Every rider has their own "favourite" measuring metric for
determining fitness levels; usually it's the easiest or least painful thing to
measure. For coaches and sports scientists the three main metrics
you'll find in their armoury and coaching manuals are:
▼ Lactate Threshold
▼ Functional Threshold and
We'll cover Lactate threshold
and Functional Threshold another day, for today it's the turn of VO2max.
But first some background.
Cycling is completely different to most sports as it has many
elements of athletic capacity that must be developed to realize full
sporting potential. Generally, runners mainly run at one set pace; marathon, 1500 metres, 400 metres, 100 meters etc,
Each runner in each respective discipline will run at, broadly speaking, a
set pace throughout the duration of the event. Swimming is pretty much the same;
as is time trialling but we'll slyly ignore that for now!
Cycling is quite dynamic in the
sense that during a road race or a sportive the pace and terrain is constantly
changing. The first miles of settling in, the early attacks, the
middle tempo consolidation, the shifting pace of a racing climb, the build
up to a high speed finale and then the crescendo of the all out
Endurance runners have a pretty
much well defined pace to train and target. If you want to
run at six minute miles you train to compete at six minute miles.
So, taking in to account the description above, where do you start for cycle racing?
In an average cycling road race
or sportive the competitor has to flip-flop between a marathon pace, a
sprinting pace and everything else in between. That's what makes our
sport so great, demanding and enjoyable! You just don't know what's
going to happen next.
Each Easter the
Caesarean Cycling Club
(Caesar as in Emperor not cesarean as in baby delivery) here in Jersey organises an
Easter Stage Race. It comprises a 3k hilly prologue, a hilly road
race, a time trial, a crit and a flat road race. The dynamics of
each event are quite, quite different; the constant paced effort of a time
trial hardly bears comparison with the cut and thrust accelerations of a
So where do you begin when you want to develop
the aspects of your physiology that will bring the best return on your
investment? Well as luck would have it, for this article at least,
it's VO2max development.
VO2max is, as discussed in the
VO2max factsheet, pretty much genetically
determined. Your heart and your lungs and your genes will determine
what will be your VO2max ceiling.
But are you maximising your
potential utilization of VO2max? Can you operate closer to your
ceiling without blowing up?
You'll remember from the
VO2max factsheet that VO2max can loosely be
amount of oxygen you can take in and make use of "
So, the very nature of trying
to develop our VO2max requires us to push back the boundaries of
suffering, to allow our bodies to adapt and draw more oxygen from the air
we breath and fire it into our muscles.
To target and develop your
VO2max you need to undertake interval training;
at the right level. Intervals need to be aerobic in nature but right
at the edge of aerobicity (my new word, watch out for it in the future) without straying in to anaerobic
Dispelling a Myth
It used to be thought that VO2max was developed by long, slow, rides to
get the miles in. It was thought that this would drive up oxygen
consumption as you must have consumed loads of oxygen on a long ride.
However, in trained individuals like ourselves, the rate of oxygen
consumption at this pace is much too low to force a physiological
adaptation. Something else is needed other than mass oxygen
consumption. It's okay for the masses, but not finely tuned athletes
Before we discuss what can be
done, we again need to understand a little background. It's
important you don't just blindly follow an opinion or instruction without
first understanding it's context. This next section will hopefully
Your average (for the sake of argument a 72 kilo, male) cyclist has
around 30 kilograms of muscle mass hanging off their skeleton.
Muscles require blood and
oxygen to work. The heart and lungs push this energy carrying concoction
around the body. The faster you cycle the more demands your muscles
make for oxygen and blood. As you may have discovered, your heart
rate, and by definition the rate of flow and volume of oxygen and blood,
increases to match this demand.
The capacity for skeletal muscle to
utilise oxygen far exceeds that of the heart and lungs to deliver it.
Your heart and lungs in effect become your performance limiter.
So, if you want to go faster
all you have to do is build and develop your oxygen carrying capacity.
That should become the sole objective of your training; getting more
oxygen to your muscles.
Hopefully we're now all agreed (or at least understand) that our training objective is to make our
bodies more efficient and effective to allow more oxygen to be utilized. I've explained this in previous
factsheets, so here's a quick refresher.
If we can make our engine
bigger, (VO2max) marvellous; we now have the potential to go faster. If we
can make our fuel tank bigger (endurance & stamina), just as marvellous; we now have the
potential to go further. But if we can make our engine and our fuel
tank bigger, bloody fantastic! We now have the potential to go
faster for longer. When you can do that better than anyone else, you
become a champion.
Champions also work on their
rev limit, increase the rev limit (lactate threshold) and again you are on to
a winner. We'll cover lactate threshold training next time.
High revs are no use on a small engine, so get your engine size maxed out
If VO2max can be thought of as
our engine, then heart rate and lung capacity, our effectiveness, are
pretty much fixed. To develop as athletes we need to increase our
efficiency. We need to generate and utilise more bang per beat than
we do currently. To do that we need to do the right training.
And more importantly do the right training right. It's so easy to do
the right training wrong!
The general consensus on effort required to develop VO2max is
to train at between 90 to 105% of your current VO2max capacity.
It should go without typing
that "you can ride longer at 90% of your VO2max than you can at 105%".
Let's say you can ride for 10 minutes at 90% of your VO2max and 3 minutes
at 105% of it. So which brings the best return? Do you train
at a higher effort for less time or more time at less effort? As ever there
isn't a simple answer.
