How To Improve VO2 Max For Cycling

What is VO2 Max?

Simple. VO2 Max was a ’90’s synth band from Sweden. Sorry, winter boredom kicking in. Here’s the real answer 😂.

  • VO2 max is the maximum rate of oxygen used by your cardiovascular system during exercise.

To put it another way, it’s the scientific calculation to measure your engine. No, not that engine, your heart, and lungs.

However, as always this raises more questions!

  • Is bigger better?
  • How do I measure my VO2 max?
  • What factors affect VO2 max?
  • I ride for fun, so I don’t need to worry about VO2 max, correct?
  • What training tips can I use to improve VO2 max?

Let’s look at these in more detail.

Is Higher Or Lower VO2 Max Better?

Breathe – I’m referencing this song to show the importance of oxygen intake when exercising. With every breath you take (sorry, I couldn’t resist!), your lungs convert oxygen into energy called adenosine triphosphate or ATP. This means:

  • Having a higher VO2 max means you can breathe in more oxygen, which your cardiovascular system uses to generate the maximum ATP.

So, is a higher VO2 max better? Typically, the answer is yes. Improving your VO2 max will make you faster and capable of going further. However, a higher VO2 max does not guarantee you a podium position. As you know, factors like tactics, terrain, weather, mechanicals impact race outcomes, too.

How Do I Measure My VO2 Max?

The only way to get an accurate and detailed VO2 max test is in a lab or medical facility. Licensed coaches and trainers can use a submaximal test, which gives you a rough idea of your VO2 max without the details that a lab test would show.

If you’re a “hold my beer” person, there is a self-test you can do. You will need to do a functional threshold test (FTP). Once that is complete, your VO2 max training zone will be 110-120 percent of your FTP.

For more information about how to test for VO2 max, check out this video:

Where Can I Measure My VO2 Max?

As mentioned earlier, the only way to get this measured accurately is in a lab or medical facility. You can usually find a university nearby that has a testing lab (e.g. University of Virgina lab). A few big chains like Dexafit have facilities around the country. If all else fails, stick with the FTP approach until you can get access to a lab!

Is Your VO2 Max All Genetics?

Born to be wild – Ah, another song reference, but I use it to bring up the next point to consider when looking into VO2 max: genetics and physiology. 

Here’s what I mean. On average, a male who is 18 to 45 years old and is sedentary has a VO2 max of 35-40 ml. Elite cyclists, on the other hand, range in the 70-80 ml range. My hero, Greg LeMond, had a fantastic VO2 max of 92.5 while a certain Texan-who-won-Tours-but-cheated had only 78 ml. By the way, knowing this information was what prompted LeMond to question “you know who’s” ability to win without cheating, but that’s a story for another time.

And then there’s the young Norwegian protege, Oskar Svendsen, who at the ripe old age of fifteen, had a VO2 max of 74.6 ml. He trained like a madman and got it up to 96.7. Yes, he won races, but after a few years of racing, he burned out from the training and dropped out of the sport.

Other factors that will affect your VO2 max are:

  • Age – your VO2 max declines 2% a year once you hit 30
  • Gender – sorry, ladies, I’m not being sexist. Men tend to have larger lungs and thus consume larger amounts of oxygen than women. This also explains why we’re full of hot air 😂
  • Fitness level – as mentioned prior, sedentary individuals have lower VO2 max than someone active
  • Elevation – there is less air pressure at higher elevations, so oxygen molecules are further apart or less available
  • Physiology – big people have larger lungs and hearts and consume more oxygen. This means their VO2 max is greater than that of a smaller person
Sprint Cyclist Testing VO2 Max

Do I Need To Improve My VO2 Max?

I don’t race, so I don’t care – I get it, and I’ve heard this from many a rider. But, let me ask you this: do you want to age well and live as long as possible? I’m hoping you answered yes!

There is overwhelming medical and scientific proof that improving VO2 max, especially as we age, has numerous health benefits like:

  • Longer lifespan
  • Better quality of life
  • Reduced risk of stroke, heart disease, diabetes, cancer
  • Better self-esteem and mood
  • Improved sleep

Do you still doubt me? Fine. Here’s a medical article about VO2 max and its relation to better health!

