The Making of a Triathlon World Champion

What's the story behind the rise and development of Olympic champion Kristian Blummenfelt—and what can other coaches learn from it? His coach Arild Tveiten shares his insight with Joe Friel.

Arild Tveiten was actively competing in triathlon and coaching age groupers when he was asked to spearhead a program to build up a new youth national team of future Olympians. Having no experience with junior athletes, he initially turned down the request of Norway’s Triathlon Federation. The Federation persisted and eventually Tveiten agreed to meet the athletes at a training camp in Oslo in October 2010. That was where he first met Kristian Blummenfelt, in the company of other young athletes who would soon be making a name for themselves, Gustav Iden (2022 Ironman world champion) and Lotte Miller.

Following the training camp, Tveiten was asked to coach Blummenfelt, both to test his ideas on how to develop these junior athletes and to see if he would interested in a more permanent role in the federation down the road. That first year went well and in 2012 Tveiten agreed to join the federation as sports director. This meant that in addition to coaching Blummenfelt, he was coaching all of the athletes on the national team, and ultimately developing Norway’s method of training triathletes. In his words, “Of course I looked to what they did in other countries as well, but I was very sure that I needed to create our own path towards success since we had to do it differently in Norway.”

Tveiten coached Kristian Blummenfelt for 10 years, starting when Blummenfelt was 16 years old. Their journey culminated in a gold medal at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, where Blummenfelt was flanked by his own teammates atop the podium. Now Tveiten is equipping Norway’s national team coaches with his proven methodology.

You see a lot of coaches, a lot of national teams, who are working a lot of short-term results, lower volume, higher intensity, with really good athletes at 16, 17, 18, and then they have no way they can build that into a really successful and long-term triathlon career at the word-best level in standard or Ironman distance. Of course, you have some exceptions, but I think most of the really, really good athletes are late bloomers.

Arild Tveiten, Sports Director of the Norwegian Triathlon Federation

Video Transcript

Joe Friel  00:06

I’m pleased today to have Arild Tveiten with me in a conversation about his coaching. He’s the National Triathlon Coach for Norway. An interesting character, he’s really brought on some tremendous athletes in his career of working with juniors. One of them especially I’d like to concentrate on today with you, Arild, is Kristian Blummenfelt.

Arild Tveiten  00:28

Thank you, Joe, and thanks for great introduction. I’m really looking forward to being here today and try to answer some of the questions we had regarding the job we do with Kristian and of course all the other athletes on the national team, from when they were young athletes.

Joe Friel  00:46

Kristian has been a tremendous athlete over the last few years. He won Ironman World Championship in 2022. He was the gold medalist in Tokyo. He won World Championship 70.3. And he also was third at the more recent Ironman World Championship. So, Arild did you really understand or see how talented he was as a junior?

Coaching Kristian Blummenfelt as a Junior

Arild Tveiten  01:10

When I started coaching Kristian I, of course, saw he was a good athlete, he was at that time was swimming well because of his swimming background. His running ability was really impressive to be a swimmer. But it was not that you saw that he was the biggest talent ever in the sport. But, what I actually saw that, that he was a really hardworking guy, really committed to the sport. When he did it, he was really serious in what he did. I would say that, if Kristian or Gustav and many of the other athletes in Norway have been born in another country, it is quite likely they will never have been entering the national team in other countries because of how they approach talent in athletes. For us in Norway is more or less you take the athletes you have, and try to work in a good work ethics. I strongly believe that you don’t need talent to do sport, you need to work hard.

Joe Friel  02:15

So he was a hard worker, that’s really interesting, because I think that’s the key to everybody’s success and a sport like triathlon is being a hard worker. But let me go back to when you started working with him in terms of your coaching of him, did you guys spend a lot of time face to face?

Arild Tveiten  02:31

We are actually not seeing each other on a daily basis, so we were not face-to-face coaching, it was more like remote coaching. It seems strange to do that with such young athletes, but that was the way we needed to do it. He was in Bergen, I was in Oslo. I was of course dependent on local coaches, especially in swimming, but also in in track and field or running. But I was in charge of the overall program. Of course, we met quite regularly, we had training camps together. That built up quite a lot over the first 2, 3, 4 years. When we were in 2014, 15, we are more or less together 150 to 200 days a year.

