As an endurance athlete, your lung capacity plays a key (if not, the most important) role in your overall output and performance. As you get into any aerobic sport or activity, you’ll quickly learn about the term VO2Max and how it relates to your performance in any endurance sport.
In this article, we’re going to have a close look at VO2Max in the cycling sphere and how you can increase it to maximize your rides.
What is VO2Max
In simple terms, VO2Max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can consume during all-out exercise. This is usually measured in ml/KG/min.
According to Pro Cyclist Tom Bell, “Alongside your 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.”
Therefore, not only is it important to train to increase your overall VO2Max, but training to lengthen the period that you can sustain a good percentage of your VO2Max (or VO2Max endurance as Tom Bell calls it) is an equally vital component for performance-driven cyclists.
How to Go About Setting Up Your Training
Of course, your overall goal here would be to get the aerobic system to work maximally (or near-maximally) for a good amount of time and at a sufficient level of volume.
Keep in mind that training for this outcome will be extremely grueling but rest assured the benefits will be enormous.
Using the advice from our aforementioned pro, training like this would involve “raising your heart rate up to 97-100% of its maximum. Following which, the aim is then to accumulate as much training time as is reasonably possible and tolerable (both on a micro “per-session” and a macro, longer-term basis) with your aerobic system operating as close to maximum as possible.”
Now at first glance, it may seem that the most straight forward way to do this would be to do some steady-state training for selected yet extended periods of time while slowly trying to push or raise your intensity slowly as sessions go on and then continue to do this until you can increase your output for these periods until it gets better and better. However, we’ve come across a few smarter (and less boring ways) to achieve this, whether they be on a turbo trainer or outdoors.
Let’s have a look.
3 Pro Workouts
- 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.
- 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 wary of that.
- After you complete your interval sets, warm down for 20 minutes or so, or continue your ride at a nice leisurely pace since you’ll likely be pretty tired.
2. TRUE VO2MAX
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 (Functional Threshold Power). 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 dialing 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. Surge, recover, repeat
This third method has 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.
- 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. 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. 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.
Choose your workout. Perhaps pick all 3. Use these to your advantage and log your success for us to see.