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.
(I use these broadly. Joe Friel has more precise definitions)
- 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.
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.).
- 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
- 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?
- 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:
- 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.