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.
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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