We are all different and we
will all adapt to the same training stimulus in a different way.
Some people could be brought to their knees by short intense intervals yet
thrive on long, less-intense efforts. Others will be creating little
training effect or overload by riding long, slow miles.
It's been suggested that the
best return on investment is multiple efforts at 100% VO2max, for a
duration of between 3 and 5 minutes; that'll be 4 minutes then! Shorter, to a degree, intervals
will give a potentially greater overload than longer ones. Although
to be very careful when trying to elicit a particular physiological
response because you might not always get the result you were after.
Riding at a higher intensity,
say 120% VO2max, will give a pretty short interval. You could
probably hold this intensity for around two minutes. The fact that
it takes between 60-180 seconds to physiologically reach your VO2max means
the interval could be over before you've actually achieved any VO2max
You'll be very hot and bothered, probably very pleased with yourself
because you've worked frightfully hard, but
you won't have done anything to assist your VO2max development. More
isn't always better!
The space between the blue
lines in the graphic above represent your VO2max development zone.
Riding too hard,
the red line, causes you to go straight
through the VO2max development zone, in to anereobicity and totally miss
the target. Once you go out the top of the blue zone you're riding
anaerobically (without oxygen) so how are you going to develop your oxygen
uptake? You go from miles below, to right past it without stopping
at Go and without collecting £200. An opportunity missed.
Riding too soft,
the yellow line, doesn't illicit the stimulus you were after
and again misses the target. Of course you're riding aerobically
(with oxygen) but you're not stressing the system and developing your
cause. If you ride too far below your threshold, at say 85%, you may
never actually reach the development boundary. Not so hot, not so
bothered and not achieved anything at all, other than burning some
Riding a four minute interval
at 100% of your VO2max, after 90+ seconds, the
green line, gets right in the sweet spot. Now you begin
to maximise your training time and get a return on all the blood, sweat
and tears. Okay, just the sweat.
However gauging the correct effort is
pretty difficult without undertaking some sort of test but it is still
possible without a sexy power meter. Taking a
VO2max Ramp Test will
obviously give you the information you need. Taking a
wVO2max Test will give an
indicator of the wattage being produced at VO2max. From the results
of this test a power training zone can be determined.
It is possible to get
information, close enough for mortals, through a turbo test or time trial
of your own. After a thorough warm up, ride a 20 minute time trial
on your turbo and take a note of the average power or speed you can hold
for the 20 minutes.
Use this to gauge your 4 minute
interval pace. It's not scientifically accurate but it is close
enough for our needs.
DO NOT use heart rate.
Heart rate lag and cardiac drift will not give you the accuracy you need
to perform short duration intervals. By time your heart's caught up
you could be way out the top of your zone and ruining a perfectly good
Those that have ridden in the mountains will
testify that the air is a) colder, b) nicer smelling and c) less dense.
It's the last one that concerns us. Living in Jersey I'm about 12
feet or 4 metres above sea level. When I'm in the Alps or Pyrenees,
I'm significantly higher. At 5,000 feet, just 1600 metres there is a
5-7% decrease in VO2max.
Climbing mountains is hard
enough due to gravitational challenges without having to factor in the
fact that the air gets less dense the higher you climb, a true double
whammy. So altitude causes you VO2max problems unless
you go there to train. The fact that the air is so thin forces your
body to adapt, so when you come back down to sea level your all turboed
Once you hit 20 years old your
VO2max potential is pretty much where it's going to be. However,
cyclists generally reach their physical peak, when experience, genetics,
training and adaptation all gel together, at around 30 years old.
After that it's harder to
maintain a stable VO2max figure. In fact there can be a drop of
approximately 30% between the ages of 20 and 65, with the rate of decrease
gathering pace once past 40 years old. Hence the setting of the age
benchmark for veterans. You can stave off the rate of
degradation through training, nutrition and lifestyle choices. But
time will get you in the end; it's just fun trying to keep it at arms
length for as long as you can.
The pre-competition period is the perfect time to develop your VO2max.
The weather's getting better, the new season is just around the corner and
you're likely to be past the germ catching phase of the winter. Your
base should be well developed and it's now time to start looking for that
icing on the cake.
If we assume a theoretical
"perfect" VO2max interval is 4 minutes at 100% VO2max, and it takes 90
seconds to reach VO2max, then we are "developing" our VO2max system for
2.5 minutes of that 4 minute interval. Not a bad return; string four
or five intervals together and it all begins to add up.
When you're feeling good, don't
be tempted to ramp up the wattage by pushing harder to get more return.
It doesn't work like that! Once you move out of the "training with
oxygen zone" you aren't developing your oxygen capacity. You don't
develop VO2max by riding as hard as you can for four minutes.
If you can only manage four, 4
minute intervals then you probably went too hard (red line). If you
can "just" manage five, 4 minute intervals (green line) you're probably
right in the ball park. If you can do six, then you were probably
not going hard enough (yellow line).
There's more to cycling than a
high VO2max. Nutrition, tactics, ability to suffer, mental strength
and equipment all form part of the jigsaw that make up you. But developing
your VO2max through five, 4 minute intervals once a week will help you
on your way to far better results than a sexy new frame.
It may hurt a bit more and not
be as flash as a new bike or wheels but it's probably the main
contributing factor to top results.
Train hard, train right and
train to a purpose. The rewards, be they personal or trophy-based,
will come as sure as night follows day.