Arild Tveiten  03:23

But it’s also quite important thing, I think if you should succeed in an endurance sport, you need to be independent. You need to know what to do in training, you need good guidance from a coach. But you also need to have the tools and know how to use it. In the beginning it is heart rate monitors, and afterwards, we have a power meters and lactate meters, step-by-step. You need to learn to use that to control your training. You need to be motivated to do most of your training alone if you need to. That is also quite important aspect of it. But of course over the years, we’ll be seeing each other a lot and spend a lot of weeks and months together at training camps.

Joe Friel  04:06

So Arild, when you were working with these other coaches who were basically coaching Kristian, was there any pushback from the other coaches on how they should go about training Kristian?

Being One of Many Coaches

Arild Tveiten  04:15

In the beginning when I’m working with Kristian and it was other coaches involved, it was a little bit tricky in the beginning to get them to understand how we worked and I want to work with Kristian as a triathlete because it was mostly the swimming coach who had knowledge about how they should coach Kristian as a swimmer, and of course that was not any conflict, but we had some really good discussion about it. It was also like, “Why should we spend time with Kristian because he’s a quite ordinary swimmer… instead of spending a lot of time with our top national level swimmer?” So it was always a fight in the beginning.

Arild Tveiten  05:06

But I have to say that it was just within one or two years when they accept the idea, but they also saw that Kristian, he was a really good role model also for swimmers because he was always there on the training, he was on time, he was first into water, he was last out of the water. He was committed, he was motivated, never complained, and then after a while, the coach saw that and said, “Oh, he’s a big inspiration for the others on the team. So we want to learn more about what you do and what you do to work with him.” After one to two years, it was much easier in the beginning of a little bit challenging, I have to say.

Joe Friel  05:48

Could you briefly explain Kristian’s training when he was a junior?

Kristian Blummenfelt’s Training Program

Arild Tveiten  05:52

I think it’s very difficult to say very shortly how we did it, but his training… it’s, okay…. We think you need to train a lot to be a good athlete. We think you need to focus much more on building aerobic fitness instead of going for short-term solution with doing a lot of anaerobic work with young athletes. I know that’s very common to see that you can work on the speed and the high intensity, or stuff like that. But we were very focused on the aerobic stuff, easy training, low intensity. When we did intervals was more like around what we call anaerobic threshold. Of course, it’s very easy to say now that in the beginning the feeling for intensity control was not so good, so it’s likely that [the athletes] still did a lot, not a lot, but a little bit of anaerobic work.

Arild Tveiten  06:51

I think it’s totally different than if you have an approach where you plan some anaerobic work in your training and the athletes don’t know to use that in your training, I think the anaerobic load will be too big. It was the aerobic workload we put a lot of emphasis on. We back it up with testing results, and Kristian was, let’s say, when he was sixteen we did some lab tests is VO2 max was in the mid-seventies–it’s good, but not extra, am I right? With this kind of training, he was up to 85 in four years. We saw that way of training worked.

Arild Tveiten  07:36

Then you have how we put in the training, and this of course, a young athlete, in triathlon mostly will need a very long time to develop good skills for running or the ability to tolerate the running volume. So the running was not too much in the beginning. But we put more focus on the swimming because we want to build the technique, learn the technique, but also [swimming is] an easy way to get in the volume in training. So the first year he did maybe 7, 8 swim sessions a week, he was running 3 to 4 [times a week], after a while it was up to 5 [times a week]. And biking, it was more or less 1 to 2 times a week, a little bit more when it was summer and on training camp, but not so much in the beginning. Then we just built around that, but that is very individual and especially how you build up the running fitness for an athlete and young athletes is different from athlete to athlete. There’s no athletes I’m doing the same thing with because they are different as an athlete.

Joe Friel  08:46

So Arild, you were starting with an athlete who had perhaps run-of-the-mill talent and with a few years of aerobic training emphasis he had a VO2 max of 85 within just a few years. That’s quite impressive. Looking back now, is there anything you would change about how you trained him when he was a junior?

