Kristian Blummenfelt’s Coach Reveals His Gold-Medal Workouts
We have the inside track on how the Norwegian went from promising young athlete to Olympic champion. (Spoiler alert: It was no accident.)
When Kristian Blummenfelt collapsed on the blue carpet, having won Norway Olympic triathlon gold, he looked spent.
Yet while the 27-year-old from Bergen appeared to have rinsed himself of every last drop of effort, there was far more to this success than sheer bloody-minded resilience.
In fact, the Norwegians’ planning started a decade earlier, when head coach Arild Tveiten sat down with the federation and discussed – with his barrel-chested teen to the fore – how a top spot on the podium in Tokyo 2020 might just be possible.
“In retrospect, it was a totally crazy goal and had no meaning,” Tveiten explained, just days after his protege had run away with gold. “No one thought about what we needed to do to get there, and we had maybe just 10-15 young athletes.”
The Early Years
But it wasn’t a complete pipe dream, as Blummenfelt’s early results would attest. Fourth-place at the world junior championship in Auckland in 2012 showed Blummenfelt’s potential, and a breakaway on the bike in the Edmonton Grand Final in 2014 underlined a bold racing attitude, after returning from months on the sideline with a stress fracture.
As the Rio Olympics approached, more young Norwegians, notably Gustav Iden and Casper Stornes, began to show the talent needed to mix it up on the world stage. “We saw we had a program that worked, gave us few injuries, and we started to believe in it, but after Rio [where Blummenfelt would finish 13th] we needed to step up again.”
Those still unaware of the Nordic uprising were put on notice when Stornes, Blummenfelt, and Iden broke clear to sweep the podium in the Bermuda World Triathlon Series event in 2018. Olympic glory had begun to look very real.
Training, By The Numbers
“We are known as a team that trains at high volume, but you also need to absorb and tolerate the training,” Tveiten explained. “How hard is hard? How easy is easy? We test all the time to see we are working at the right intensities. Our training has evolved over the years, but it is an aerobic sport, so our principle remains endurance-based training rather than working on pure speed.”
Testing in those early years was to determine the correct training zones to optimize performance, but now it is about assessing the athletes’ current levels to enable sessions to be tailored to their individual needs.
“When you know an athlete, you know if they’re in good shape when you see them,” Tveiten continued. “But we still test for lactate threshold (LT2), power outputs, speed, VO2 Max… although Kristian’s VO2 Max is around 90 mL/kg/min all the time, so it’s never a limiting factor for him.” (For reference, “historic” VO2 Max benchmarks include Greg LeMond at 92.5 mL/kg/min and Lance Armstrong at 84 mL/kg/min.)
Unlike other nations, it’s worth noting that none of the leading triathletes have left Norway’s national structure to be guided elsewhere. “We think our training principles – and I don’t mean to be arrogant – are world-leading,” Tveiten explained. “To have the best athletes train together is a huge benefit. Just to see how these athletes compare to each other informs a lot of how we think, and the three boys especially are pushing each other every day.”
Related: The Icemen Cometh
The Road To Gold
The delayed Olympics and imposition of COVID quarantines meant months away from home. The year began with a camp in Portugal, before altitude training in Sierra Nevada, Spain, ahead of a four-race block for Blummenfelt that took him to Yokohama, Lisbon, Arzachena, and Leeds.
“We knew [this schedule] was quite tough, but the athletes wanted to race because they hadn’t raced much the year before – and they could tolerate it. It was tougher for those who wanted to qualify for the Olympics and went to Mexico the weekend after Leeds.”
While others were chasing points, the Norwegians spent the last few weeks at Font Romeu in the French Pyrenees before heading to Miyazaki in Japan to acclimatize ahead of the Olympic race.
The pinpoint preparation wasn’t restricted to the athletes though. No observer can have failed to notice the all but translucent tri suit that required a privacy panel for decency. “It made a difference to performance – not a very big difference – but also illustrates the way we work,” Tveiten said. “We went to a small Norwegian brand called Trimtek and said we want to have the best racing suit in the world for the Olympics. We agreed early on that the color should be white, especially as the Norwegian flag has white in it.
