These Challenging Intervals Build Your VO2Max Now to Increase Your Performance Later

To improve our capacity to ride faster and longer, try this version of VO2max intervals that may kill us, but will certainly make us stronger.

Three Things to Consider About Death by VO2max Intervals

  1. These intervals are all about a high cadence to increase the heart pump.
  2. You may start at a high power, but it will decrease as fatigue builds.
  3. These intervals do increase VO2max, regardless of age.

One of my clients, Kevin, and I are both doing a block of very challenging VO2max work on our bikes.

I call the intervals Death by VO2max because they are really, really hard, the kind where you need an extra cup of coffee and a cheer team to motivate you to get started.

We’re doing them now because WKO5 showed that both of our FTP (Functional Threshold Power) was maxing out within our current VO2. 

(There are many assumptions rolled into the idea of VO2max and FTP and percentages of both. But for us non-elite athletes, the approximate numbers work reasonably well.) 

Our goal, as fellow older guys, is to simply increase our VO2max!

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VO2max is your aerobic ceiling 

Essentially, VO2max is the maximum oxygen your cardio-respiratory system can utilize. 

There’s a lot that goes into VO2max, and a lot that is debated by scientists. 

Even the algorithms that companies use for smart watches and exercise programs are different!

Here’s a good overall article about VO2max for cycling.

And here’s one for runners:

While your VO2max is the same, how well you can utilize it for running or biking might be different. 

Increase VO2max now to train harder later

VO2max is your aerobic ceiling, so it’s worth the time to increase it as much as possible. 

You’re limited by your age and your genetics. 

We’re building our VO2max during the winter training time so that we’re better able to build our FTP – and increase time at FTP – later in the spring.

Most traditional VO2max workouts are short and intense. 

They are some variation of around 120 percent of FTP for 2 to 5 minutes done as many times as possible. 

So 8×2 or 4×5 or 5×5 are traditional blocks of VO2max workouts on the bike. 

There is, unfortunately, many different opinions from researchers, coaches, and physiologists about training VO2max. 

There is some thought that at a certain point in our life, we can’t increase VO2max if you are already a well-trained athlete.

It is what it is. 

Doing maximum efforts like I describe later will benefit you, regardless of how you do them. 

The way we do them, though, might be more effective than traditional intervals at actually increasing your VO2max, regardless of age. 

Vo2max intervals for running means quick feet

VO2max workouts for running generally follow a similar path: short sprints of 20 to 30 seconds, maybe up to 40 seconds, with a short rest. 

This is repeated as many times as possible.

The goal is building up the stress on the respiratory system to improve the stroke volume of the heart. 

In one study, runners who increased mileage from 45 to 70 miles per week failed to improve 5k times, while runners who remained at 45 miles but added explosive running and strength drills to their training improved their 5k performances by around 30 seconds.

Death by VO2max intervals are, well, tough…

The Death by VO2max Intervals we do are based on the work of Kolie Moore

Basically, he argues that to increase the stroke volume of our heart, we need to increase the heart rate and heart pump. 

To improve VO2max for the long-term, we need to improve heart stroke volume by focusing on cardiac preload to induce eccentric hypertrophy, Moore said on his Empirical Cycling podcast:

A higher cadence brings a heart pump that requires a higher stroke volume, so keeping your cadence high means more effective VO2max work. 

Power is not related to VO2max, he argues. 

We can look at power and heart rate AFTER the interval to see how things went, but all we’re really after is a high cadence to build stroke volume in the heart.

(The workings of the heart I describe is very simplified. Moore spends five podcast episodes on Empirical Cycling explaining how VO2 and VO2max works.)

Regardless, if you’re breathing like a fish out of water during and after the interval, you’re doing it right. 

Building time in the VO2max zone

So here’s what we’re doing for our intervals:

We start with a 90-second interval to “blow out the cobwebs” and get the heart rate firing. 

I’m working at an average of about 115 rpm for cadence, sometimes more. 

I started with two minutes, then 2:30, and three. 

We’re building up to about four minutes with about two minutes of rest and about four intervals.

We don’t want our heart rate to come down too much because that means it will take longer to get the heart pumping again. 

I’ll build some different intervals with different lengths and different recoveries. 

And we’ll do this for a 24-26 day block with four double sessions. 

Then we rest. 

Managing fatigue is an important part of this VO2max block

One thing I noticed is just how fatigue these intervals cause.

I did my usual weightlifting after the second VO2max session in a back-to-back block. 

And it took longer than usual to recover. 

So during the 24-day block, I’m just lifting once a week.

Both Kevin and I are using HRV4Training, so we’re mindful of stress scores. 

But still. 

These take a lot out of you, so plan accordingly! 

After VO2max work, we build and extend FTP

When we return to training, we’ll work solely on building our FTP and extending time at FTP through intervals like tempo and sweet spot, and some threshold. 

These are basically different intensity levels below FTP. 

Obviously, the harder the intensity, the shorter the interval.

Since Kevin and I are both training for longer-distance events, we’ll be heavy on building long blocks of tempo. 

Want to know more about what you can achieve? 

My purpose with Simple Endurance Coaching is to help everyday endurance athletes achieve their goals with more strength, endurance, and mobility. 

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Paul Warloski is a: 

  • USA Cycling Level 3 Coach
  • RRCA Running Coach
  • Training Peaks Level 2 Coach
  • RYT-200 Yoga Instructor
  • Certified Personal Trainer