Arild Tveiten  09:07

When I look back at his earlier career, for sure we made some mistakes. There are things that we would have done differently with the knowledge we have today. But all in all, I think we tuned in quite well. I had an idea of how I think you should work with young athletes to develop them. I know for sure that his results the last two years haven’t been possible if we had chosen a totally different approach of training with less volume, a lot more higher intensity stuff. There’s no way he can be a world champion in Ironman 70.3 and also an Olympic champion.

But, of course, there are some small things we did wrong. I have to say that I’m a coach that always wants to be better, I always want to do more. In the beginning it was more like I need to learn to control myself–he had a good result and I want to do more training and his results the first year were a little bit up and down. After a good result there could be a bad result because I want to do even more, and that was maybe the biggest learning experience for me as a coach–be patient, stick to the plan, and take it step by step. But as I said, I would not say we have do any big run mistake and he has had almost have no injuries in the last 10 years and the continuity in his training has been obviously extremely good compared to most athletes we can compare with.

Joe Friel  10:54

There’s a lot of discussion in sport, broader than just triathlon about how often juniors should compete. How often did Kristian race?

Arild Tveiten  11:04

In the first year, most of his races were swimming, running races, and some triathlon. That is also a little bit because that in Norway, the sport was so underdeveloped that we actually didn’t have a race that suited athletes like him or junior athletes. For instance, we have no super-sprint, no draft league races, almost no sprint races, we only had the Olympic distance races, and we didn’t want to do that with him as a 15/16-year-old, but he started testing it out when he was 16-17. But so he needed to go out to Europe and do European Cup kind of races. But as I say that in the beginning, it was not too much, a lot about the training and the preparation. But when he was in 2012, when he was 18, then he was racing a full season with, yeah, 15-20 races a year.

Joe Friel  12:06

So Arild, how did Kristian’s training change as he aged up?

How Training Changed as Kristian Aged

Arild Tveiten  12:10

First of all, when he aged up, it was more about the balance of training. So when he was 20-21, we turned down the swimming, and swimming was a little bit less in volume. The swim sets were much more effective, not so much drills, technical stuff, it was more just straight to the point–do the work you need to do more efficiently. Cycling was of course building up quite a lot in volume, and running the same. But, and I would say that the last four or five years, his training volume has been more or less the same but we have been just balanced a little bit with what we have done within each disciplines. But the next step is intensity control and how to control the intensity that we have been leveled up quite a lot.

I say that now we use lactate metrics for all important sessions. We try to be much more accurate in the training process for that. We are more kind of individualized in the how we work with athletes, instead of building a year of a training year around the normal structure and periodization, we are more or less likely going to the lab, taking tests every six to eight weeks, seeing what is the strong point, what’s the weak point and then adapt and change the training based on that. We have of course a period now where we do a little bit more anaerobic stuff, more VO2 max kind of work. That we do more now than we did back then. The length of the intervals is a little bit longer. You learn more, you get more experienced, and you don’t do the same mistakes. It’s more straight to the point of what you want to achieve with the training. As I said, with all the older athletes on the team, we are much more individualized in how we approach the training to each athlete.

Joe Friel  14:11

So Arild, I understand the need to emphasize specificity as an athlete ages up. But as you look back now at all the junior athletes you’ve coached besides Kristian, is there anything you think is really important that they all should be working on? What should be the focus of training for a junior?

Arild Tveiten  14:29

With young athletes, I’ve said it many times–don’t rush short-term solutions, be patient building a base, go out, have fun, enjoy the training process. I think one important thing is to learn to love to train. I would say that is really important. If you have the feeling that you do it because you need to do it, for sure, you don’t have the same results.

Joe Friel  15:01

Arild, when my son was a junior athlete, my primary concern was that he had fun and really enjoy the sport. How do you go about making it fun for the juniors, you’ve coached?

