Henrik Ingebrigtsen on why brother Jakob is still the man to beat – AW

    “On a bad day, Jakob is always there. On a good day no one’s close,” says the eldest of the Ingebrigtsen running brothers

    Henrik Ingebrigtsen raises a finger and points in the direction of Laeken Park. It’s the day before the European Cross Country Championships and we are sat in a quiet corner of a downtown Brussels hotel. Around us teem athletes from across the continent, all decked out in their national colours, contemplating the off-road assignment that awaits them.

    The Norwegian is relaxed. He’s been here before and his gesture towards the course venue is because we are reminiscing. His first experience of this event came during the last time it was staged in the Belgian capital, in 2008, and he has been a regular competitor ever since.

    “We like to compete and it’s a good opportunity to test your fitness level,” says the 2012 under-23 champion. “It’s a good reality check to see how well you’ve done in training.”

    The following day, Ingebrigtsen would finish an encouraging 12th in the men’s race as he continues to wage war against injury, the second athlete to count as his country won team bronze. First home for Norway was Magnus Tuv Myrhe, the 23-year-old’s strong finish bringing him the silver medal.

    Under normal circumstances, it would have been a fellow countryman, also aged 23, leading the way but injury meant this was the first time since 2015 that serial champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen had not competed at the European Cross. As with most things, it is a competition the four-time under-20 and two-time senior men’s champion has been able to bend to his will and had become the traditional way for him to finish his year with a flourish.

    Little was normal for him in 2023, though. As ever, the prolific racer competed across the circuit and stamped his authority on his chosen disciplines, scooping up the European indoor 1500m and 3000m titles, Diamond League trophies, European records for 1500m, the mile and 3000m, as well as a 2000m world record and world best for two miles. He successfully defended his 5000m world crown, too.

    Away from the track, at the end of the season he married his long-term partner Elisabeth, while the couple have also been building a new house in Ingebrigtsen’s home town of Sandnes in Norway.

    Jakob Ingebrigtsen (Getty)

    As the world now knows, though, family life has not all been a cause for celebration. In the middle of October Jakob, Henrik and their fellow athlete brother Filip accused their father Gjert, who coached them all to international success, of abusive behaviour.

    The siblings stopped working with him at the beginning of 2022, initially stating it was due to health problems Gjert was suffering from. However, in a piece entitled ‘This is our story‘ on the Norwegian website VG, they wrote: “We have grown up with a father who has been very aggressive and controlling and who has used physical violence and threats as part of his upbringing. We still feel discomfort and fear which has been in us since childhood. Two years ago, the same aggression and physical punishment struck again. It was the drop that made the cup run over.”

    Gjert, who was not at Jakob’s wedding, denies the allegations and has turned his coaching attentions to Narve Gilje Nordås, another Norwegian athlete who won 1500m bronze at the World Championships back in August. In fact he did so just a stride behind Jakob, who for the second year in a row had been denied the gold medal by a fast-finishing Briton. While it had been Jake Wightman inflicting the damage in 2022, this time it was Josh Kerr.

    Listening to Henrik, who now takes the bulk of the responsibility for the logistics around how he, Jakob and Filip train and work together, he suggests there was no way his brother could handle the stress of all of the above factors without something going wrong somewhere along the line. Illness hit during that 1500m mission and it proved costly.

    Jake Wightman leads Jakob Ingebrigtsen (Getty)

    “I think the first time [when Wightman won in Oregon] it really bothered Jakob because he said he made a tactical error and he just didn’t run fast enough,” says Henrik. “When it came down to sprinting, he didn’t have the speed.

    “I think he proved he has improved the speed but winning the silver in Budapest, in his condition, I think didn’t bother him that much because he didn’t feel close to his best.”

    In the immediate aftermath of that defeat, Jakob told the media: “It won’t be a big deal to try and race Josh Kerr again… he was just the next guy. If I hadn’t run in the final, he probably would have won. Obviously, if you stumble in a race, someone is going to win the race, he was just the next guy.”

    His brother agrees with the assessment.

    “It’s like Jakob said, and I think it’s well put, that he [Josh Kerr] is just the next guy,” says Henrik. “If you take the winner out of the equation, then it’s the next guy who will win. But, of course, [Jakob] wants gold and he wants to do everything it takes to win the gold, but sometimes it comes down to just being lucky, I guess.

    “This year has also been a little bit more stressful for Jakob than I think is healthy for an elite athlete. It’s not just all the stuff going on in our team, but also getting married and building a house – it’s just a bad idea to put that all on top of each other.

    “It’s a difficult situation to stand on the starting line and trying to perform with all these things that are not related to sport stressing you or dragging you down. He seems to be able to do it quite often and it’s impressive consistency he can produce but in my opinion this summer he was a little bit unlucky.”

