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.

3 thoughts on “2017 Training Part 3 – VO2max

  1. Hi Jem, great article. I’m a new WKO5 user and am analyzing my VO2max and FTP metrics and know that my VO2max (not lab tested, WKO modeled) is 58 mL/min/kg and power @ VO2max is 400w. My modeled FTP (derived from a TTE test) is 318w which is 82% of my VO2max.

    I did a spring-VO2 block that focused on intervals @ MAP in the 4-6 min duration and found a lot of benefits in my PD curve from 30s to 8min. However, FTP didn’t really move. I’m now trying to train FTP from the bottom up with a block of FTP/Sweet Spot work. Knowing FTP is around 82% of VO2 (give or take to account for WKO error) how much room do I really have? If elite athletes are around 85% (but they have higher VO2max), is it still worthwhile to push from the bottom and then maybe do another VO2 / pull from the above block?


    1. Thanks Anthony. Good questions.

      So, I’d caution about over-indexing or judging how effective your training is by looking at how much the PD curve and mFTP moves in response to a training block. The PD curve only reflects what you have done not what you might be capable of doing. Doing weeks of 4-6 min efforts at 95% of your PR won’t budge the models, but it will certainly have an effect on your underlying fitness. Additionally, the curve is locally responsive to efforts of specific durations, so it makes sense that those 4-6 min efforts will push the curve up locally (ie. around 30-sec to 8-min) more than globally (ie. mFTP & beyond) even though HIIT/VO2max style training will likely enhance fitness and show performance improvements across the PD curve (see the two articles below. Usual disclaimer: the lead author is a colleague)

      If you just want to see your mFTP rise, you have to prove to the model that you can hit a new PRs around that 20-60 min time range. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to train at SST/Threshold (also not saying it’s a bad thing either). It just means you haven’t done a maximal effort at that time range. But your fitness is still there whether you hit those specific targets or not.

      As to how much room you have to push FTP up to VO2max, that’s an impossible question to answer. But more than likely unless you are elite with years of training experience, you (and I too!) are probably not close to tapping the ceiling of our physiological potential. I think it makes sense to change up the stimuli every so often and periodize blocks of HIIT/VO2max intervals with blocks of Threshold, and SIT, depending on what our performance goals are, our timeframe, and our starting point in terms of fitness & training experience.

      But in general I think it’s important that we understand the difference between using the PD curve and WKO models prescriptively, ie. training to fill out the curve and giving the models what it wants to show us big numbers, vs training for our real-world performance goals and using the WKO models descriptively to observe how our performances (not necessarily our underlying global fitness) are changing.

      In lieu of being able to answer your question directly, I hope that at least gives you another perspective to consider 🙂


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