This training session is best for boosting your aerobic fitness

A few years ago, researchers combed through four decades of training studies to determine the most effective type of interval workout. The sweet spot for boosting aerobic fitness, they determined, was repeats that lasted three to five minutes each. So it was a surprise when the leader of that team, Mayo Clinic physiologist Michael Joyner, promoted a very different workout in a recent blog post.

Joyner suggested building up to doing 20 × 400m with a 200m jog after each repeat. Depending on your pace, each repeat might take somewhere between one and two minutes – shorter than the ‘optimal’ length. But the benefits, he argued, are ‘as much spiritual or philosophical as they are physiological’. So many stops and starts demand a focused state of mind and the physical challenge leaves you with a sense of mastery that you’ll bring to your next race in tip-top condition.

This type of workout has a long pedigree. Emil Zátopek, who won the 5000m, 10,000m and marathon at the 1952 Olympics, reportedly ran 20 × 400m with 200m recoveries every day before the 1948 Olympics, with hard 200m repeats before and after. Here’s how to harness the power of repetition in your training.

1/ Build gradually

Start with a more modest workout such as 10 x 400m, and repeat the workout every week or two, adding two to four repeats each time. Plan to hit 20 × 400m four to six weeks before a goal race. Alternatively, if you’re focused on shorter races, such as 5Ks, you might start with shorter, speedier intervals, progressing from 20 × 200m to 20 × 300m to 20 × 400m, each time with a 200m jog recovery.

(Related: Essential track running tips)

2/ Be creative

There’s nothing magical about running 20 × 400m. While the symmetry of running one lap around the track is appealing, you can also hit the roads or trails for a comparable session, like a 20 × 1:00 hard, 1:00 easy fartlek.

Find out the difference between fartlek, tempo and interval runs here.

3/ Pace yourself

Learning to properly distribute your effort
 over the course of the workout is one of the keys to success. One helpful trick is to divide the workout into four sets of five repeats each, with an extra 200m of jogging after each set. (This will also help you keep track of how many you’ve done.) Run the first set at 10K pace, then try to make each successive set a little quicker. Still, the overall effort should remain controlled. Joyner recommends following the ‘no-bend-over’ rule: if you have to stop and put your hands on your knees to catch your breath before starting your recovery jog, you’re going too hard.

Remember to warm up before starting speedwork - these drills are ideal.

4/ Keep perspective

As hard as this workout sounds, it’s worth remembering that 20 x 400m only adds up to about five miles of hard running – no different from a common workout such as five mile repeats. The actual distance covered isn’t the issue; it’s the mental challenge of breaking it up into so many pieces that makes it daunting. That’s why Joyner emphasises the importance of finding the right headspace, with a mix of self-control, relaxation and focus. When you can finish the workout feeling tired but triumphant, rather than shattered, you’ll know you are ready to race.