I’ve always been interested and fascinated with what works and what does not work when it comes to endurance training. I’ve seen and heard many different philosophies and methods as to what works and how an endurance athlete should train. Of course, many roads lead to Rome and there are without a doubt many different ways to succeed. I would certainly say that the training culture in northern Europe is a bit different maybe then what it is in Southern or Eastern Europe. I will try and sum up what I’ve learned, observed and heard with regards to the “Norwegian” method vs. Continental Europe. Endurance training methodology in Norway consists of some key items:
1. As much as possible of the training is done outside, year round. Irrespective of weather conditions. We compete outside, so we train outside. We have access to some of the best natural training terrain in the world and use it well. As a side-benefit, if you are used to training in bad weather, you compete better in bad weather. One of the reasons for this “obsession” with outdoor training activities is simply that most citizens from a very young age is taught the joy of being outside, enjoying nature.
2. Cross-training. It is generally more accepted that an endurance athlete can improve his performance by using cross-training. In other words, a cyclist can become better by running, hiking and cross country skiing. He does not necessarily only have to ride his bike. This belief also allows us to train outside year round in a country that might not have 100% optimal conditions for cycling in the winter. In southern Europe the general feeling is that a cyclist can only become better by riding his bike. Running or skiing is a waste of time.
3. Long rides at medium intensity vs. shorter rides at high intensity. Traditionally, endurance training at home has been overwhelmingly dominated by lots and lots of long, relatively easy sessions and very few hard, high intensity sessions. In a nut-shell this would make up the yearly training program for cross country skiers, long distance runners and cyclists. It has become very “hip” recently to discard these long, “easy” rides and label them as a waste of time. Some scientists have gone as far as to say that this type of training is entirely wrong. Instead, they suggest more hard, threshold sessions and intervals. This they say, regardless of the fact that most successful elite endurance athletes, regardless of sport, never trained this way.
I will defend the traditional method and here is why: For an endurance athlete, about 90-98% of the performance is aerobic. The remaining 2-10% are anaerobic. So, in a 4 hour competition, as much as 3.92 hours would be aerobic and 0.08 hours would be anaerobic. In other words, you can train to improve your performance in the 3.92 hours or you can train to improve your performance in the 0.08 hours. Obviously, the potential for improvement is much greater in the 3.92 hours that are performed aerobically. Not to mention that the 0.08 hours of anaerobic performance is not that “trainable / improvable”. So, in short – traditional endurance training with about 90% of the total training volume per year focused on aerobic capacity (long rides with low-medium intensity) and the remaining 10% invested in intervals and tempo rides is more beneficial. The long, easy-moderate intensity rides (called langkjÃ¸ring in Norwegian) improves certain key physical attributes: increase incellularr mitochondria, improvement of the capillary blood vessel network and an increase in aerobic enzymes. These long rides also improves the body’s ability to utilize fat as an energy, leaving the more fast-burning carbohydrate energy for the short bursts of power in a race.
Even with these facts, many modern coaches are not recommending young athletes to focus on these long rides. A simplified way to look at an effective endurance athlete’s weekly training program, following traditional endurance training is: Hard, easy, easy, Hard, easy, easy. On a weekly basis it would be Hard, Harder, Hardest, Easy, in regards to volume.
4. Athlete vs. coach / team. I think we have been successful in treating each athlete as an individual and listening to the athlete. Just because you have a team of top, elite performers, does not mean that each one will not have specific individual needs. And those needs may vary from week to week or month to month. One training program will only fit one athlete, you cannot design one program and suggest that everyone follows it. Individual variables such as illness, recovery rates etc will throw that whole system off. Eastern European nations on the other hand have notnecessarilyy believed in this. They have required all athletes on the national team to follow the same training program, regardless of individual variables. This has in effect, lead to eastern European countries falling 10-15 years behind the “curve”.
A great example is the old Soviet cross country ski team and their training program. Between May and September everyone on the team had to follow this plan: Monday – 35 km rollerski in the morning and 1.5 hour run in the terrain in the afternoon. Tuesday – 2.5 hour run, uphill in the morning and 1.6 hour rollerski in the afternoon. Wednesday – 2.5 hour rollerski in the morning and 1 hour easy run in the afternoon. Thursday -strengtht-training and easy recovery training. Friday – 2.5 hours hard run in the morning and 1.5 hours rollerski in the afternoon. Saturday – 3 hour run or rollerski Sunday – rest with lots of sleep. In addition, they were forced to sleep at certain times. In other words, no consideration for the individual athlete. This program lead to great success for the athletes that “fit” the program and no success for the individual that needed something different. Many talentedskierss never realized their potential because of this rigidness. I think we have been successful in Norway, due to the concern for the individual.
5. Use of pharmaceuticals. One of the greatstrengthss we have in sports at home is the attitude towards taking any type of drug, legal or not. The use of any drug, pill, drink etc that is not natural is very rare. From bottom to top, we utilize very, very little products that “aid” athletes. In short, top training consists of running, skiing or biking outside combined with an afternoon nap and a good night sleep for recovery. The diet is a simple, sound composition of wheat bread, dairy products, potatoes, fish, lean meat and lots of vegetables and fruit. This is VERY different on the continent where athletes take all sorts of “recovery enhancing” products etc. I’m glad I got that attitude with me now, it makes it easier to make the correct choices in modern cycling where team doctors etc are always trying to give you something to “speed up recovery” etc.
I’m a full-time endurance athlete (cycling), with the 2012 London Olympics as my main goal. I maintain a blog, where I write about my ups and downs in training / racing as I work towards year 2012. http://roadrace1.blogspot.com/