Podcast, Training

Olav Aleksander Bu | EP#369

 December 19, 2022

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Olav Aleksander Bu - That Triathlon Show

Olav Aleksander Bu is the coach of Kristian Blummenfelt and Gustav Iden. He returns to the podcast (see also EP#264) for another in-depth discussion of training, racing, science, coaching and what makes these two athletes so exceptional.

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • Going from short-course to long-course and back again
  • Key swim, bike and run sessions for short course and long course, respectively
  • Recovery between races (e.g. Kristian becoming 70.3 World Champion 3 weeks after finishing 3rd in Kona)
  • An in-depth look into Kristian's and Gustav's swim training
  • The importance of specificity

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What Olav is doing at the moment

03:44 -

  • We continue looking to optimise our program, so I am in Marrocco to find better altitude training centres for Paris 2024.
  • I am a bit lower, but we would go to 2780m.
  • It is a bit higher than what we would like, but maybe we could make some changes to the program and see if we could take the next step.

Feelings about the Grand Final

04:49 -

  • It was shortly after Kona and St. George WC. (long course races)
  • So, we had limitations on what we could do because of the travel between the US and Europe.
  • Between Bermuda and St. George, it was only one week, and you can recover more with travel.
  • In Bermuda, performances exceeded our expectations, and our goal in Abu Dhabi was to place top 10.
  • Kristian came 8º. Gustav did not feel well on the bike. Still, with the performance in Bermuda, we are optimistic about the return because we did not do much speed and specific required work necessary to be competitive in WTS racing.

Reviewing 2022 athletic performances

06:51 -

  • It was on par with what we could expect.
  • There were some changes throughout the year because of some issues, which created more noise in the program.
  • Of course, I would like to be even faster on Kona, but improving the record was good.
  • However, I am confident we will go faster than 7h30 in Kona.

Calendar in 2023

08:27 -

  • Everything depends on the return to WTS racing.
  • Initially, we wanted to stabilise our performances on the podium and to get there; we probably needed six months to achieve that goal.
  • The first part of the year will be on making changes to understand the demands of getting to the podium again.
  • If things move faster than we expect, it will open the possibility to do long course racing again. If that does not happen, we will not risk harming the program to do long-course racing.
  • The PTO and 70.3 races are more doable because they do not need the level of specialisation that Ironman needs.
  • There might be some updates, but the first WTS race will be in Abu Dhabi on 4th March.
  • Then, the schedule for the WTS racing is open until Yokohama in late May.

Challenges of transitioning from long to short-distance

12:32 -

  • On one side, it can be age. Athletes transitioning from short to long-course tend to be towards the end of their careers. (performances on short courses are falling behind)
  • There are also structural changes happening that take more time to reverse. (for example, reacquiring the speed for WTS racing)
  • Therefore, age and muscular and cardiovascular structural changes might be the primary causes.
  • Mixing both disciplines will require more training volume than what most athletes have been doing, even at a high level.
  • After the Olympics, we did many tests. (mRNA testing to more typical ways of lab testing)
  • It is a program that will end in December. We use the following metaphor: you have water with a pH of 7 and mix it with WTS racing, which is more acidic, and Ironman racing, which is more alkaline.
  • Kristian was a perfect example of a balance (pH 7) out of the Olympics. Now, he is more alkaline.
  • You can use two ways to transition from alkaline to more acidic racing.
  • You can do a significant amount of specificity to return to pH 7. However, will you come back to pH seven or pH 7.2? Or can we pour some acid to bring it back to normal?
  • We did many measurements, but we are still determining the outcome.
  • Training remains similar, with some changes to bring that "pH" down faster to the Olympic level.
  • However, it is a learning process.

Muscular structural changes

17:20 -

  • The challenge with physiology is that we can measure some parts, but there is also a lot we cannot measure.
  • Ultimately, it will come back to measuring performance as a function of speed and power. Metabolics start to get too far away.
  • It will be around muscle changes in muscle fibre typology, recruitment, and structural changes to the heart.
  • You do not need a big heart in Ironman racing as you need in WTS racing because power outputs are lower, and oxygen consumption will be lower.
  • It takes some time to get a stimulus to "grow the heart enough" to be powerful for WTS racing.
  • Age also reduces flexibility in everything, meaning the stimulus required is different to bring it back.
  • However, we do not know. We have many ideas of the causes, so we have to find metrics we can quantify and learn as we go and the induced changes.
  • We understand the change and then determine the resistance to reversing that process to the average data.

