One of the riders I coach, Rebecca, messaged me recently after getting home from an endurance ride. She wanted to discuss which higher-intensity workouts would be best for getting her ready for the race season.
“I’ve read that a rider’s VO2 max is hereditary and that you don’t really need to specifically train it,” said Rebecca. “Apparently you can do all the hard efforts you need in races and group rides.”
In fact, Rebecca was full of questions on VO2 max training: the importance of being able to repeat the efforts; how much top-end training is needed in the lead-up to a race; as well as the volume and frequency of this maximal type of work. It got me thinking: this is an area of training that really can make or break a rider’s season, and they need to get it right – Rebecca’s queries had inspired me to revisit the subject and to provide a thorough guide.
VO2 max made simple VO2 max, also known as maximal oxygen uptake, is the measurement of a person’s maximum rate of oxygen consumption during intense exercise, i.e. volume of oxygen per kilo of bodyweight per minute. It is used to establish an athlete’s aerobic capacity, usually for training purposes. Though VO2 max is most accurately determined by lab tests, many athletes rely on algorithm-based products such as WKO5, or estimations based on power test data. The highest human VO2 max values on record exceed 90ml/ kg/min, while male pro riders usually measure in the mid-70s to high-80s and female pros in the 60-70ml/kg/min range. A good amateur rider typically has a VO2 max in the mid-60s to low-80s.
There are many factors that influence VO2 max, including age, gender, elevation, and training history. The body works as an entire system to transport oxygen from the lungs to the mitochondria in the muscles, to produce the energy that you need to push the pedals. While the genetic aspect mentioned by Rebecca does put a ceiling on VO2 max for optimally trained professionals who have been riding for years, most amateurs and weekend warriors have plenty of room for improvement. For most riders, in fact, VO2 max work is fundamental to improving racing performance.
The better each component part of the VO2 max system works, the better the athlete will perform. The main determinants are cardiac output, stroke volume (how much blood the heart pumps with each beat), capillary density, the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity, and the number of mitochondria in the cells. If we think of the aerobic system as an engine, these factors together determine the size of the combustion chamber – more revs, more fuel, it won’t make a difference if your engine isn’t big enough.
“Power on the bike can be produced in two ways, aerobically – with oxygen – and anaerobically – without oxygen,” explains Pablo Cruz, head coach at PC Endurance. “The higher an athlete’s VO2 max, the greater their ability to produce a higher power output aerobically, which is more efficient and more sustainable over long periods of time than anaerobic power – which is why VO2 max is so important to cycling.”
Although VO2 max refers to maximal uptake, even endurance riding affects VO2 max performance – steady pace riding helps develop some of the determinants listed above. This means that you can improve some aspects of the VO2 max system even when you are taking it easy on the bike. It’s not all about gritting your teeth and pushing hard constantly.
‘Make it feel like a race’
Aspiring pro-Callum McQueen (pictured) details his favored approach to VO2max training:
My typical VO2max range is 370-420 watts, and I’d usually introduce this type of work into my training early in the season – slightly different this year, for obvious reasons.
Most, if not all, VO2 sessions are horrendous! My ‘favourite’ way of getting this work done is by throwing the following efforts into a three-hour ride:
7x (1min on, 1min off) – in the first hour
4x 3min – in the middle hour
3x 4min – in the final hour
Doing these efforts within a long ride mimics the back end of a race. Of course, there are times when VO2 max work needs to be done on fresh legs too.
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