“We searched to find a textile that was unique, and about four times the cost of the Gore-Tex used in rain jackets. If sold, the trisuit would probably cost eight to nine times the price of the normal racing suit.”
“It’s very light and thin, but can still have aerodynamic patterns and different thicknesses. We also put it through aero testing, and tested core body temperatures to see how it performs in the heat. For sure, it’s the best in the world.”
Tveiten says they hit on a formula for heat acclimation leading up to the test event in 2019, where Stornes finished second and Iden fourth. “Compared to many other countries we dealt with the heat very well,” he said. “In fact, Kristian said he hoped it would be even hotter!”
There is no basking in the glory of Olympic gold. Instead, Blummenfelt has set himself an ambitious, bordering-on-outrageous target for the rest of the season.
First, he’ll head to Ironman Frankfurt on Aug. 15 to attempt to qualify for Kona. Then, just a week later, he’ll fly to Edmonton in Canada to try and win his first World Triathlon world title.
If the Hawaii spot is secured, he’ll then switch his focus toward the Big Island in October. It would be a scarcely believable triple, never witnessed in the history of the sport.
“We know it’s very risky and we’re not sure about the outcome, but he wants to see if it’s possible,” Tveiten explained. “We know the approach to training is very different and two weeks to prepare for an Ironman is not ideal, but the first day he was back home in Norway he spent two-and-a-half hours on his treadmill, so he’s very serious about it.
“Gustav will do Collins Cup and Ironman 70.3 worlds and then Kona. Casper will do Frankfurt to see if he can qualify, but not Edmonton. If they want to do it, they should try. We know it will be much tougher than they think it will be, but that’s their attitude."
“They always want to be better and improve, they see the challenge, and I don’t think it’s right for us as coaches to say: ‘This is stupid, you shouldn’t do it, think about next season’, and so on. We know that after Hawaii it will be a long break, then we have the build-up to the next Olympic cycle. It’s really clear the main goal is Paris 2024.”
Kristian Blummenfelt’s “Meat and (golden) Potatoes” Threshold Training Workouts
Coach Tveiten provides us with a bike and run session that Blummenfelt used as a cornerstone for his Olympic success and gives his workout notes below.
Session 1: Threshold intervals on the bike
Total Distance: 2h10m
7 x 10min intervals at “lactate threshold” with 1min rest
Session 2: Threshold intervals on the run
Total Distance: 1h40m
7 x 1.25mi. (2km) intervals at “lactate threshold” with 1min rest
Arild says: “We do a lot of intervals around threshold because the athletes need to have the biggest possible engine. If their aerobic capacity is not so good, they won’t have a problem staying in the bike group, but glycogen depletion will be quite high, and they won’t be able to run to their potential.
“These are typical bike and run sessions we do more or less once a week, but the difference between us and other training groups is that we do blood lactate tests after each interval to enable us to target the highest power output at the right intensity. If you only use power, you can either overtrain or go a little bit under what you’re capable of—depending on whether you’re having a good or bad day. We also don’t like breaks, so take just 1 minute rest. If you take long breaks you are too rested for the next interval.
“While we don’t do many 6-7 x 1km at 2:40-45/km (4:17-4:25/mi.) pace like a lot of other athletes, in the pre-Olympic camp in Miyazaki, we did add race-specific bike-run workouts working on the different sprints we’d need to do in the race. But most of our running is at threshold intensity, correlated to the right lactate values – about 3-3:05min/km (4:50-4:57/mi) pace for Kristian, although it can be a little slower at altitude.
“One of our favorite places to do the bike session is on altitude camp at Sierra Nevada. We just head down the mountain and do the efforts going up. Sometimes the athletes take the lactate meter with them, but sometimes we follow in the car. Very often the police stop us to ask what we’re doing in the middle of the road!”