How long-distance racing is becoming as competitive as short-distance

20:42 -

  • One crucial difference between WTS, Olympic and long-course racing is that people involved in long-course racing obsess more about details, ideas and measurements. Still, they cannot break them down into a program that makes those ideas excel.
  • In WTS racing, you will find many coaches that do not use much technology and base their work on more empirical knowledge of what does and does not work.
  • They must be more pragmatic, logical and straightforward in their programming.
  • It requires them to see the people they work with on a different level than in Ironman racing.
  • Coaches that learn how to train without technology and then start to bring specific things to answer some questions are better prepared than coaches that go the other way.
  • You can obsess with details and some metrics, and they do not realise that there are more things we cannot measure than those we can.
  • A coach needs to check what athletes are doing and focus on how fast they cover a distance from A to B, which is the only thing that matters in the end.
  • You can put more technology once you start optimising what you are doing.
  • Coaches in WTS racing are closer to peak human performance than in Ironman racing.
  • And this will change eventually.
  • For example, you will not find a 1500m runner that will win a marathon and vice versa.
  • The demands of an Ironman are different from those in WTS racing.
  • When people bring it closer to peak human performance, you cannot get those margins in 2-3 weeks of training.

How Kristian and Gustav can recover from racing so fast

26:06 -

  • There are some crucial aspects.
  • The first would be training volume. Taking an athlete who trains ten hours per week to do an Ironman will impact him significantly doing that race.
  • Athletes doing 30-40 hours per week and doing an Ironman will have a tough day because they will have a day of 7-8 hours of all-out effort.
  • However, the ratio between the load and what your body has adapted to is not extreme. 
  • The recovery time will be lower. An athlete with a lower training volume will struggle more because the athlete does not have the training to do something for 10 hours in one day.
  • One of the biggest mistakes is that athletes do not have enough patience.
  • A race like Kona is a race but also a massive stimulus to the body.
  • When you start following your training block, allowing the body to adapt from this stimulus will make you stronger afterwards.
  • If you push more workouts too early will slow down adaptation, and, worst case, you will not get the adaptation.
  • Coaches should have good dialogues with athletes and understand how athletes respond to training.
  • However, do not be afraid of bringing it down.
  • Kristian and Gustav are doing some of the most significant training volumes.
  • After Kona, we had a few days of easy training, but the hard or moderate intensity does not mean a hard workout.
  •  A hard workout is a combination of time and intensity. You can have high-intensity intervals during a session, which will be easy.
  • If you bring that volume, it will start to be hard.
  • A low-intensity session will be hard if you put enough volume on it.
  • We tried to bring in some specific 1.5 weeks after Kona concerning the training load. (gradually building towards that)
  • Training after Kona was primarily easy, keeping it at an "enjoyable level", and as they started to feel the body responding again, we brought the volume.

