The final piece to our training puzzle is the maxVO2 workout. Once again, it’s all about oxygen. Lactate threshold training allows you to burn more of your fuel in the presence of oxygen. Running economy allows you to do more with the oxygen you can process. Max VO2 training allows you to flat out get and use more oxygen.
Definition: According to Webster max VO2 is the maximum amount of oxygen the body can utilize during a specified period of usually intense exercise.
Who needs to work on this and how do we do it? Runners who are looking for that workout to put them over the top need this one. If you are striving for being the best of the best, looking to win your league championship, crush the others in your next 5k, or you have plateaued and just want to bring your time down some more, then this is what you want to add to your workout routine. Who doesn’t need it? I don’t need it or want it. My days of PR’s are long past. These workouts are the ones where we occasionally get to see puke on the track. I don’t enjoy them, and never did. My running now is for fun and good health. But if I was still looking to shave a few seconds off my mile time, this would be what I would add.
The max VO2 training can take you to the top
The max VO2 workout is a more intense session. You are running at 90% or more of your maximum heart rate. Because of this it isn’t as long as the other types of training workouts. The typical pattern is an interval session with shorter intervals with recovery time between the intervals equal to the amount of time spent on the work. For example, 10×400 at 80 seconds per 400 with 80 seconds of rest between each 400 was a session my state champion 3200 runner did. Now she was able to run 3200 meters (2 miles) under 11 minutes. So, the intensity of the run is based on where you currently are in your fitness. For a thorough in-depth explanation, buy the book Daniels’ Running Formula by Jack Daniels.
There are several variables in this as there are in any workout that involves intervals. How fast for each interval, how many intervals, how much time between intervals, how long is each interval, how often you should do this workout, and what to do during the recovery period between each interval.
Let’s start with how fast your max VO2 intervals should be. As a rough rule of thumb, your 2 mile race pace will take you to your max VO2 heart rate. There is no need to go faster in an interval workout than this if your purpose for the workout is to improve your max VO2. Once you have reached your maximum heart rate, going faster won’t make your heart beat any faster. There are other types of workouts with other purposes that require a faster pace but not this one. If you can run a 2 mile in 16 minutes, then that is 2 minutes per 400 meters. So, let’s start here. This runner is going to run at 2 minutes per 400 meters for each interval. If your interval is 600 meters long it should take you 3 minutes to complete each one. If it’s 800 meters it should take you 4 minutes. Is it okay to go faster? I will stress again there is no value in going faster for this. Once you have reached 100% of your maximum heart rate, you only risk hurting yourself by going faster. You will get to go faster as your race times indicate you are in better shape. Once your 2 mile time goes down, let’s say to 15 minutes, then your 400 max VO2 interval pace would drop to 1:52.5 per 400. But, you say, I don’t have a 2 mile race on my schedule. The Daniels book has tables that can give you the proper pace based on just about any distance you do actually race. Do base it on an actual race time and not what you have done in practice.
How long should the interval be? How long and how many go hand in hand. Since you are going 2 mile pace, you obviously can’t do intervals longer than 2 miles. My opinion is that the length shouldn’t go beyond 3 minutes for each interval for this type of workout. I rarely have my runners go beyond 2 minutes. The whole reason for breaking the session up into intervals is to allow more work to be done at that pace. Going back to my earlier example, my 3200 runner was able to do 2.5 miles (10×400) at 2 mile pace by breaking it up into segments where she could not have done that much work without the recovery breaks. It’s hard to make the run too short. Running 200’s is just fine but you need to do more of them. If this is your first attempt at max VO2 intervals just do a few. Let’s use this as an example:
1 mile easy warmup
4 x 400 meters at 2 mile race pace
Equal amounts of recovery time between each 400
1 mile easy cooldown
Stretching and post-workout recovery food
There now that is an entire workout. If this is too easy, then next time do more 400’s. You can increase how many you do until you can’t do more. Remember this is the workout that crushes souls and can bring puke to the track. In general I would do them until you think you could maybe, just maybe do one more. Then stop before doing that last one. We want to save your maximum effort for race day. We see lots of workout kings and queens who fall flat on race day but dominate in the practice sessions. Don’t do them at a faster pace until your 2 mile race time indicates you should. The mistake so many newbies make is to think they will get more benefit out of running them faster. No, just do more of them. It’s okay to always do 400’s but that gets boring. Switching it up to 200’s or 600’s or whatever is fun, but just keep them short enough so you can do a few of them. Trying to do 1600’s at 2 mile race pace just doesn’t allow you to do much of a workout.
The recovery period is important. Keep it equal to the time of the work. If your interval is 80 seconds, then recover for 80 seconds. If it’s 2 minutes then recover for 2 minutes. If it’s 45 seconds, then recover for 45 seconds. Not rocket science. Should I walk or run or stand around during the recovery? Number one, stay on your feet. If you can’t stay on your feet and have to lay in the grass then you are either going too fast or you have done too many. Standing still allows your muscles to tighten up. I prefer walking or a slow jog. Either one is fine.
Recovery shouldn’t look like this
Last of all is how often a max VO2 workout should be done. Once per week is enough. Your body needs time to recover from this one. An easy day of easy running or nothing at all should follow it. If you are on a track team or coaching a track team, consider race day as a max VO2 day while planning your training schedule. During the competitive part of the season, it’s okay to have two max VO2 sessions per week if you are counting race days as such but don’t overdo it.
To sum it all up, I am happy to watch other people do these sessions. I’m not into puking or pushing my limits that much at age 62. I can also accept it when Mr. Interval trainer blows past me in the last 100 of the local 5k. But if you are still in possession of that competitive edge and looking for the “secret” workout to shave those few extra seconds off your time, this could be the one for you. But after you finish your race, don’t forget to turn around and cheer for us slower people as we finally make it to the finish.
Please don’t rub it in too badly when you crush me after your max VO2 workouts.
Keep running my friends!