Coach and GB athlete Jo Wilkinson talks through the session that help make her feel invincible

Is there really ONE session that can make all the difference to your running?

In truth its consistency of training over time that makes the real long-term difference. However, for every athlete (and coach) there’s always one session that they believe gives them the extra edge to be at their best when it counts.

For me, Bondarenko was always THAT session. But “oh my goodness!” was it hard. Whenever I ran any Bondarenko I would feel like I had taken my 10k training to the next level. When I ran a good Bondarenko – I would feel invincible!

So what is Bondarenko and what can it do for you?

‘Bondarenko’ was devised and named after the Russian athlete Olga Bondarenko. Her and her coach devised the session to address her shortcomings in 10,000ms. The session aims to improve both endurance and speed over 10k. Specifically it develops your ability to change pace in competitive races. All credit to my coach Alex Stanton for introducing the group at Bedford and County AC to ‘Bondarenko’.

It’s the ultimate 10k training session (although the full session comes in at a huge 12k not including the warm up and cool down). In essence the session mixes short fast reps with hard recoveries. From a physiological perspective it is an extreme form of new interval training where the fitness benefits arise from the unusually fast paced “recovery” sections.

You have to be pretty fit to even attempt a Bondarenko. It’s not for beginners. It takes an enormous amount of drive and determination to get it right, let alone make it good. But if you can – then its not just good for 10ks but any distance from 5k to half marathon.

The structure of the session

It sounds deceptively easy. Sets of 400ms, 300ms, 200ms and 100ms with the same distance recovery as each rep. It adds up to 2k for each set. But the sting in the tail comes in the recovery runs. These are not jogs. They are run at a much faster pace than most recoveries. Then to add to the challenge, the sets are run continuously back to back in blocks.

The full sessions consists of blocks of 3 sets, 2 sets and 1 set with 4-5 minutes recovery between each block.

The secret to a successful Bondarenko session is make sure you run the right pace for your reps and recovery runs. The recovery pace is almost more important than the rep pace. Then make sure you don’t overcook the first set or you will struggle to finish the block.

Like all good endurance session, it comes down to your ability to push yourself on when you start to get tired. Especially at the end of each rep as you must go straight into the recovery run. Maybe that’s why I liked it so much? It trains you both physically and mentally to keep going and work harder even when all you want to do is stop.

What is the right pace?

It takes some maths work out. Ideally you should aim to run the reps at your 5k pace, or slightly faster for the shorter reps. The recovery runs are approx. steady run pace. I usually work it out on a ratio of 3:4 for reps to recovery pace per 100ms (subject to fitness).

What does that look like in practice? Well for me at my best (running just under 16 minutes for 5000ms) my sessions worked out like this for each 2k set:

400m reps 76s, 400ms recovery 1.36
300m reps 56s, 300ms recovery 1.12
200m reps 36s, 200m recovery 48s
100m reps 18s, 100m recovery 24s

That works out as 7.06 per 2k set or an average of 3.33/km.

No wonder I ended each session invariably collapsed on the inside of the track groaning loudly!

How to get started

Like any session you must start at the level that’s right for you. Throw yourself straight into a full Bondarenko when your usual sessions are much shorter or you aren’t used to active jog recoveries and you’ll find it hard going. Rather than improve your running, it might finish it for good with injury.

In working out the right volume for you it’s essential to count the total volume including recoveries too. A good starting session is one block of two sets and one block of one. This adds up to a 6km track session. You can then build up the session over time from there.

More importantly, run it sparingly. It’s not one for every week due to the volume and intensity. To get the most from Bondarenko you need to plan it into your training at the right time with the right runs before and after the session. That’s where having a coach makes the difference not just following the sessions you read about online.

Jo is a former GB marathon runner and now fully qualified British Athletics coach. To find out more about her coaching or see what running she’s still doing you can visit her Running Jo website here or follow her on InstagramTwitter or Facebook.