Differences in the swim preparation phase for WTS and Ironman racing

32:00 -

  • You have to build the fundamentals around specificity, but if you have that, specificity will be crucial.
  • In Kona, you need to swim fast for 3.8 km.
  • For Ironman racing, we will do much longer intervals. We can have continuous swims close to 4km long, but the crucial sessions would have shorter intervals. (500-1000m intervals)
  • However, we do not use that much.
  • In swimming, we do much more interval-based training.
  • The closer we get to the race, the more specific it becomes. You will swim 3.8 km and then get on the bike. So, we need to adapt to that.
  • If we do 500-1000m intervals, the recoveries will be short with 1-2 min recoveries.
  • The specificity will not come in the first 1000m. Specificity will be when we get close to 3000m, and your technique starts falling apart.
  • If you do five-minute breaks, you give yourself enough time to bring down your core temperature and HR, and you will be much fresher going into the next interval.
  • It can cause a false impression that it looks pretty good when the athlete fails after 2500m when shortening the recovery period.
  • If that happens in a race, that is not good because the race does not finish when you come off the water.
  • You must pace yourself as if the swim is the warm-up for the rest of the race.
  • Concerning WTS racing, we changed the training volume compared to the last Olympic cycle.
  • We have an idea of how the course will look in France and the strategies to implement.
  • Therefore, we must improve our swimming speed compared to what we have done in the past.
  • The fastest swimmer will not necessarily win the race, but you must be fast and stay in the front.
  • We have seen that in Bermuda and Abu Dhabi. If a strong breakaway goes, you have to be strong to close that gap and finish strong, as Kristian did in Edmonton last year. He came out of the water late and bridged the whole gap.
  • However, he had the preparation to do that kind of racing.
  • The key sessions leading into the race will look like the ones we did before, but with shorter intervals. (e.g. 4x400m or shorter intervals at race pace)
  • The swim split will be less than 100 % effort (95%).

Cycling and running sessions

39:22 -

  • The crucial session for Kona will depend on the period.
  • For example, the week before, we could do 180 km close to the race or at the race pace.
  • The same for running: 40 km combined with biking
  • The closer we get to the race, the more I will use days as intervals in the same way you break down your training.
  • We break down the race in a microcycle.
  • We might do a swim, bike day with a short run (or skip the run).
  • The day after will be specific shorter bike and run sessions to cover the total distance.
  • The only thing that would not be specific these days would be the warm-up.
  • On the first day, they could warm up a bit on the swim, but going into a 4-km swim and doing 180 km on the bike.
  • The breaks between sessions are to fill up the bottles and talk slightly about the session. (maximum a couple of minutes)
  • On the bike, we could do short breaks every 40-50 km to take some measurements.
  • The run would follow the same principles. The bike session would be slightly shorter because of the sessions performed the day before.
  • Therefore, they would do the full marathon with short breaks to fuel up and do some measurements.

10-20min intervals

43:22 -

  • If you have instruments, you will get objective measurements of what you want to look for in training.
  • However, we must understand what we are trying to adapt our athletes to in training.
  • Athletes can run much faster than race pace if they shorten the intervals.
  • You can also shorten the session and make it more intense.
  • If you ask Kipchoge how it feels to run 10min at marathon pace, he will tell you it will feel effortless for 20-30 km.
  • After that, he will tell you that he could not run a second faster than he did.
  • RPE is a scale that lacks the dimension of time.
  • The threshold should feel 7-8 RPE, and the ironman pace should feel 4-5.
  • However, you will never get to the finish line of an Ironman and feel that pace as a 5.
  • Fatigue is too often a neglected factor because we are afraid of prescribing it.
  • If we neglect it, we will not be able to excel.
  • If you shorten the segments, you will not get the adaptations you want for racing.
  • In a race, you must do 3.8 km swimming, 180 km cycling and 42 km running.
  • If you do a run a day with no fatigue in the body, a 40 km run at race pace should feel easy when you have not done the bike up front.
  • For most athletes, the limitation is executing efficiently despite accumulating more fatigue.
  • We will return to other parameters later that are crucial for people who focus on these races.

Cycling and run sessions for WTS racing

47:19 -

  • Ironman racing is steadier than WTS racing. Some athletes try to do breakaways, but the power variations are minor.
  • In WTS, there are pelotons and more intensity variations, so specificity is about bringing the elements for each race event.
  • For example, in 2018, we checked the Bermuda course and accessed where we could impact the race. If we have the strongest riders in triathlon and make the race hard, we know we will get to the climbs, and most athletes will be fatigued.
  • If they want to break into the hill, it will significantly fatigue the competition. We know that if we open a gap at the end of the hill, we can sit at the threshold comfortably.
  • The other athletes have to surge for a couple of seconds to bring the gap down-
  • WTS racing is much more dynamic and has less field control because tactics differ.
  • If you have the fundamentals in place and can introduce specificity, you know that you will cover close to 40 km, so we split the session in splits of "biking/running" consecutively. (to get 40 km on the bike and 10 km on the run and work on transitions)

