There’s no denying that some of the greatest endurance athletes competing today come from a small Scandinavian country with a population similar to the state of Colorado.
Norway is producing many of the world’s best middle-distance runners, triathletes, and, of course, cross-country skiers (which it has done for many decades). The most noteworthy leaders of the recent Norwegian movement are Olympic triathlon champion and world record holder Kristian Blummenfelt, 1,500m Olympic champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen, and 2022 Ironman world champion Gustav Iden.
These prolific athletes are adherents of the so-called Norwegian method for endurance training. Arguably, they are the very reason it has gained such notoriety of late. But be careful not to jump to the conclusion that this is the “official” training method of all Norwegians or the preferred method of the Norwegian Federation. These athletes and their coaches simply use this name for its nationalistic ring.
Furthermore, this isn’t the only popular training method to come out of the Scandinavian nation. Anyone familiar with the work of Fast Talk Labs knows we have a high regard for the physiological research of Dr. Stephen Seiler and his conceptualization of the polarized training method, which stems from years of research with elite Norwegian athletes.
We wanted to take a closer look at this new Norwegian training method and compare it to the polarized approach. Which is the better training method? Which is more appropriate for world-class athletes, and which is best for amateurs?
An old model with a new name?
For decades, what has been understood as the general Norwegian method has had certain core principles. In essence, it’s a high-volume, low-intensity model—nothing particularly novel. In practice it amounts to:
- a large volume of easy endurance miles,
- a significantly smaller amount of intense training.
Sound familiar? On the surface, that probably sounds much like a polarized training protocol, or a pyramidal approach depending on whether you measure by session intent or time in zone. There’s an ongoing debate about the nomenclature between these two approaches, but the basic structure—mostly easy days to prepare for a few very hard sessions, in an effort to maximize the overall adaptation while limiting autonomic stress—is widely agreed upon.
“I was reading about this type of ‘Norwegian method’ training in the newspaper here in Norway 29 years ago,” says Dr. Seiler, who has lived in Norway for nearly 30 years. “The Norwegian method, if there is such a thing, has been around for decades. And the polarized kind of approach is not just a Norwegian thing, but that was what we were seeing when we were looking at rowing, cross country skiing, running… the picture was the same.”
According to Seiler, what’s new about the modern Norwegian method for endurance training are a few iterative additions that take this particular model in a different direction from your basic polarized training protocol. And these additions have been developed in a couple very small high-performance environments in Norway—by the aforementioned triathletes and runners and their respective coaches—who are having great success.
Though the basic structure of the Norwegian training method may have stayed virtually the same for decades, there has also been an evolution in the implementation of some of its principles. What we see today might be considered the “Norwegian Method 2.0,” according to Seiler.
For example, proponents swear by frequent lactate measurements to guide interval training, and see this as a modern enhancement. Small blood samples are repeatedly taken to measure lactate levels during the course of these workouts. The goal of these repeated blood pricks during a session is to ensure that the athlete stays below a level of lactate that would otherwise require more recovery time.
While review papers and blog posts covering this new Norwegian method only touch on this, it’s important to understand that measuring workout intensity by lactate is very different from guiding intensity by heart rate or power. Power responds instantly to changes in intensity, while heart rate responds in about 30 to 60 seconds.
Because lactates are taken at the finger or ear and not the working muscle, it can take minutes to see a full lactate response. Hence, while athletes are generally considered to be at their anaerobic threshold around 4.0 mmol/L, it’s possible for a runner to do a fair amount of work at, or even above, their anaerobic threshold without ever seeing a lactate above 3.0 mmol/L, particularly if they build in frequent recoveries.
According to a review paper published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, which attempts to describe the Norwegian method in more detail (and refers to it as “Lactate-Guided Threshold Interval Training within a High-Volume Low-Intensity Approach”), a typical training week involves:
- a total of about 110 miles of mostly easy running,
- two days per week (usually Tuesday and Thursday) of double “threshold” intervals, separated by at least a couple of hours,
- one intense workout per week, typically on Saturday (Jakob Ingebrigtsen, for example, is famous for doing 20 × 400m efforts at his 5,000m pace).
