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]. 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? Here’s one particularly effective strategy called the Hickson Protocol .
- 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.
- On run days, run as hard as you can for 40 minutes.
Amongst the participants in this study the total increase in VO2max averaged 16.8 mL/kg/min, a staggering 44%. Yes the participants in this study began as sedentary, so their degree of improvement isn’t typical for most cyclists, but still, 44%. The Hickson Protocol obviously works, should we go with it?
One major problem. Even though participants kept improving their VO2max at the end of the 10 week program, they declined to continue in the study . Can you guess why? I’m betting they were really burnt out. 10 weeks of near maximal workouts 6 times a week (3 rides/3 runs) is brutal. Effective, but potentially “joy killing”. Let’s find a compromise.
Effective VO2max Workouts
Point 1: One key to maximizing your VO2max seems to be longer intervals in the 3-5 minute range . Let’s extend that range out to 8 minutes for more variety.
Point 2: Even though our 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 efforts. Example: if your VO2max effort is 5 minutes, rest for at least 5 minutes before your next.
Point 3: Hickson threw down with a combined 30 minutes (6 X 5m) of 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 combined at VO2max  with an eye toward increasing our time in zone (VO2max) progressively toward 20-30 minutes over the course of our training block.
Point 4: 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.
Point 5: This VO2max improvement focus is a block in our training, not our singular objective as in a research study. Hickson’s 10 weeks is a long time to spend riding at a VO2max intensity. We’ll shoot for 6 weeks instead .
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 within group rides, races, or KOM attempts. The best training plan is 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 research and individualize to your specific situation.
Interested in a pre-built training plan designed to improve your VO2max? Check out our plan below
Be the first to know about new blog posts while getting inside training tips delivered to your inbox. No spam, ever, I promise.
1. Hill, A.V. and H. Lupton, Muscular Exercise, Lactic Acid, and the Supply and Utilization of Oxygen. QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, 1923. os-16(62): p. 135-171.
2. McArdle, W.D., F.I. Katch, and V.L. Katch, Exercise physiology : nutrition, energy, and human performance. 7th ed. 2010, Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Health. p.
3. Bell, P.G., et al., The Physiological Profile of a Multiple Tour de France Winning Cyclist. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2017. 49(1): p. 115-123.
4. Faria, E., D. Parker, and I. Faria, The Science of Cycling. Sports Medicine, 2005. 35(4): p. 285-312.
5. Coyle, E.F., Integration of the physiological factors determining endurance performance ability. Exerc Sport Sci Rev, 1995. 23: p. 25-63.
6. Bentley, D.J., J. Newell, and D. Bishop, Incremental exercise test design and analysis: implications for performance diagnostics in endurance athletes. Sports Med, 2007. 37(7): p. 575-86.
7. McLaughlin, J.E., et al., Test of the classic model for predicting endurance running performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2010. 42(5): p. 991-7.
8. Billat, V.L., et al., Case Studies in Physiology: Maximal Oxygen Consumption and Performance in a Centenarian Cyclist. J Appl Physiol (1985), 2016: p. jap 00569 2016.
9. Lundby, C., D. Montero, and M. Joyner, Biology of VO2 max: looking under the physiology lamp. Acta Physiol (Oxf), 2016.
10. Bouchard, C., et al., Familial resemblance for VO2max in the sedentary state: the HERITAGE family study. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 1998. 30(2): p. 252-8.
11. Bouchard, C., Genomic predictors of trainability. Exp Physiol, 2012. 97(3): p. 347-52.
12. Bouchard, C., et al., Familial aggregation of VO(2max) response to exercise training: results from the HERITAGE Family Study. J Appl Physiol (1985), 1999. 87(3): p. 1003-8.
13. Bouchard, C., et al., Genomic predictors of the maximal O(2) uptake response to standardized exercise training programs. J Appl Physiol (1985), 2011. 110(5): p. 1160-70.
14. Laursen, P.B. and D.G. Jenkins, The scientific basis for high-intensity interval training: optimising training programmes and maximising performance in highly trained endurance athletes. Sports Med, 2002. 32(1): p. 53-73.
15. Londeree, B.R., Effect of training on lactate/ventilatory thresholds: a meta-analysis. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 1997. 29(6): p. 837-43.
16. Milanovic, Z., G. Sporis, and M. Weston, Effectiveness of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIT) and Continuous Endurance Training for VO2max Improvements: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials. Sports Med, 2015. 45(10): p. 1469-81.
17. Hickson, R.C., H.A. Bomze, and J.O. Holloszy, Linear increase in aerobic power induced by a strenuous program of endurance exercise. J Appl Physiol Respir Environ Exerc Physiol, 1977. 42(3): p. 372-6.
18. Bacon, A.P., et al., VO2max Trainability and High Intensity Interval Training in Humans: A Meta-Analysis. PLOS ONE, 2013. 8(9): p. e73182.