Training according to the limitations of the athlete


  • I look at this from a different perspective.
  • During a week, athletes have adapted to train a specific number of hours (25 hours per week example)
  • If you want to perform well in each session, you need to recover between those sessions to progress throughout the plan.
  • We train to do the fastest triathlon.
  • We do not prioritise cycling work because we think it is the primary way of being competitive.
  • What we think is that if we put much work into the swim, it will slow down the triathlon in general.
  • Kristian won the WTS and Olympics, coming out of the water with a 30s deficit.
  • It will come down to what will allow us to run the fastest race by combining the swim, bike and run.
  • If it means that we need to be better at swimming, it will have a higher cost, so we will have to change other parts of the program instead.
  • If we reach a level where people can organise themselves in a peloton, which is challenging to bridge, we need to move the focus to the swim to work on it.
  • We know we can make Kristian and Gustav faster swimmers, but will that make the triathlon faster?

Training distribution for the different disciplines

54:28 -

  • It will come down to what will bring the athlete the fastest to the finish line.
  • In an Ironman, swimming represents a smaller fraction of the total race than a WTS race.
  • Therefore, we can focus more on the other disciplines. (especially on the run)
  • The Olympic training we did leading to Tokyo differs from what we will do for Paris.
  • Swimming distances will most likely come down the distance, with an increase in velocity because of the race course.
  • Generally, swimming time is around seven hours per week.

Paris course

56:59 -

  •  It is not published yet, but they are swimming in the river close to the Eiffel Tower, and the course seems to be close to a TT course will few technical parts.
  • If you have a team leader and two domestique triathletes, you will look to maintain the gap after the swim.
  • The French squad are strong swimmers, so we can infer this will likely be a scenario.
  • Therefore, we must focus more on the swim because the race could play out differently with the other teams.

Weekly swimming program

59:18 -

  • I do not prescribe training weekly.
  • We could work on micro cycles from two days to longer cycles.
  • Generally, we would see 2-3 harder sessions in a typical week.
  • When preparing for Kona, we targeted some sessions to focus on some limiters and apply them to the specificities of the race.
  • Kristian has some limitations around his movement because of his body physiology, so we focus on areas when he is in the pool.
  • For Gustav, it was a technical limitation. He has fantastic technique at low intensities. However, at race pace, that does not happen.
  • Therefore, we focused on bringing mental awareness and building speed with good technique.
  • In swimming, we focus on speed-oriented training.
  • It will depend on the session. If it is a specific session, time in distance dictates the session.
  • We use more tools during the preparation period far away from racing. (e.g. VO2 and lactate)
  • We have a partnership with Form Goggles because swimming is an underdeveloped sport.
  • In swimming, we do not have any real-time feedback; as a coach, giving specific feedback to their swimming is challenging.
  • The Goggles will allow athletes to connect their feeling to speed and intensity and understand what a specific effort should feel like in real time.
  • If you ask athletes to rotate at 45º, very few will do it. But if you ask them to rotate at 60º, they will find a disconnection between what is happening in reality and their perception.
  • We use lactate on slower sessions to ensure things are slow enough.
  • During the preparation period, the metabolism dictates the intensity, while closer to the race, the speed dictates the intensity.

Translating pool and open water speed

1:07:31 -

  • You can do some translations concerning speed.
  • But you cannot directly translate pool speed to open water speed.
  • We know that if we can stay at a specific target in the pool, we will stay in the first group when we come out of the water.
  • It is more about understanding what capacity the athlete needs to have with some reserve to be in the correct position independently of the conditions.

Olav's favourite piece of equipment

1:09:09 -

  • One of the most exciting things we did last year was that we are developing software that allows us to put all these parameters in a way that allows us to track progression in a more meaningful way.
  • Even though I have some limitations on my time and putting data from all these sensors into sense, having this software will allow us to have a bigger picture of training concerning efficiency and technique, as well as the load for athletes.

Rapid-fire questions

1:10:59 -

What is your favourite place to train?

Font Romeu.

What is a bucket list race you would want to do?

I do not do races. I just want to get fitter.

If you could acquire any skill in an instant, what would it be?

Reading human brains


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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