The double “threshold” days have become infamous because the Ingebrigtsen brothers swear by them (and probably during them). The other hallmark of the Norwegian training method is the lack of any external cue during the high-intensity workouts—so pace or power is not used. It all comes down to lactate levels—an indicator of the internal stress being placed on the body.
The desired range, according to one influential coach and former athlete Marius Bakken, is threshold—in this case, between the first and second lactate thresholds. In the Norwegian method, the lactate level is typically kept between 2.0 and 4.5 mmol/L, with Bakken suggesting an optimal level at or below 3.0 mmol/L.
It’s imperative to note that these lactate levels—which in an amateur athlete would typically indicate sweet spot intensity—are often right around anaerobic threshold in highly trained athletes, who often have lower relative lactate levels than amateurs at any intensity.
Why this target level? It is considered hard enough to elicit an adaptation in aerobic fitness without significantly increasing recovery time. By keeping in that threshold range, an athlete can accumulate a far greater amount of time training at an intensity that’s difficult enough to cause useful adaptations without the negative repercussions. The ability to quickly recover after such efforts allows for these double-session days—not to mention the ability to then do another intense workout two days later.
One final note about this journal article and the details found within it. Much of the background information, particularly the section about putting the Norwegian method into practice, comes from the writing of the aforementioned Bakken on his personal website. His manifesto is described by the author as “by no means a scientific article—and it is not meant to [be] either. Rather, it is some thoughts, reflections, and experiences from an empirical perspective.”
It is interesting that this review paper heavily relies on the thoughts and reflections of Bakken, who is no longer a coach but a physician, to describe the “science” of the Norwegian method. Clearly, further peer-reviewed studies will be necessary to fully understand the physiological implications of the method, and whether the approach outperforms its alternatives.
Who is the Norwegian method for?
To simplify, this modern Norwegian training method may have, at some point in the past, approximated the polarized training method. Now, however, it includes double sessions and lactate testing, and the proportion of high-intensity to low-intensity workouts is skewed from the ideal 80/20 polarized ratio.
To reiterate, none of the modern enhancements are actually new. And none of this is unique to Norway. It’s just that now we are seeing several high-profile athletes have success, and they claim that it all comes down to the Norwegian method. Now, other elite athletes from all over the world are putting it to work with similarly significant results.
But this is not an easy training method. Double sessions are hard. And Ingebrigtsen is also famous for adding a second interval session to some of his race days—his reasoning being, if he’s already warmed up, done with his race, but he hasn’t put in a ton of time at high-intensity, why not empty the tank that day with another hard workout?
Caution! This is not a routine that most amateur athletes should consider. The aggressive approach to making the hard days hard is beyond the ability of most amateurs to tolerate, recover effectively from it, and reap the rewards. Indeed, this high-stress regime has led to numerous injuries in the two older Ingebrigtsen brothers as well as countless others who have tried to employ this strategy.
Double-session days may be a risky but necessary addition for truly elite athletes who are near their true potential and can’t get enough of an adaptive stimulus from a single session. For the vast majority of us, one session is enough.
“A lot of the running community in Norway has tried to emulate this,” Seiler says. “And very few have had the same success—surprise, surprise. You almost never should try to mimic precisely what any athlete does. And in this case, you’re trying to mimic a very unique situation—the elite of the elite who have trained this way since they were 10 or 12—that’s very unlikely to be something [an amateur] can achieve. It’s a high-risk strategy.”
Instead—and this will come as no shock—Seiler, with good reason, recommends the low-risk polarized method for amateurs. He has found even the best athletes in the world can achieve significant progress with a much more conservative approach.
“Ninety percent of the time, 90% of athletes are going to have success. That’s the definition of a low-risk, high-reward model. That’s polarized,” Seiler says.
To that conservative approach, an athlete could consider adding the risk and the potential for reward by doing supercompensation blocks, overreaching protocols, and fancy double sessions. But they should do these things knowing it comes with a certain risk as an athlete.
For a deeper dive into the Norwegian method for endurance training, check out The Norwegian Method Podcast, launched in early 2024.