How to Make Training Fun for Juniors

Arild Tveiten  15:12

We try to have a good sense of humor when we are together. I think it’s important when we have a lot of time together, that you’re enjoying being together. It’s easier to do the training when you enjoy doing the training. I don’t know exactly how we do it, and maybe we’re a little bit lucky with athletes. But I always try to be the one who brings up the humor and we’re having a fun, a good time. I’ve always try to be leading as an example. It’s never good for a coach to come late for breakfast, or don’t want to join the conversation, or just sitting with your cell phone. You need to be part of the conversation, you need to, what do you say, “sprite up” the mood for everyone so you get ready to for what [we need] to do, and I think that is some of the key for the Norwegians. When we have that mood and the spirit in the team, they all… the shoulders are looser, you’re not so stressed,  you are more relaxed… you are performing better in training and also in racing.” But of course, you cannot say, “They are not serious,” because we are deadly serious in what we do. It’s possible to do two things at the same time.

Joe Friel  16:40

Looking back now, Arild, at your working with Kristian and Gustav and other athletes as juniors, what is anything you’ve seen that are predictors of their success? Or is this predictable?

Can You Predict Success for a Young Athlete?

Arild Tveiten  16:53

When I started working with Kristian, he as a junior had a lot of ability as an athlete that you saw with him that we try to transfer to other athletes. But it’s difficult to see who is going to be really good as a young athlete. Kristian was actually quite good because he had a swimming background. I think that one mistake many coaches do, you put in different sort of athletes into let’s say, a camp or testing environment. Then you see athletes coming from swimming, you see that they’re really, really good at swimming. We saw that with Kristian. Then we had for instance, Gustav Iden, who also won the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. When he came to the same camp, his swimming ability was really, really bad. One of the other coaches we had on the team, he said, “Oh, forget about Gustav, there is no way he can be good in triathlon because he cannot swim.”

Arild Tveiten  17:57

My point is you cannot see from a young athletes who can be good. We see that in that in young sport like triathlon, I you will have a lot of late bloomers. I think that the best athletes, with some exceptions, of course, are the ones who are late bloomers–who are not the best athletes as a junior or youth athlete. Because if you look at the result that the World Junior Champion and the Olympic Youth Champion in the Youth Olympic Games, you will see that most of them are not on the top of the result list today. I’m looking back at some of the results from some of the earlier races Kristian did and most of the athletes who were far in front of him are not racing anymore. You see a lot of coaches a lot of national teams who are working a lot of short-term results, lower volume, higher intensity, really good athletes at 16, 17, 18 and then they have no way they can build that into a really successful and long-term triathlon career at the word-best level in standard or Ironman distance. Of course, you have some exceptions, but I think most of the really, really good athletes are a little bit late bloomers.

Joe Friel  19:29

Arild you’ve had a broad background of working both with junior athletes and more mature athletes. What’s the difference? How would you describe the difference between coaching a junior versus coaching a somewhat older, more mature athlete?

Coaching Younger vs. Older Athletes

Arild Tveiten  19:43

I think that in the beginning when I was working with Kristian and all the junior athletes, their knowledge about the training and the training process are quite limited. It’s more like Okay, I’m the coach, or I can say, I’m the trainer–I say what they should do. When they mature, you involve them more in the training process. We in Norway  put a lot of emphasis on educating the athletes to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. When you think they are getting more mature, the way you’re coaching an athlete, it’s more like you are coaching an athlete, you’re not training them. It’s more kind of a dialogue with them, “Okay, what do you think you need to do to develop the next point?” That’s kind of a key question we ask all athletes, and they say, “I want to do this, this, and this.” And sometimes it’s like, “Okay, that’s good.” Then sometimes you ask, “Why do you want to do it that way?”

But okay, the main thing is that they get more and more involved in the training process. I think that is really important. But it’s always like that, when we do it and we agree or what we should do, we make a plan. And I say, “This is the plan, this is the program,” then we do it. Then we can of course, during the training, sometimes adjust the training because the athletes respond different to the training than [they are] supposed to do. But the main thing is that it’s a kind of evolution to work with athletes, and I think it’s quite different. When I start working with young athletes, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do it because it is different, but I really love it.

Joe Friel  21:34

Arild, thank you for talking with me today. It’s not always that you find a coach of advanced athletes, especially at a world-class level like the ones you’ve coached, who are willing to be so candid. Thank you for being so open with all of us and I appreciate your time.

Arild Tveiten  21:51

It was a pleasure for me to be here with you. You know where to find me if you have any more questions, so just let me know, always available.

Joe Friel  22:02

Okay, sounds good. See you again soon.