VO2 max: what is it and how to improve

Ever heard of VO2 max but wondered what it was? Let our expert explain, and read on for a workout to improve yours. Original article by Marc Abbott

improve vo2max

Everyone wants bigger lungs, right? Well, there’s good news and bad news, as Gary Mckeegan, physiologist and lecturer in sports science and coach with Dig Deep Coaching (opens in new tab), explains.

“For adults, lung capacity is actually pretty static, but we can train to increase the efficiency of our capacity, as not all of the oxygen we inhale is actually absorbed by the body,” he says.

“The term ‘VO2 max’ refers to the maximal volume of oxygen that can be inhaled and absorbed by a body.”

>>> Cycling Training zones explained

But why is oxygen important for training? “It’s used to break down the carbs, fats and protein in your body into usable fuel for your muscles,” says Mckeegan.

“If less oxygen is available than required, i.e. when riding harder than normal, the body has to find other ways of providing that fuel. A by-product of this is lactic acid, which will slow you down. Therefore if you can get more oxygen into the bloodstream the less lactic acid will be produced for a given workload.”

So how do we discover our capacity to absorb oxygen? Mckeegan explains: “To accurately measure it requires being hooked up to a gas analyser, which can be expensive and time-consuming. But there are some road tests that can predict VO2 max, like the Functional Threshold Power (FTP) test.”

In brief, if you ride flat-out for 20 minutes, record your average power and take five per cent off that figure, you’ll find your threshold power. Your VO2 max training zone will be around 110-120 per cent of that benchmark.

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Training to improve it is simpler than you’d think. “Riders who already have a base of training would benefit further by training just above the pace/effort level they would be able to hold for a 10-mile TT or 20-minute FTP test but for a shorter time period,” says Mckeegan.

Train like a pro

Boost your VO2 max

If you’re looking for some homework, you’ve come to the right place, as Mckeegan has a training session that will help you boost your VO2 Max.

“Warm up for 15 minutes at a steady pace, then ride for a further 15 minutes slightly harder (but at a pace where you can still have a conversation). Next, do five intervals of three to five minutes with recovery periods of three to five minutes. Finish with a 10-minute cool-down.”

To recap:

  • 15 minute warm up
  • 15 minute zone 2/3
  • 5 x 3 minutes @ vo2 (110-120% FTP) with 3 minute recovery zone 2
  • OR 5 x 5 minutes @ vo2 (110-120% FTP) with 5 minute recovery zone 2
  • Cool down

Make sure you have a proper cool down, and don't do V02 sessions back-to-back, you need easy rides between sessions to allow your body to adapt.

To progress, you can increase the number of intervals you do, the length of them, or reduce the length of the recovery period.

Follow Mckeegan’s advice and you’ll be off the front at your next Sunday ride in next to no time.

>>> How to master a long climb

Key facts

Aerobic exercise uses up your oxygen supplies more quickly. Once the availability of oxygen is reduced, your body uses other sources of energy. In this event, glycogen is broken down into a substance that is converted to lactic acid, which leads to a feeling of muscle exhaustion.

Interval training is the best way to train your lungs to work at their most efficient. Sets of five intervals at 110-120 per cent of your FTP is enough to increase your lungs’ ability to absorb oxygen. Make sure you warm up and cool down properly before and after the training.

Once you’re used to the training session, the best way to continue your improvement is to increase the number of intervals, increase the length of them, or reduce the time you spend in recovery between them.

Finding the right level you need to be training at to improve the capacity of your lungs to more readily absorb oxygen is essential. To ascertain how hard you need to train, you’ll need to perform an FTP test.

Boosting oxygen availability to break down carbs, fat and protein in your body to be used as fuel for your ride is the key to riding harder for longer.

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