    Jakob Ingebrigtsen and Josh Kerr (Getty)

    Jakob is an athletics reporter’s dream. He is someone who is always at the centre of the race, someone who will always stop to take questions – win or lose – and someone who always gives interesting answers, some of which can lead to a perception of arrogance.

    “There’s a fine, fine line between being arrogant and being confident or believing in yourself. I would say Jakob believes in himself,” says Henrik. “For example, before the Diamond League Final in Eugene, he told Yared Nuguse: ‘Just try to keep up with me and I’ll make you break the US record [for the mile]’. That would seem cocky but he meant it, right? ‘If you stay behind me, I can almost guarantee you a US record’.

    “He’s not taking shots at anyone or criticising anyone or anything like that, but for someone who doesn’t know Jakob or doesn’t know his level or doesn’t know what they’re talking about it would seem like arrogance. I can understand why people can see it as that.

    “But what he saying is that: ‘I’m running fast and I’m running to this goal and if you’re behind me, you’re also running towards that goal. I’m competing against you but I’m running fast. Try to keep up’.”

    Jakob was true to his word and Nuguse did indeed go home a national record-breaker, having clung to his Norwegian foe for all his worth. Jakob, for his part, ran the third-quickest mile in history and behind them a string of PBs and other national marks fell, such was the searing pace which had been set.

    Jakob, Filip and Henrik Ingebrigtsen (Getty)

    Yet Henrik feels that, because his brother has made such feats seem more like standard practice than spectacular, there is perhaps a wider under-appreciation of exactly what is involved in pulling them off. He cites the example of Jake Heyward, silver medallist at the last European Championships in Munich.

    “One the British guys almost didn’t make the final,” he recalls. “He ended up winning a medal but he only made it to the final on time [rather than being an automatic qualifier]. He tried to copy Jakob, he tried to run in front and control it and look strong. He was one of the best guys but he still couldn’t do it and that just proves my point that people don’t understand how difficult this is.”

    As was shown in the reality TV show Team Ingebrigtsen, the siblings are a competitive bunch but that doesn’t mean they don’t look out for each other. Asked if he feels he wants to protect Jakob, Henrik’s response is emphatic.

    “All the time,” he says. “At the World Championships I was glad I wasn’t Jakob and I wasn’t having to try to perform under those circumstances. As a brother, I try to protect him as much as I can but it normally ends up with me looking like the bad guy.”

    He adds: “People outside of our small world, our small circle, obviously don’t have the full picture. Often people make up their mind or have an opinion based on assumptions. Many have no idea what they’re talking about, but rant away with opinions and that can be frustrating. Sometimes it’s not possible to block it out and it’s hard to perform under those circumstances.”

    Jakob Ingebrigtsen (Getty)

    The attention is not going to go away any time soon and nor will Jakob shy away from it. There is also a showmanship to how he competes. Back in March of 2021 he told AW: “My main goal is to be too fast for everyone else, which means that I can basically do what I want and still win.”

    That much has been evident to Henrik, who could see exactly what his brother was doing in Eugene in 2022 when, days after being beaten by Wightman, he gradually picked his way through the field of the 5000m final before moving into the lead with 600m to go and strangling the life out his opponents as he surged to a first world title.

    “I’m sometimes impressed by Jakob’s mentality,” says Henrik. “He could have just stayed behind in Eugene during the 5000m, then sprinted and won the gold but he didn’t want to win like that. He wanted to win by proving: ‘I’m the strongest guy’ and that says a lot about him. It’s not about the medals, it’s also about how you win them so he would never be the guy who sprints past in the last 50 metres. Doing it that way means you’re not the best guy, just that you had the best race.”

    Not many competitions have taken place so far in 2024 but, already, it’s not hard to work out what the best race of the year is likely to be. With Kerr making no secret of his ambition and getting some trash talking in early, Wightman fit again, Nordås looming and young talent like Niels Laros and Cameron Myers waiting to pounce, you can already ink the men’s Olympic 1500m final in the diary as one to watch.

    Jakob Ingebrigtsen (Matthew Quine for Diamond League AG)

    But Jakob is the reigning champion and, with one of the prime criticisms aimed at him being that he has struggled in the event when pacemakers are removed from the equation, will he have a point to prove?

    “I think so,” says Henrik. “To my mind it says a lot that he’s the one runner that’s always there. Even on a bad day, he’s always there.

    “It’s difficult to be the one that everyone looks at for setting the race. I’ve seen what he’s capable of but being able to produce that in competitions, it’s difficult.

