When and why your cycle training program should include VO2 max efforts

The area of endurance training prescription that fascinates me the most is the bit above FTP, known as VO2 max territory. Typically this is described as being anywhere from 110 to 125% of FTP. I find it interesting for a number of reasons.

  • Firstly, it works! Well-structured and programmed VO2 max efforts can have a profound training impact
  • It’s probably the most contentious of training ‘zones’, with many different opinions around what works best
  • The bottom line is that all variations can work for different athletes. This includes traditional efforts such as 5 x 3 minutes, through to Tabata style intervals such as 40/20s and 30/30s.

One of the key criteria of VO2 max efforts is that you should see a high heart rate. This is the essence of maximal aerobic capacity after all. For this reason, I find it better to do them on a higher than normal cadence. As such, efforts done up-hill are unlikely to fall into true heart rate VO2 max territory. Let me be clear here – the power will be right up there, but heart rate may not be as high as it would be on a higher cadence.

Therefore, if we are chasing a high cadence and high heart rate then often the best place to do this type of session is on the indoor trainer in erg mode. You don’t have to worry about traffic or conditions outside. Just hit the numbers. Erg mode forces you to keep a high cadence to stay on top of the power required.

The file share today is a session I did this morning. I’ve programmed it for a number of my athletes this week. It’s the first time I have done it myself. It is a TrainerRoad session called Gawler (they all have unique names). After warm up, it was 3 sets of 5×2 minute efforts up to 115% of FTP with very short 30 second recoveries between the 2 minutes. The idea of sessions like this is that across the workout the cumulative effect of the efforts above threshold is to make the session increasingly more aerobic (VO2) as it goes on. This makes the last set the most important as it is when you truly reach VO2 max territory.

I’ve shared three images from the workout to demonstrate this. The first shows the power profile. The completely straight line of the efforts shows that the workout was done in ‘erg’ mode. This means the smart trainer controls the workout power – the rider has to hit the target power. You can also see the really high Intensity Factor of 0.97. You generally only see intensities such as this in crit races, short individual time trials or intense indoor sessions.

On the second image I have overlayed the heart rate in red. In interval 1 you can see the heart rate steadily increasing across the efforts as the 30 second recoveries do not allow it enough time to drop. This is the principle on which any Tababa, HIIT or 40/20s are based. In interval 2 you can see I have started with a higher heart rate, and again it rises across the set to be approaching VO2 at the end of the set.  

I started the third interval set with my heart rate already above threshold, and it steadily increased again until it was close to max at the end. This is why the last set is the most important in this type of session. No matter how much you are hurting you need to hang on to it for as long as possible. The first two intervals you have done are what have placed you in this territory, now you need to maximise the gains.

On the third image I have overlayed cadence, to show how high a cadence I ran on this session. You can see I managed to keep it over 100 for most of the intervals. If you look at the last set I was starting each 2 minute effort at well over 100, but it was dropping across the 2 minutes of the interval. I was concentrating hard to hang on to it. In the end this workout was manageable, just. And that is what it is meant to feel like.

Key takeaways:

  • Most VO2 max sets work
  • They need to be sensitively programmed, that is; on fresh legs
  • They work best in a dedicated training block. This might be 2x per week for 3 weeks.
  • They are best done on a trainer, in erg mode, at high cadence and high heart rate (in most instances)
  • 5-10W either way can make a big difference in VO2 max sets. If doing them on an indoor trainer you need to have your indoor FTP dialed in well, preferably through a recent ramp test.
  • I typically program them when I have maxed out the gains in other areas for an athlete. That is, their FTP has been stable for a while, and I am looking to raise the roof in order to give FTP more room to move.
  • Athletes might also get VO2 max efforts when they are in the intensive pre-competition training block (Tour de Brisbane is in 3 weeks)…….