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Coaching to enhance maximal oxygen uptake - the key to your endurance cycling and triathlon performance?

There's always a lot of discussion around maximal oxygen uptake, whether for performance or health, but what is it, and how important is it? Read on to find out!

What is maximal oxygen uptake?

The most widely discussed and studied determinant of running and cycling performance is the maximal oxygen uptake (V̇O2max), also known as maximal aerobic capacity. This is the maximal rate of oxygen that the body can take in and use (Bassett and Howley, 1997), and sets the upper limit for the aerobic energy system. It is typically assessed using a progressive ramp test - starting at an easy to moderate intensity, with speed increasing by 0.5-1.0 km/h/ power by 15-20 W per minute until you can't go any more, whilst breathing through a face mask connected to specialist equipment.

a cyclist performance a ramp assessment to determine maximal aerobic capacity.

The highest value recorded in the test is then termed V̇O2max. However, another, possibly more important value is also recorded here - the power, or velocity at V̇O2max.

How important is it for endurance?

well, it sets up the upper limit for aerobic metabolism, the ceiling if you will, and differentiates between standard of athletes (e.g., club and elite). However, in those of a similar standard (e.g., a pack of elite triathletes), other aspects of physiology come in to play and differentiate performance standards.

Other factors that come in to play, and do so especially as even distance increases, is the proportion of V̇O2max you can sustain (fractional utilisation) and the cost of running/ cycling/ swimming (economy or efficiency). To improve power or speed for a given distance, more energy is required, which requires using more oxygen. To do this you could become more efficient, learn to sustain a higher proportion of max, or lift the ceiling itself. It can be hard to work out what you need to improve, and that's why we combine our extensive experience with choice of assessments to understand where performance improvements can come from.

How can you improve it?

You will find a scientific paper supporting almost every type of exercise to enhance maximal aerobic capacity. However, realistically a high volume of overall training is required, with high intensity interval training likely more effective than lower intensity exercise (Helgerud et al., 2007).

Key factors are 1) time at high intensity (i.e., a high percent of V̇O2max), and 2) quality (i.e., speed or power), and can be achieved through continuous or intermittent efforts. Longer intervals (e.g., 5-10 min, total work duration 40-45 min) may be more effective than shorter (e.g., 2-4 min, total work duration 15-20 min; Sandbakk et al., 2013), likely due to more time spent at maximal intensity (Seiler et al., 2013), and maximising time or distance at high speed/ power is also key. Keep rest short between reps to keep a high oxygen consumption, whilst using micro intervals can reduce blood lactate concentration and allow more time at V̇O2max (Billat et al., 2000).

So, what are our favourite sessions? Try these to boost your endurance performance!

Session 1 (Ronnestad et al., 2020)

Total rep duration: 9.5 min

High intensity: 30 s at 95% of speed or power at V̇O2max

Low intensity duration: 15 s at 50% of work speed or power

Number of reps: 3-6

Rest between reps: 3 min

So, this sessions involves 9.5 min efforts separated by 3 min recovery. Within the effort, it's 30s at high intensity/ 15s at low intensity, somewhere at around 95% of speed or power at V̇O2max/ around half that speed or power for low intensity. Because of the micro intervals, it's also a great opportunity to put aspects of technique, cadence, or position you've been working on in to action, to really focus for 30s, then relaxing.

Session 2 (Bossi et al., 2020)

Total rep duration: 5 min

High intensity: 30 s at 95-100% of speed or power at V̇O2max

Low intensity duration: 60 s at 75-85% of speed or power at V̇O2max (final low intensity 90 s instead 60 s)

Number of reps: 5-8

Rest between reps: 2.5 min

This is a real favourite, of ours, one we've used with Olympic track riders, and is great to get stuck in to. So, shorter reps at 5 min, with 2.5 min duration. The hard 30 s at the start of the rep really drives oxygen uptake, and the 60s portion permits the sensation for recovery whilst still being high intensity. Again, a great opportunity to focus on technique, cadence or position during the higher intensity portions, however with much less of a difference between the high and low intensity aspects, it feels like more of a continuous effort.

We hope you found this interesting, and let us know how you get on with these efforts!


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