    “On a good day, no one’s close. Even with a fever and a cold he still managed a silver and a gold in Budapest and that says a lot about his potential right now. And what he did in Eugene, at the last Diamond League, to me that was crazy stuff. Producing those two results [the European mile and 3000m records] – not just winning, but crazy fast times – he exceeded what I thought was possible.”

    Can he do the same in Paris this summer? The world will be watching.

    Henrik on the “Norwegian system” of training

    There has long been a fascination about how Team Ingebrigtsen trains. The prevalence of “the Norwegian method”, which involves an emphasis on threshold running and monitoring lactate levels to find the sweet spot in terms of staying on the right side of the red line, plus high mileage, is a proven winner.

    It is a template which was implemented by Gjert but, after the Ingebrigtsen brothers moved away from their father, how they go about their training business together has become a more collaborative affair.

    Henrik has been credited as taking the lead but he says: “I might have a bigger responsibility than Filip and Jakob but we are very much independent and we try to do our own coaching in a way but use each other as sparring partners.

    “When it comes to planning training camps and travel and stuff like that then I’m probably more in charge there but we have a good training programme and we very much agree with most of the training we plan to do. We’re always discussing the best way forward.

    Jakob Ingebrigtsen and Elisabeth Asserson (Getty)

    “It’s a little bit different for me and Filip because we’re just training to reach the level where we can be, but Jakob is exploring new territories. So the same training you did last year? It’s not good enough for this year because then there’s no room for improvement. But me and Filip, we still have room for improvement within the training we have already planned.

    “If you just do traditional training and capacity work and high mileage, then that’s super easy. Almost everyone can do it, right? If you do the lactic measurement also, then it’s almost foolproof. But how to get that good endurance capacity into something quite fast on the track – that’s the tricky part.”

    Does Henrik find it funny, though, that the wider world has taken heed of what the brothers are doing?

    “I find it logical,” he says. “It would be crazy not to try to copy what’s been proven to work as well as it has. It’s not just all three of us. Potentially there could be something like 10 Norwegian runners at the Olympics. That’s crazy from a population of four or five million people and most of them skiers. We’re getting a lot out of what’s there.”

    A little sibling rivalry must surely help the training dynamic, too. Do the brothers still try to outdo each other?

    “All the time, but in a constructive way now,” says Henrik. “Around 2017-18 I think there was too much pushing. But now, we try to outperform each other by executing the workouts to perfection. Not running faster and faster and faster. It’s all about execution.

    “I think a lot of people have also learned in the last few years how to execute this training to really close to perfection and that’s why we see the rise in results and level.”

    Jakob Ingebrigtsen (Getty)

    Why the 1500m is a fast-changing event

    Given that he was European champion back in 2012, Henrik Ingebrigtsen has been able to witness first hand just how the 1500m has changed. What he sees taking place now compared to 10 or so years ago, the two-time Olympian describes as being “almost like another discipline”.

    The 32-year-old admits that his brothers’ methods, plus the performances of Jakob, have played a significant role in that advancement. The times needed to be competitive have dropped sharply. If being able to run under 3:30 used to be seen as a major landmark, now it’s a job requirement.

    “Championship races never used to be faster than 3:34 or 3:35,” says Henrik. “But now, running
    sub-3:30 in the championship race, and being able to do that almost solo with just someone trying to pass you in the end? It’s crazy.

    “Jakob has made everyone else rise in level and not only that I think runners that normally run around 3:33 to 3:34 can almost break 3:30 now because it’s so optimal the way he races. Everyone can just find their place in line and there are no distractions.

    “Asbel Kiprop used to break the field in the first lap and then everyone else was just left to pick up the pieces, trying to put the race together. That was the way we raced. It’s almost like a different discipline.

    “That’s a big change but also there used to be a 20 per cent chance of a good race – with tactics and pacemaking – and I think that has moved to 95 per cent now.  It gives everyone a good chance to run fast every race and I think that’s a cool thing.

    “Other than that, I think most of the runners now are fitter endurance wise than the guys from 10 to 15 years ago. Back then some guys used to do crazy, crazy workouts – running hard sessions you couldn’t believe. But now I think people are containing themselves and training more rationally.”

    Jakob Ingebrigtsen (Getty)

    Because of your methods?

    “I think so. We always believed in training to your level and not training to the level you wish you had. Because that’s not constructive.

    “I feel proud that I have managed to change something that’s way bigger than myself.  And also I feel a lot of pride in seeing a Diamond League race, where there’s 10, 12 different nationalities. There’s so many more people who can perform from different places and I think that says a lot about our sport.

    “I feel like middle distance and long distance running is stronger as a sport than it’s been in many, many years and it’s because of the diversity and because of the high level across the board. If I had a part in helping make running into what it is today, I feel proud of that.”

    » This article first appeared in the January issue of AW magazine, which you can read here

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