VO2 Max and Speed Training Made Simple

By Rick Morris

There’s no question in my mind that distance runners are among the most highly trained athletes in the world. Sprinters need lots of speed and power. Football players are exceptionally strong and powerful. Basketball players have a great deal of explosive strength and endurance. Distance runners need it all. A top level distance athlete must develop high levels of endurance and stamina to hold a quality pace over long distances. They need a lot of power and explosive strength to run efficiently and economically.

A competitive distance runner also needs to develop a high degree of speed to cover long distances in as short a time as possible and to build neuromuscular fitness. There are few other athletic events that require that degree of training and fitness.

There is one type of workout that is especially valuable to a distance runner because it develops speed, VO2 max, power and stamina all at the same time. That type of training session is speed training. Speed training is also called VO2 max training, vVO2 max workouts and aerobic capacity training.

Your VO2 max is a measure of the maximal amount of oxygen your body can process to produce energy. See VO2 max for more information. For many years VO2 max was considered the most reliable indicator of your fitness level and your race potential. That made a lot of sense when you consider that most of the energy to fuel your running is produced aerobically. A high VO2 max is like having a bigger engine in your car. A larger engine gives you higher energy potential.

Today we know that there are better indicators of your running fitness and potential. It takes more than a large engine to succeed, you also need an efficiently operating machine. These newer indicators were developed because running coaches and physiologists saw that something was amiss. They watched runners with lower VO2 max levels consistently beating those with higher levels of VO2 max. If VO2 max was the most reliable measure of running potential, that shouldn’t be happening. So what was missing?

Back in those days researchers were overlooking an important part of running – running economy. One runner may have a bigger VO2 max engine, but if they struggle with their running stride, a more efficient runner may beat them. That is what was happening. Runners that were able to run more efficiently, or with less effort, were able to beat less efficient runners, even though they had a lower VO2 max level.

Armed with that new information, scientists needed some new, more accurate measures of running potential and fitness. The terms they came up with were vVO2 max and tlim@vVO2 max. These terms may sound complex but they are really quite simple. vVO2 max stands for velocity at VO2 max and refers to your running speed when you reach your VO2 max while tim@vVO2 max means time limit at velocity at VO2 max and is a measure of how long your can maintain that pace. Both of these have become the gold standard for measuring your running fitness and potential.

Velocity at VO2 max adds in the variable of your running efficiency. While one runner may have a higher VO2 max, another runner may actually have a higher vVO2 max because they are a much more efficient runner. In the same vein, if you take two runners with identical vVO2 max levels, the more successful runner will be the one that can maintain their vVO2 max pace for the longer period of time – the runner with the superior tlim@vVO2 max.

Improving Your VO2 Max

The obvious question at this point is how do you enhance both your vVO2 max and tlim@vVO2 max? Let’s start with more basic VO2 max. All recent research agrees that the best way to improve your VO2 max is by running at very high intensity pace – running at faster than 5K race pace. A recent study from 2007 by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology concluded that high intensity interval training is “significantly more effective than performing the same total work at either lactate threshold or at 70% of MHR (maximum heart rate), in improving VO2 max”.

That is just an example of one recent study. There have been many studies over the past decade that agrees with the Norwegian researchers. It also passes the all important common sense test. It just makes sense that if you want to improve your VO2 max you need to train at levels that take you to your VO2 max. Most runners reach their VO2 max at around 3K pace or about 10 seconds faster than 5K race pace.

You have probably read and heard that lower intensity running also improves VO2 max. That is absolutely true – low and moderate paced running does indeed improve VO2 max. So why am I saying you need to training at high intensities? It’s because the VO2 max benefits of low to moderate training intensities is limited to low to moderately trained runners. If you’re a new runner or an experienced runner that is not at a high level of fitness, you’re probably seeing some increases in VO2 max with moderate paced training.

As your fitness level increases, those VO2 max increases will slow down and eventually stop without high intensity training. More highly trained runners have already “maxed out” their VO2 max increases. Scientists at the Department of Sport, Health and Exercise Science at the University of Hull, England found that “high intensity training may be effective or even necessary for well trained distance runners to enhance VO2 max”.

