There’s not always a lot to learn from the success of elite athletes. “Train seven hours a day” or “be seven feet tall” are hard tips to follow.
But Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the Norwegian track star who just wrapped up one of the most successful long-distance running campaigns in recent memory, may be an exception. He’s the leading exponent of an unorthodox training philosophy that has come to be known as the “Norwegian model,” and its prime directive – keep your intensity at a medium level – just might be good advice for the rest of us.
Ingebrigtsen won the 1,500-metre title at the Tokyo Olympics two years ago at just 20 years old, and he has since added a couple more world titles. This summer, he notched world records in 2,000 metres and two miles, running back-to-back sub-four-minute miles in the latter event for a total time of 7:54.10.
But perhaps even more remarkable is that he’s not the only Norwegian setting the endurance world on fire lately. His countryman Kristian Blummenfelt won the Olympic triathlon title; Gustav Iden picked up an Ironman world championship. Ingebrigtsen’s older brother Filip is also a world championship 1,500-metre medalist, and his other older brother Henrik was fifth at the 2012 Olympics.
Good genes, you say? Ingebrigtsen’s father, Gjert, who coached all three brothers until an estrangement in 2022, guided another young runner – unrelated to the Ingebrigtsen clan – from the same small town, Sandnes, to a bronze medal at this year’s world championships 1,500-metre race.
The cluster of impressive performances is notable enough that an international team of endurance researchers published a journal article earlier this year asking whether the Norwegian approach, which was pioneered two decades ago by another Norwegian runner named Marius Bakken, is “the next step in the evolution of distance running training.”
Bakken charted a middle path between two common approaches to aerobic exercise: the gut-busting, all-out efforts of high-intensity interval training, and the more casual advice of public health guidelines to accumulate 150 minutes of exercise a week without worrying about the intensity. The former approach, he felt, often leads to overtraining and burnout; the latter is safe but not very effective.
The Norwegian way, in contrast, emphasizes threshold training: sustained efforts that seek the nebulous boundary between easy and hard. Elite athletes like Ingebrigtsen periodically measure the lactate levels in their blood, a metabolic byproduct of exercise that signals if they’re going too hard, by taking small pinpricks of blood from their fingers or earlobes in the middle of workouts. Measurements between 2.0 and 4.5 millimoles per litres signal that they’re in the right zone.
To approximate this sweet spot without a portable lactate meter, keep your subjective sense of effort at around 6 or 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. Alternatively, try talking to a training partner: you should be able to communicate in short phrases. Full sentences mean you’re going too easy; single words (or expletives) mean too hard. Break the workout into chunks of one to six minutes, aiming for a total of up to half an hour, with a one-minute break between intervals to prevent your intensity from drifting beyond the threshold zone.
The payoff is the ability to maximize the trade-off between how hard you exercise (and thus how much fitness you gain from a given workout) and how long it takes to recover before the next one. Pushing just 10-per-cent harder than the threshold zone fatigues you four to five times more quickly than exercise within the threshold zone, according to one study.
For Ingebrigtsen, this translates into the ability to do two threshold workouts in a single day, twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and evenings. Most of the rest of the week is devoted to large volumes of easy running, totalling more than 160 kilometres per week, plus a session of hill sprints on Saturdays.
How the rest of us might make our training a bit more Norwegian will vary widely depending on our goals and circumstances. Even Ingebrigtsen doesn’t do all threshold, all the time, so continue to mix in easy and hard workouts. But if you’re stuck in a rut, or not enjoying your workouts, some time in the Goldilocks intensity zone might prove to be just right.
Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience.