Posted by: Dean Hebert | August 12, 2008

Training: Methods of Improving VO2max; high intensity intervals revisited

A reader named Michael D. asks:

I have hard there are three major training programs used to improve VO2 max. Apart from High Intensity Interval Training, are you able to tell me the other two & if possible give me a website link for further information.

I have to admit, you’ve stumped me. I don’t know of three major training programs used to improve VO2max. Of course I know of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). But, improving VO2max can be accomplished in a number of ways. There is no patented way to do so.

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is indeed one method. I have to say that HIIT is merely a twist on interval training. It is not new. It is not a revelation. Interval training has always taken on many forms. The entire intent of interval training is to apply “fast” repeats with “recoveries” of some sort. Each vary in number, intensity and duration.

So let’s look at how you improve VO2max. I don’t want to get deep into all the physiology of VO2max but there are a couple of basics that are important to know. VO2max is limited in two ways: the delivery system (aka central component – oxygen uptake and absorption from lungs) and the receiving (aka peripheral component – muscle enzymes & use of the oxygen). Science has shown that in more novice runners the biggest initial gain is in the central component and in experienced runners the biggest gains are in the peripheral. But, in either case, both ends must be improved in order to fully maximize VO2max.

1. VO2max by formula or definition is a function of body weight (it is a per kilogram of body weight use of O2). Therefore, losing weight will yield a positive (i.e. higher) VO2max in most people. If you have excess fat – lose it. If not, then this is NOT the way to go.

2. Endurance running (a relative term since endurance for a new runner may be one mile) enhances the central component.

3. Interval training however has been shown to improve both central and peripheral components (for both novice and experienced runners).

But here is the real kicker. VO2max is not a strong indicator of performance! vVO2max, lactate threshold and running efficiency on the other hand are far better indicators (better correlation to race times) for performance. The real bonus is that great gains in all these physiological measures will be had from all forms of interval training including HIIT. And as stated above, more improvements to VO2max will be gained than just doing steady long runs. Veronica Billat PhD a physiologist from France determined three optimal interval workouts through her research:
— 30 seconds @ vVO2max pace and 30 seconds easy; repeating the pattern for 16-20 times (or until you can no longer maintain the pace).
— 60 seconds @ vVO2max pace and 60 seconds easy; repeating the pattern for 8-10 times(or until you can no longer maintain the pace).
— 5×3:00 @ vVO2max pace with 3:00 rest intervals.

Hitting vVO2max pace during workouts has been found to be more important in generating those physiological improvements than maintaining some arbitrary (usually listed as 50%) pace during recovery jogging or floating. The key variable then is during the “hard” interval portion to attain and maintain your effort. (Your vVO2max pace will be approximately the pace/distance you can run – all out – for about six minutes.)

Pushing the pace most definitely has great benefits to VO2max and these other measures. However, as with anything, too much of a good thing is not so good. A side effect of this form of training is soreness. If you do not listen closely to your body, schedule easy days and rest days as part of your training then you will court injury – not VO2max improvement.

By the way, Speedplay (Fartlek) is a form of interval training. Running very high speed repeats on the track is interval training. Running repeats at approximately your 5k race pace (optimal for most track sessions for most people) is interval training. Running repeats with 5:1 and 1:1 (or any other ratio) work to rest ratios are interval training. Fast hill repeats is a form of interval training. Call your workout a version of HIIT or anything else, it’s just a twist on interval training. The goal of your interval workouts is to gradually decrease rests and increase effort/pace and increase total distances covered. The only limit on how to approach interval training is your creativity.

In the end you will enhance not only VO2max, but lactate threshold, efficiency and vVO2max!

Do you have a question for us? Post a comment on our “questions” page.

Coach Dean Hebert, Tempe Arizona, USA
Contributing Editor, Running Advice and News


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