2017 Training Part 3 – VO2max

This was posted out of order before Part 2 in response to a /r/Velo post

Question: What is the best way to improve VO2max?

So I had this question from a few athletes and did a bit of research into it. First read this from TrainerRoad for a better background into what VO2max actually is.

VO2max is primarily determined by genetics but is trainable to some extent. Certain lucky-ass individuals respond very well to VO2max training, while others respond poorly..

FTP is related to, and limited by VO2max

FTP as a percentage of VO2max is also important, indicating how efficient you are at utilizing your max aerobic (VO2max) power. Elite athletes tend have FTP up around 85% of VO2max. But there is an inverse correlation; where FTP is harder to raise to higher percentages of already greater VO2max – so 85% of 55 ml/kg/min will be easier to achieve than 85% of 75 ml/kg/min.

Some other interesting discussion on how VO2max influences race performance (or doesn’t)

Somewhere around FTP exceeding 85% of VO2max, diminishing returns will make it more efficient to push up the VO2max ‘ceiling’ directly, than trying to continue to push up FTP as a percentage of VO2max.

Relating VO2max and FTP to Fitness

  • VO2max is your physiological ceiling. It is determined by your max oxygen consumption, cardiac output and peripheral oxygen utilization. More detail from TrainerRoad.
  • Your Aerobic threshold (your “forever” power) and ANaerobic threshold/FTP are necessarily at certain percentages under your VO2max ceiling.
  • There is interplay between all energy systems and thresholds, so a weakness in one will pull the others down with it.
  • You can therefore improve your overall fitness by either:
    • a) Raise your Aerobic threshold; increase your “forever” power. This is the least physiologically stressful (low intensity, high volume) and responds well to training.
    • b) Raise your FTP; increase your SOMEWHERE-CLOSE-BUT-NOT-NECESSARILY-60-MINUTE power. This is moderately-to-heavily stressful (moderate intensity & volume) and responds well to training.
    • c) Raise your VO2max; increase your absolute ceiling. This is moderately stressful (high intensity, low volume) and doesn’t respond well to training.
sparecycles_vo2max
Super oversimplified, but illustrates the point

The Rønnestad Protocol

The most convincing literature I came across was a series of studies supporting Polarized Training as an effective and time-efficient method to boost VO2max and relevant performance outcomes (40km TT, Peak Power Output (PPO) at VO2peak, etc.).

Short intervals induce superior training adaptations compared with long intervals in cyclists – an effort-matched approach (Rønnestad et al, 2015)

  • Compared 10-weeks of short intervals (SI) vs. long intervals (LI) in cyclists.
  • SI protocol was 3×13 30/15s @ >88% HRmax/50% 3min RI
    • 3-sets of 13-reps of 30s work and 15s (2:1) active recovery, with 3min rest interval between sets
  • LI protocol was 4x5min @ >88% HRmax/50%, 2.5min RI
    • 4 sets of 5-min with 2.5-min (2:1) rest intervals
  • Results showed far more significant improvements in SI group vs LI for:
    • Mean power during work intervals, over length of study period
    • VO2max
    • Peak Power Output
    • Power at 4 mmol/L blood lactate (typical lactate threshold)
    • 40min TT
    • 5-min all-out effort
    • 30s Wingate (sprint) test
  • Short-duration intervals win by a long shot. They reported +9% to VO2max! Heck yes, I’ll take that! +5-12% to performance across 30s through 40-min power durations? Heck yes!
    • Disclaimer: Your results may differ!

So if that is our workout of choice, then how about a weekly mesocycle for a VO2max training program?

Block periodization of high-intensity aerobic intervals provides superior training effects in trained cyclists (Rønnestad et al, 2014).

  • Compared 4-weeks volume-matched Block vs Traditional organization
  • Block Periodization (BP) consisted of 1-week of five high-intensity (HIIT) sessions, followed by 3-weeks of one weekly HIIT session and the remaining focus on low-intensity
  • Traditional Organization (TRAD) consisted of 4-weeks of two weekly HIIT sessions interspersed with low-intensity
  • Results showed greater improvements with BP vs TRAD again, almost across the board, in:
    • VO2max
    • Peak Power Output (Wmax or PPO)
    • Power output at 2 mmol/L blood lactate
  • For a 4-week intervention the number gains were impressive; +5% VO2max, +10% power at 2 mmol/L lactate. PPO went from 386 +/- 35 W to 406 +/- 50 W in the group of already highly-trained cyclists!

Including the Rønnestad Protocol in your real-world training plan

I think some modification will be necessary for a real-world training plan, especially for anyone working with less than 10 hrs/week to train. This seems to be an informal cut-off for Traditional Base training and I think applies to this model of Polarized Block VO2max training as well.

VO2max workouts could be introduced occasionally as part of a Sweet Spot Base plan, eg. once every two weeks to maintain top-end power. It could then be integrated into a Build plan along with longer duration VO2max and Anaerobic intervals.

For a modified VO2max workout that still adheres to these guidelines, I’d aim for:

  • Short-duration 20-40s work intervals
  • Intensity >88% HRmax, or >120% FTP
  • 2-3 sets of 8-12 intervals
  • 2:1 work:rest (eg. 30/15s; 40/20s)
  • Longer (ie. 5+min) rest intervals between sets.
    • You want to maximize output during work intervals, so ensuring complete recovery between sets will allow maximum performance during work intervals.
  • TrainerRoad has a bunch of appropriate workouts, especially in their Short Power Build plans.

My experience with VO2max workouts

I’ve included a modified Rønnestad workout in my own training plan for 2017 with some modifications:

  • 3×10 30/15s, 5min RI
  • Power target was based on the total work duration for each set.
    • 10 x 30s = 5-min work duration
    • My Power Duration Curve at 5-min was 411 W.
    • This wasn’t based on anything scientific, but after trying it out, this seemed to be sustainable – barely – for the entire 3 sets.
    • Using the cumulative work duration to prescribe a power target for the set feels like a good rule of thumb, and it has worked for at least a couple of my athletes.

I wasn’t able to devote a full Rønnestad Block model into my training plan but I’m planning on trying out a mid-summer Rønnestad VO2max Block as a rebuild cycle between target races.

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