blog post 2023 06 20T140626.652

Obsessive Lactate Measurement Is NOT the Reason Norwegian Endurance Athletes Are Winning

There’s a phenomenon that armchair psychologists refer to as shiny object syndrome. You won’t find it mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (at least I hope you won’t), but its existence is widely acknowledged among lay observers of human nature. According to a Wikipedia writeup, “Shiny object syndrome is the situation where people focus undue attention on an idea that is new and trendy, yet drop this is as soon as something new takes its place.”

Underlying shiny object syndrome is another human psychological tendency known as salience bias. Wikipedia defines this one as “the cognitive bias that predisposes individuals to focus on items that are more prominent or emotionally striking and ignore those that are unremarkable, even though this difference is often irrelevant by objective standards.”

I see these two phenomena at play all the time in my role as a student of endurance sports. For example, when the runners of East Africa burst onto the international scene in the 1980s, exercise scientists and coaches in Europe and North America were quick to attribute their dominance to genetic advantages. There’s a name too for this insidious form of racism— superhumanization bias—but in essence it’s just another form of salience bias. From the perspective of white people, the salient difference between African runners and others is how they look, so we reflexively look to physiology to explain their success.

When sporting dominance occurs in a predominantly white group, other types of explanations are sought, but they are still influenced by salience bias. In the endurance world, it’s the recent success of Norway’s top athletes that has people searching for explanations. Except they’re not really searching, because everyone seems to agree that certain innovations in training methods (an emphasis on threshold training, blood lactate-guided workouts) are wholly responsible for the small nation’s disproportionate success on the world stage. One possible reason for this consensus is that methodological advances are indeed the primary catalyst of this resurgence. Another possibility is that endurance sports observers have once again fallen victim to shiny object syndrome and salience bias, zeroing in on the obsessive finger pricking that occurs in the workouts of some of Norway’s top athletes because it is the most obvious difference from what others are doing.

Personally, I’m skeptical of the first explanation, not because the Norwegian training innovations aren’t all that innovative, as other commentators have noted, but because it is well established that, in all cases, national and regional dominance in sports emerges out of cultures, and we have no reason to believe that the dominant nation du jour is an exception to this universal pattern. The example I like to cite when making this point is the Greater Boston Track Club, which ruled American distance running in the 1970s. Here’s how I describe the emergence of this particular culture in How Bad Do You Want It?, where the phenomenon in question is referred to as the group effect:

In 1979, four of the top five finishers at the U.S. cross-country championships were members of one team: the Greater Boston Track Club. That same year, four of the top 10 finishers at the Boston Marathon (including the winner, Bill Rodgers) were GBTC members.

As the home of the world’s oldest marathon, Boston was ground zero of the running boom that swept across America in the 1970s. In 1974, Bill Squires, a coach steeped in Arthur Lydiard’s revolutionary high-volume, low-intensity training method, became the first coach of the newly formed GBTC. Over the next several years, the Boston area produced a bumper crop of talented young runners. These were the conditions that brought initial success to the GBTC. But it was the group effect that eventually made it the most dominant team the sport had ever seen.

After Bill Rodgers won the Boston Marathon in 1975 (setting an American record in the process), the GBTC attracted young runners dreaming of greatness from all over the United States. Like Kenya’s runners today, these men and women were willing to risk everything in pursuit of their dream.

In the case of Norway, certain environmental conditions were in place long before the nation’s recent purple patch. These include a great passion for endurance sports rooted in cross country skiing, a sport Norwegians have kicked ass at for decades; a rich coaching tradition; and robust exercise science institutions that have more intimate linkages with elite sport than do the same institutions in most countries. The only sparks that were needed to set this ready tinder alight were a couple of exceptional coaches—which Norway got in Olav Bu and Gjert Ingebrigtsen—and a handful of extraordinary athletes, which it got in Kristian Blummenfelt, Gustav Iden, and Jakob Ingebrigtsen.

Jakob Ingebrigtsen

Jakob Ingebrigtsen gracious accepted a fan’s request that he sign a copy of my book “How Bad Do You Want It?” after winning the mile event at the 2021 Prefontaine Classic.

Yes, but what about the innovative training methods? I wouldn’t go so far as to dismiss this factor as a nonfactor. In almost every national or regional hot streak in sport there is a method involved that gets a lot of the credit, as the Lydiard method did in the case of the Greater Boston Track Club. But from a sociological perspective, I think that having a method is more important than the method itself. It gives the culture a sense of identity and inspires belief in athletes—factors that have at least as much impact on performance as small tweaks to standard training practices. Call it the special sauce effect.

Something else that is rarely noted in efforts to explain the so-called Norwegian wave is that the three athletes mentioned above are pretty much the extent of it. With the exception of Tobias Foss, no Norwegian athlete not named Blummenfelt, Iden, and Ingebrigtsen finished the 2022 season ranked among the top five in the world in a major non-winter endurance sport. I’m not taking anything away from the tremendous successes these few athletes have achieved, but if we’re being honest, the Norwegian wave is more of a ripple.

So why is it perceived as a Tsunami? Salience bias! Blummenfelt, Iden, and Ingebrigtsen haven’t just done well in their respective events, they’ve (to paraphrase Sebastian Coe) gripped these events by the throat and made them their own. Plus, Norway is a nation of just 5.4 million souls, a backdrop that casts the country’s achievements in bold relief, making shiny objects of them. What’s happening now in Norwegian endurance sports is exciting and worth celebrating, but that’s no reason to be lazy in our efforts to explain the phenomenon, allowing our cognitive biases to do the “thinking” we can’t be bothered with and drawing the wrong lessons.

By a happy coincidence, just as I was beginning to work on this post esteemed British exercise scientist Andrew Renfree published a post of his own that addresses related matters in a similar spirit. Titled “Are Herd Behavior and Survivorship Bias the Key Drivers of Contemporary Training Practices?”, it makes no explicit mention of Norway in the piece, but I strongly suspect that the hoopla surrounding Blummenfelt et al was its proximal inspiration. In any case, I urge you to read it, as it’s ten times smarter than anything else you’ve read on the topic.

Thank goodness for the Andrew Renfrees of the world. They put to good use their exasperation with the mindless groupthink that dominates public discourse in the endurance community, helping us see the core of truth hidden beneath the bright, shiny surface of memes like the Norwegian “Wave.”