It’s a line that has never left me. At the Diamond League in Stockholm in June 2018, a few days after Jakob Ingebrigtsen ran 3:36.06 for 1500m, I asked the Norwegian wunderkind how he was able to run such times at the age of 17. “I’ve been a professional runner since I was eight, nine, 10 years old,” he said.
The man who presided over this long-term project is his dad, Gjert, who also coached Jakob’s older brothers Filip (28) and Henrik (30) to the top – Filip was a world bronze medallist in 2017, Henrik a European champion, who was fifth in the 2012 Olympic final. The brothers’ story is one that would make those worried about teenage burnout wince, but in this specific case, there’s no denying it has produced results.
In Tokyo, on Saturday night, shortly after Jakob routed the field to win Olympic 1500m gold, the 20-year-old’s father discussed his journey to this point. How many miles a week does Jakob run? “A lot of mileage,” he said, without elaborating.
Gjert had no background in the sport before his sons started. “He learned as we went along,” said Henrik. “He read all the books and talked to all the right people.”
By the age of three, Jakob was already scooting about on cross-country skis as his older brothers logged heavier sessions before school in their hometown of Sandnes. Gjert made many mistakes coaching Henrik and Filip, but he rectified them with Jakob.
“Jakob is a product of accumulated knowledge over time because, when we started, we didn’t know anything,” he explains. “Henrik had a lot of injuries because we did a lot of wrong things. The talent is equal between the boys, but we now have enough knowledge to put Jakob on top.”
The training they do is high volume with strictly controlled intensity – blood lactate measurements are taken during interval sessions to keep them at the right threshold. As renowned Australian coach Nic Bideau once said, consistency trumps volume, volume trumps intensity. The Ingebrigtsens follow a similar approach.
By the age of 16, Jakob was already running 80 miles a week, double that of most European distance runners of the same age. But unlike many who might try that volume in their mid-teens, his body didn’t break – Gjert also using hill workouts and weights to increase his strength and improve his running economy.
During his teenage years, Jakob’s times were off the charts. He ran 3:42 for 1500m at the age of 15, a 3:56 mile at 16, and was double European senior champion at 17.
Training with his brothers has helped, says Gjert, but chiefly for the enjoyment it brings to an ascetic lifestyle. “I don’t think the competitive thing is most important. It’s socialising together, being together as brothers.”
Having a stable of athletes this good – some of the few non-Africans able to mix it in global distance-running – brings inevitable suspicion. Gjert has long railed against doping and at one event this year, he was incensed about an athlete whose breakthrough made no sense to him, and, indeed, many others.
“I hope they ask all the questions,” he says of Jakob’s performance in Tokyo. “I hope they intensify all the testing. I’ve said for many years we want to see a more fair sport, and we welcome all testing. I think we provide hope for many kids and athletes in Europe, and other places, that it’s possible to do.”
It’s something Jakob also espouses, having turned the tables on Timothy Cheruiyot of Kenya, who he had a 0-12 record against before Tokyo.
“With hard work from an early age, if you’re dedicated and have a good training programme, you can basically achieve anything,” he said.
Gjert and his sons have a fractious relationship at times, as shown in the Norwegian reality TV series, Team Ingebrigtsen. He is the dictator pushing them to succeed. They are, mostly, willing participants, if, occasionally, rebellious. One area Jakob refuses to listen is when it comes to racing, given his dad’s lack of experience.
“I’m not allowed to talk to Jakob about tactics,” says Gjert. “He said, ‘This is my race and I don’t want you to interfere’. I asked him, ‘Do you have a plan?’ ‘Yes, I have a plan’. ‘Are you going to win?’ ‘Yes, I’m going to win’. That was all.”
And now that he has won, there seems few limits for his future. Gjert says Jakob has precious little room for improving his endurance, given the huge aerobic foundation he’s already built, but he thinks his speed can get better. The 1500m world record of 3:26.00 has been unchallenged since Hicham El Guerrouj set it in 1998, but maybe not for much longer.
“He can go under it. I think we will see 3:25 in a year or two,” says Gjert.
While one Ingebrigtsen now rules the world, it’s worth noting that their distance-running dynasty might not end with Jakob.
“I have a seven-year-old,” laughs Gjert. “He doesn’t run, but he does a lot of other sports. He is very talented.”