HOW TO INCREASE YOUR VO2MAX

Increasing your VO2Max is one of the best goals you can have as a cyclist.

In this post, we’ll take a look at:

  • How to train to improve your VO2Max
  • Some important considerations when creating VO2Max workouts
  • Three done-for-you workouts to help get you going with your training.

Let’s get going…

WHAT IS VO2MAX?

Put simply, VO2Max is a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen your body can consume during all-out exercise, often expressed in ml/KG/min.

Alongside your FTP or Functional Threshold Power and actual Peak Power Output at VO2Max (PPO or Wpeak), VO2Max is one of the strongest determinants of performance and is arguably what will make the biggest difference to your success or lack of.

Training both to increase your absolute VO2Max but also what I’d call your “VO2Max endurance” i.e. the percentage of your VO2Max that you can maintain for sustained periods, as well as PPO mentioned above is therefore important for performance-orientated cyclists.

HOW TO TRAIN VO2MAX

When it comes to effectively training your VO2Max and sending the strongest signal to your body to adapt in the desired way, it’s all about getting the body’s aerobic system to work maximally.

This is relatively easy to do if you know how and you ensure that you’re not in a state of non-functional overreaching or overtraining, though it’s far from pleasant or comfortable.

It involves raising your heart rate up to 97-100% of maximum.

The aim then is to accumulate as much training time as is reasonably possible and tolerable (both on a per session and a longer-term basis) with your aerobic system operating at maximum as possible.

Whilst it may seem like the most logical way to do this is to simply prescribe steady-state intervals within your Zone 5 intensity range, coaches (like me!) and scientists have come up with creative and effective workout designs that manipulate the variables of intensity, duration and frequency to try to increase this tolerable duration mentioned above.

So, what are some of these workout designs?

Let’s take a look…

VO2MAX WORKOUT DESIGNS

STEADY-STATE

The first and most common workout design is the steady state interval mentioned earlier, which is still an effective and highly targeted way to train your VO2Max.

This might look something like 5-6x 3mins @ Mid Zone 5 or 115-120% of FTP.

ON/OFF (AKA UNDER-OVER)

The next workout design you can use is the on/off or under-over method. The benefits of this is that the recovery intervals (or “off” intervals) allow enough recovery for you to spend more time at VO2Max intensity that you could without them.

What’s more, when keeping recovery intervals short, you can strike a balance between providing yourself enough recovery to elongate each set, but not letting your heart rate come down much during the recovery, improving the amount of time it’s beating at near maximum.

INITIAL SPIKE

The initial spike method is another design that again allows for greater time spent with your heart rate high.

This involves doing a short amount of work above VO2Max to quickly drive the aerobic system to maximum, and then reducing the intensity (often to threshold or supra-threshold levels) for the remainder of the interval.

The hangover effect is that even though you ride the majority of the interval below VO2Max power, you still benefit at a VO2Max-improving level whilst being able to execute a longer interval.

 

SUPRA-THRESHOLD

The final design I’ll mention is a supra-threshold workout. Using this method, you won’t be exercising maximally in the first stages of the interval, but the intensity is great enough to drive the heart rate up in the final few minutes.

The advantage is that you accumulate some solid training time in potent the intensity range between threshold and VO2Max, but also a meaningful amount of time towards maximum oxygen consumption too.

THREE PRACTICAL VO2MAX WORKOUTS

Below you’ll find 3 workouts that are perfect to help you increase VO2Max.

Each of the following sessions are great for either riding outdoors or indoors on a turbo trainer.

1) PRE-VO2MAX

This workout centres around longer duration intervals at the lower end of the VO2Max zone.

This is usually around 105-115% of your current FTP or functional threshold power or just below your maximum heart rate.

If you have neither a power meter nor a heart rate monitor, then use a 1-10 rating of perceived exertion and try to ride at about a 7-8 level of effort.

Alternatively, you can just pace each of the intervals like you were doing a 15-20 minute all-out time trial. 

Each work interval in this session is around 5-6 minutes long and will typically be repeated 3-5 times.

Your recovery time between each of the intervals will depend on when you feel ready to go again.

However, you’ll usually find this is about 2-3 minutes.

If you’re riding outside and it takes you longer than that to coast back down the hill, that’s totally fine.

During the work intervals, you want to keep the intensity very controlled right from the start, trying to pace individual intervals as equally as you can.

It’s common to go out too hard and prematurely fatigue, so do be weary of that.

After you complete your interval sets, warm down for 20 minutes or so, or continue your ride at a nice leisurely since you’ll likely be pretty tired.

2) TRUE VO2MAX

The next workout to increase VO2Max is what I call true Vo2.

These are very targeted intervals performed right at the VO2Max intensity, where your body’s working at its true maximum aerobic capacity.

These intervals are typically performed at 120% of your current FTP.

You’ll usually hit close to your maximum heart rate a minute or so into each interval, making it a trickier workout to pace with heart rate.

