Most cyclists are familiar with VO2max. The upper limit of oxygen consumption during exercise has been studied since the 1920’s and is widely recognized as a fundamental measure of exercise capacity [1, 2]. Before we look at how VO2max relates to your cycling, let’s start with a basic definition.
VO2max is the maximal amount of oxygen your body can consume during progressive all-out exercise and is reported in absolute or relative units.
“Absolute” is a total measure of oxygen consumption given in liters per minute (L/min). “Relative” takes into account body weight and is given in milliliters per kilogram per minute (mL/kg/min).
Relative measures of VO2max make it easier to compare different size athletes just as W/kg does when analyzing power output. Chris Froome’s VO2max was measured at 84 mL/kg/min . Greg Lemond’s was reported to be around 93 mL/kg/min.
When it comes to great cyclists, the ability to utilize tons of oxygen to fuel aerobic energy production is a must. The best cyclists have a huge VO2max and the one with the biggest number wins, right? Not exactly.
While VO2max sets the upper limit of your endurance capacity  , it does a poor job of predicting performance . In other words, when you line up competitively matched cyclists, you can’t pick out the winners and losers from their VO2max test results [4-7].
That’s a good thing. Less destiny, more hard work. A recent study showed a cyclist improving his VO2max by 13% after focused training. Why was that a big deal? His improvement came between his 101st and 103rd birthday .
The take away? Yes, your genetic VO2max may define the upper limit of your cycling potential but hard work at any age can result in significant improvements to your aerobic energy capacity . So how much do genes define your VO2max?
Current research points toward a ballpark 50% of your untrained VO2max baseline coming from genetic and environmental factors . The remaining 50% comes from your response to training, which also appears to be driven by your genes [11-13].
It’s best to think about genetic influence on VO2max as a spectrum of possibilities as the graphic below illustrates.
If you have world-class endurance athlete parents, send them a thank you card. For the rest of us, our time is best spent figuring out how to maximize that potential 50% we can train. So what is the best way to improve your VO2max?
I’ll cut straight to the chase. If you want to improve your VO2max, high intensity interval training (HIIT) is the key [9, 14-16, 19]. Typical endurance training can spell significant improvements in VO2max if you’re new to the sport, but if you’ve been riding for a while, high intensity is your surest bet to progress .
Alright, going hard is the key, but how hard and for how long? We’ll examine two particularly effective strategies.
Hickson Protocol (Long intervals, continuous work) 
- Ride 3 times a week, run 3 times a week (or presumably supplement with comparable rides).
- On ride days perform 6 X 5 minute intervals at an intensity eliciting VO2max (near maximal) with 2 minutes of rest between each effort.
- As weekly fitness improves continue to increase your power output on intervals, always eliciting a near maximal effort.
Amongst the participants in Hickson’s study, the total increase in VO2max averaged 16.8 mL/kg/min, a staggering 44%. Yes the participants in this study began as primary “non trained”, so their degree of improvement isn’t typical for most cyclists, but still, 44%. The Hickson Protocol obviously works, should we go with it? Before we commit, let’s take a look a very different approach to VO2max intervals.
Ronnestad Protocol (Short intervals, intermittent work) 
- Two high intensity interval training sessions a week
- After a solid warmup, perform 30s on (all-out), 15s off (recovery) for 10m followed by a 3m rest period. Repeat series of intervals 3 times.
- As weekly fitness improves, continue to increase your power output on intervals, always eliciting a near maximal effort.
- For the rest of your riding, supplement with lower intensity/endurance paced rides.
Interestingly, Ronnestad’s study compared the effectiveness of 30s (shorter) intervals to the more classic “Hickson like” 5m (longer) intervals we just mentioned. Ronnestad found that the shorter interval group “achieved a larger relative improvement in VO2max” than the longer interval group in addition to “superior training adaptations” across the power curve from 30s, 5m, and 40m performance tests .
This study seems to suggest that shorter intervals are superior to longer intervals when targeting improvements in VO2max. So which direction do we go? It probably depends.
Effective VO2max Workouts
Point 1: Both longer (5m) and shorter (30s) VO2max intervals will likely improve your VO2max [17,19]. Whatever you chose, draw up a progressive strategy, commit to your plan, and test your results.
Point 2: If you’re committed to longer intervals, don’t constrain yourself to 5m. Keep things interesting and challenge yourself between the 3-8m range.
Point 3: Even though the Hickson Protocol used rest intervals of 2 minutes, other effective studies used 1:1 work:rest ratios . We’ll err on the side of more rest between longer VO2 intervals. Example: if your VO2max effort is 5 minutes, rest for at least 5 minutes before your next. When it comes to our shorter intervals we’ll keep the rest period between series pegged at 3m.
Point 4: Hickson and Ronnestad threw down with a combined 30 minutes (6 X 5m and 3 X 10m respectively) of white hot VO2max work right out of the gate. We’re going to be more conservative in hopes of preserving enjoyment/sustainability in training. We’ll start with a minimum of 10 minutes (2 X 5m with either long or short) combined at VO2max  with an eye toward increasing our time in zone (VO2max) progressively toward 18-30 minutes over the course of our training block.
Point 5: Hickson was doing three VO2max workouts a week on the bike, but most cyclists are likely hitting a race or group ride on the weekend. For this reason, we’ll limit our VO2max workouts to two per week max for either Hickson or Ronnestad intervals.
Point 6: Hickson’s and Ronnestad both used a 10 week block to invest in VO2max work. For most cyclists this wouldn’t be practical or sustainable in the context of a competitive season. A better target is 4-6 weeks .
Point 7: Ronnestad’s study demonstrating the superiority of shorter intervals (30s) when compared to longer intervals (5m) used trained to highly trained cyclists (66 mL/kg/min). If you’re highly trained you might be better off opting for Ronnestad’s protocol. The more fit you are, the harder you have to go to eek out gains. The benefit of the shorter interval protocol is that it throws you over the edge repeatedly rather than demand you sustain a high (but in comparison lower) intensity. Think repeated shocks of high voltage electricity as opposed to a steady stream of lower voltage.
Point 8: Try both interval protocols and see what you think. Did one of them “feel easier” than the other? It’s important to respect your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) when choosing interval workouts. As long as you’re still making gains, opting for the interval workout with a lower RPE is probably the best long term strategy.
Putting it together
As with any recommendation the key to designing your own VO2max training block is to adapt guidelines to fit your specific training scenario.
Do structured VO2max workouts make you hate life and want to quit riding? Then who cares about maximizing improvements in VO2max if it kills your love of the sport?
Find a compromise by inserting 4-6 weeks of consistent, near maximal, 3-8 minute efforts (longer intervals) within group rides, races, or KOM attempts. Alternatively, you can get more attack happy in your group ride to replicate the 30s bursts of our Ronnestad protocol. Whatever direction you choose, the “best” training approach is the one you can consistently execute, not one that looks beautiful in a research paper.
- VO2max is the maximal amount of oxygen your body can consume during progressive all-out exercise.
- VO2max is usually reported in relative terms that takes into account body weight.
- VO2max is a poor predictor of performance. Spend your time on what you can control (training), not what you didn’t get in the genetic VO2max lottery.
- 50% of your baseline VO2max seems to come from genes/environment with 50% coming from your response to training.
- Anyone can get better if they’re willing to go hard.
- Want to improve your VO2max on the bike? Stick to the principles outlined in Hickson’s and Ronnestad’s research then individualize to your specific situation.
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*3/24/18-Revised VO2max components graphic
*3/13/18-Added additional research on “short” VO2max intervals 
*3/13/18-Added graphics highlighting Hickson and Ronnestad protocols
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