How To Train To Improve VO2 Max

All joking aside, there isn’t an easy way to improve VO2 max. It requires hard work, wise scheduling, patience, and long-suffering. Yeah, you read that correctly: you have to suffer.

But before I scare you off, let me add that aside from the prescribed training methods below, you can try more modest approaches. For example, when you’re out on your training ride, toss in some sprints. I recommend using a landmark, like a barn or a tree that is up ahead, as the finish line instead of eyeballing your computer. In this way, you keep your eyes on the road to avoid potholes, cars, and other dangers. This becomes more enjoyable when you’re riding with a few friends. After all, who doesn’t like to brag about how big their engine is!

Group Of Cyclists Sprinting Around A Bend

Like cooking with spices, don’t overdo it. Hammering every day will not only burn you out but could cause damage to joints, not to mention your muscles won’t have time to recuperate.

One other tip and this is important. Do not do these drills if:

  • You are out of shape
  • You have heart issues (check with your doctor first!)
  • You only have about 100 miles under your belt. Instead, focus on building endurance and bike handling skills

And now for the torture chamber, umm, I mean VO2 max training.

You’ll need:

If you lack any of these, I have an exercise listed below for you.

Short Interval Training Method

Although there are longer interval training methods, studies have shown that shorter intervals deliver better results. That is why I’m going to stick with that as our go-to model.

Attempt these when you’re fresh and can attack. It will require the muscle to complete and the will to compete.

5×3 VO2 Max Sprint Workout

  • 15-minute: Warm up at an easy-peasy pace; conversational. Also, for Old Dawgs like me (I’ll be 62 this March), I need more time to warm up. This part is key to success, so don’t skip or skimp.
  • 15-minute zone 2/3: Increased effort but still comfortable.
  • (#1) 3-minute sprint: This is all out, racing for the finish. Effort should be 110-120% of your FTP.
  • 3-minute recovery.
  • (#2) 3-minute sprint: This is all out, racing for the finish. Effort should be 110-120% of your FTP.
  • 3-minute recovery.
  • (#3) 3-minute sprint: This is all out, racing for the finish. Effort should be 110-120% of your FTP.
  • 3-minute recovery.
  • (#4) 3-minute sprint: This is all out, racing for the finish. Effort should be 110-120% of your FTP.
  • 3-minute recovery.
  • (#5) 3-minute sprint: This is all out, racing for the finish. Effort should be 110-120% of your FTP.
  • 20-minute recovery.

Need a visual tutorial? Then check out this video of the subject:

If you don’t have a power meter or know your FTP or even have a heart rate monitor, you can still give these a go.

Use the same workout but focus on “listening to your body” to determine effort.

  • Warm-ups are at a pace you can carry on a lengthy conversation.
  • The second warm-up is conversational but with short answers.
  • The sprints will feel like your heart will explode (which is impossible, by the way) and have you gasping for air.
  • While attempting a sprint, if you can utter a syllable or make a snarky comment, then you’re not going hard enough.
  • Conversely, if you see a vision of a deceased relative waving you toward the light, then back off the effort.

Looking to push your training even more? See the benefits of having a cycling coach.

Summary 

In closing, whichever training method you use, remember:

  • Get doctor approval. If you have heart or health issues that concern you, talk to your doctor before attempting this workout.
  • Be fresh. Do these intervals when you’re fresh physically and mentally.
  • Use moderately. Allow several days to pass before repeating so muscles and the cardiovascular system can recharge.
  • Be patient. Don’t expect to do one set of intervals and be ready for a crit the following week. Building speed and power take time.
  • Be wise. It’s possible to overdo these exercises and end up getting burned out, injured, or needing extra time to recover. Don’t be that guy or gal!

Part time TCP contributor, full time cycling enthusiast! I am USAC qualified cycling coach - my forte and passion are working with new or inexperienced cyclists.

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