue beyond this point, they would find themselves exceeding their threshold for the latter reps and compromising recovery. If we only go to the prescribed point (and don’t exceed it), the athlete will recover quite quickly (sometimes within 12 hours), leading to these double threshold days that the Norwegians are famous for. While this may amount to 20K of threshold work for a world-class track runner, an amateur may find something like three miles in the morning and a similar mileage in the evening to be the limit of what they can tolerate. If the athlete sticks with it, this tolerance will improve over time.
Follow along with our Norwegian experiment and see how it turns out.Section divider
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)