So, it’s well documented that high intensity running is the best way to improve your VO2 max, but even that has its limits. There is a point at which you can no longer improve your VO2 max. Then what do you do? How do you improve your running performance? Simple – you work to improve your vVO2 max and your tlim@vVO2 max. Both of these components of your running fitness can always be improved. Why? – Because your vVO2 max includes the variable of running economy and your tlim@vVO2 max includes both running economy and another variable, your ability to hold that pace.

Increasing your vVO2 Max

The next step up the VO2 max ladder is vVO2 max. This has the added variable of running economy. How do you improve your vVO2 max? There are a couple of steps you can and should take to maximize your vVO2 max. First you should consistently include training at your vVO2 max pace. That’s simple enough, but how do you know what your vVO2 max pace is?

There are three ways. One – you could have it measured in a lab. That’s expensive and hard to find. If you can do it great, if not there are easier ways. Two – you could perform a six minute time trial. That is fairly accurate, but you need to do it several times and take an average of each time. Accurate, but a bit time consuming. Three – you can estimate it using your current race times. This one isn’t quite as accurate at the time trial, but it’s close and instant. For most runners, their vVO2 max is going to be very close to their 3K race pace. There are a number of vVO2 max workouts you can do. See below for a couple of examples.

A second way to improve your vVO2 max is to improve your running economy. You can do that by doing some hill running, improving your stride mechanics and building your running strength and power through strength training and plyometrics. Stronger more resilient muscles combined with proper running mechanics will allow your muscles to store and return more of the energy you build up during your running stride. You will use less energy when you run and will be a more efficient runner.

Improving your tlim@vVO2 Max

The next step is to increase the amount of time you can maintain your vVO2 max pace. If you can extend your tlim@vVO2 max you will be able to run further at faster paces before fatigue raises its ugly head and tries to slow you down. To improve your tlim@vVO2 max you need to do two things. You need to improve your pure vVO2 max as outlined above and you also need to raise your lactate turn point.

The researchers at the University of Hull have demonstrated that lactate turn point has a large influence on the time at which VO2 max can be sustained at vVO2 max pace. Famous running scientist LV Billat has conducted many studies in this field. In one study, Billat found that “lactate threshold…is correlated with the tlim@vVO2 max”. So, to maximize your tlim@vVO2 max you should perform concurrent vVO2 max training and lactate turn point training. This sounds suspiciously like multi-pace training, which supports the growing belief that multi pace training is a superior training periodization method for most runners.

Speed Training and vVO2 Max Workouts

I’m sure you are already aware that there are an unlimited number of specific workouts you could design to meet your running goals. Just to make things easy, here are some generic speed/vVO2 max workouts that you can use for any running goal or distance.

5 x 3 Minute Repeats

LV Billat came up with this workout which as become come classic vVO2 max and speed workout for all distances.

  • Description: 5 x 3 minute repeats at vVO2 max pace. Run 3 minutes at vVO2 max pace. Repeat 4 more times for a total of 5 repeats.
  • Pace: vVO2 max pace
  • Recovery: 2 minutes of passive rest between each repeat

Lactate Builders

The very intense pace of these repeats make them a good vVO2 max workout and the progressive accumulation of lactic acid provide a high level of lactate turn point stimulus.

  • Description: Run 8 x 1 minute repeats at nearly all out pace. Recover between each repeat with 2 minutes at an easy pace.
  • Pace: Nearly full pace. Your pace should feel very hard, but stay fluid and relaxed throughout the repeat.
  • Recovery: Recover between each repeat with 2 minutes at an easy pace.

6 x 200/400 Meter Repeats

This one is a compound set that is both a vVO2 max builder and a lactate turn point session.

  • Description: After a warm up, run 200 meters at vVO2 max pace and then slow to 5K pace for 400 meters. Take no recovery between the components of each compound set, but recovery with 3 minutes of passive rest between each set.
  • Pace: 200 meters at vVO2 max pace and 400 meters at 5K pace
  • Recovery: No recovery within each compound set. Recover with 3 minutes of passive rest between each set.

200 Meter Blasters

Here is another classic track workout that is a great vVO2 max session.

  • Description: Warm up and then run 200 meters at nearly full pace followed by 200 meters at an easy pace. Repeat that sequence as many times as you can. Keep going until you can’t hold a quality pace on the hard 200 meter portions.
  • Pace: Nearly full pace. Run at a very hard pace, but stay fluid and relaxed.
  • Recovery: Recovery between each hard 200 meters with 200 meters at an easy pace. No other recovery.