The key is dialling in the intensity to just the right level. There’s a very fine line between the right level of effort and going anaerobic, which will significantly reduce the total amount of work you can do.

The true VO2 intervals are about 2.5-3.5 minutes in length.

You’ll usually be able to manage somewhere in the range of about 12-20 minutes of total interval time depending on your training history and short term fatigue.

After a warm up of 20-30 minutes of slowly increasing intensity, go into your first interval.

Remember that the aim isn’t to do 3 minutes as hard as you can. It’s to accumulate as close to 3 minutes as possible at the specific intensity level you’ve set.

Again, recovery interval length doesn’t need to be precise. Hit the next one when you’re ready.

When you’re done, perform another cool down to bring the heart rate and aerobic system back down gradually by winding down on the turbo trainer or riding easily if you’re outdoors.

3) SRR OR SURGE, RECOVER, REPEAT

The third training session to increase VO2Max I’ll cover here is the The surge, recover, repeat workout is one of the best means of improving your VO2Max and has the added bonus of being specific to the demands of competitive cycling.

This session involves accelerating your VO2Max for a short period of time, following that up with an even shorter recovery and then repeating again and again.

Because you’re riding at an intensity during each short interval that you could maintain for much longer if needed, each one in and of itself isn’t immediately very difficult.

What this workout does do though is gradually elevate your heart rate to the point where it will stay high.

The short recoveries are designed not to let your heart rate come down much at all, whilst giving you just enough respite to go hard again.

It’s in this way that you can usually accumulate more time at VO2Max intensity that you might be able to with the more steady-state intervals mentioned previously.

Like before, start your ride with a warm up of around 20-30 minutes of gradually increasing intensity.

The main set of intervals can be either 30 seconds on with 15 seconds off, or 40 seconds on and 20 seconds off. There’s no real distinct advantage to either, so mix them up from week to week for some variety.

As hard as it is, try to stay conservative with each work interval, riding them at 120% of your FTP, or at a pace that you’d ride for about 5-6 minutes all out like we talked about before.

You won’t be able to use heart rate to pace these ones, so just go on feel and watch your heart rate monitor passively throughout the workout.

During the recovery intervals, just pedal nice and lightly before launching into your next short interval. If you’re riding outside on a climb, try to find one that isn’t too steep. This is so that you don’t have to put out a lot of effort just to keep moving forward.

Try for somewhere in the range of 8-12 minutes of total time for each set of intervals, and try to do 2-3 sets of sets.

For example, you might do 2x (10x 40S on/ 20S off).

Take as much recovery time as you need between sets, where 2-5 minutes is a good range to shoot for. Riding around easily or just lightly spinning on the turbo is perfect.

As always, after the main body of the workout, continue your ride at a nice easy pace to start the long-term recovery process with a warm down.

Here’s a related post you might like on analysing a ride using Strava.

FINAL CONSIDERATIONS

So here a few additional tips to help you increase VO2Max with these workouts.

The first is that you might want to start out with the longer, less intense intervals earlier in the season and progress to the shorter, more intense ones as you get closer to your key events.

This follows the specificity principle and is a better way to increase VO2Max and establish a base for you to build on.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with using the shorter workouts and supplementing them with some threshold training, especially if you’re short on training time. 

Next, try to end the workouts when you feel you could just about squeeze out another interval if you really had to.

I’m a fan of staying conservative with interval training the majority of the time and not risking overtraining.

Being 2% undertrained is always better than being 1% overtrained in my opinion. 

At very select times of the season when it’s critical to put the icing on the cake, you CAN do intervals to exhaustion if you so wish. This can make that minute difference that could lead to a better result on race day, no doubt about it.

Finally, I would recommend for newer cyclists not to do more than 2 of these workouts per week unless you’re really short on time. Even then, I’d still recommend using a broad range of intensities in your training, and never losing sight on working on your basic aerobic fitness as well as your very top end speed.

It’s easy to burn out with intervals of this intensity if done too often. There are other parts of your fitness that need attention too, so ensure there’s balance in what you do.

If you’re wondering what a good VO2Max value is (relatively speaking), here’s a really useful chart by the guys at Topend Sports.


REFERENCES

Palmer, C.D., Jones, A.M., Kennedy, G.J. and Cotter, J.D., 2009. Effects of prior heavy exercise on energy supply and 4000-m cycling performance. Medicine and science in sports and exercise41(1), pp.221-229.

Hawley, J.A. and Noakes, T.D., 1992. Peak power output predicts maximal oxygen uptake and performance time in trained cyclists. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology65(1), pp.79-83.

Burke, E.R., 1980. Physiological characteristics of competitive cyclists. The Physician and sportsmedicine8(7), pp.78-84.

LUCiA, A.L.E.J.A.N.D.R.O., Hoyos, J., PÉrez, M., Santalla, A. and Chicharro, J.L., 2002. Inverse relationship between VO2max and economy/efficiency in world-class cyclists. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise34(12), pp.2079-2084.