VO2max workouts are incredibly effective at producing fitness gains. Although VO2max alone is no stand-in for race performance, no fast times are possible without a high maximal aerobic capacity.
“VO2max workouts are incredibly effective at producing fitness gains.”
This article focuses on the practical application of different types of VO2 max workouts. If you want a more detailed definition of VO2max, I recommend reading: How to Improve VO2max.
VO2max Workouts & Race Distances
First, we must understand the timing of maximal aerobic capacity training. Shorter race distances like the 5K and 10K are run at 90 – 95 percent of VO2max. That means VO2max workouts are highly race-specific to these distances, and therefore you should emphasize them until the final weeks of race preparation.
The half-marathon and marathon, in contrast, are run significantly below VO2max. Hence, the final weeks of race preparation for longer distances are more centered around your aerobic and anaerobic threshold. But that doesn’t mean you should neglect VO2max. Both your aerobic and anaerobic thresholds are a percentage of maximal aerobic capacity. In other words, the faster your pace at VO2max, the faster your pace at lower intensities. What it does mean, however, is that aerobic capacity training happens earlier in the training cycle and is then merely maintained.
Pre-Conditioning for VO2max Workouts
What is true for all race distances, is that you should precede VO2max training with speed workouts in the weeks prior. Keep in mind VO2max is between mile and 3K pace and calls a significant percentage of your fast-twitch fibers into action. If you have neglected your fast twitch fibers because all you did was aerobic base training, you will certainly fall short of your potential in your VO2max workouts.
Therefore I highly recommend you sprinkle your base training with short hill sprints and 200m efforts at 800 – 1500m race pace twice a week. Even 100m repeats at 400m race pace if you are a 5K or 10K runner. You don’t have to treat them as dedicated speed sessions. Tag the repeats to an otherwise easy run or do them as part of a Fartlek. Keep the recovery periods long as repeats aim to target your neuromuscular abilities rather than your energy systems.
With that in mind, let’s explore 5 effective VO2max workouts.
Short VO2max Intervals
Short VO2max intervals typically precede longer intervals in your training cycle. The advantage of short intervals is that you can maintain a pace of 100% of VO2max (vVO2max) throughout all intervals. The downside is that the actual time your heart is working at or near maximal aerobic capacity is rather low compared to longer intervals as it takes the heart rate about 2 minutes to reach VO2max initially.
6 – 10x 400m @ 1500m – 3K pace
5 – 8x 600m @ 3K pace
5x 800m @ 3K pace
Aim for a work-to-rest ratio of 1:1 (measured in time). Lower-intermediate runners can reduce the length of the intervals by 30% and advanced runners can either increase the number of intervals or run two sets with a 5-minute break in between.
Long VO2max Intervals
Long VO2max intervals typically succeed short intervals in your training plan. With one race distance down their intensity is at “only” 90 – 95 percent of maximal aerobic capacity. That allows for longer efforts and therefore more accumulated minutes of your heart rate near VO2max. These efforts are also highly race-specific for 5K and 10K runners.
3 examples of long VO2max intervals:
5x 1000m @ 5K pace
4x 1200m @ 5K pace
3x 1600m @ 5K – 10K pace
Use a work-to-rest ratio of 1:1 (measured in time) or slightly less. Cut the rest intervals in half if you are in the final weeks of 5K and 10k preparation. Adjust the length and/or number intervals according to your training level.
Variable Intensity VO2max Intervals
Variable intervals have proven very effective in a study performed on cyclists. The same principles can be applied to running. Here a mix of different VO2max paces is used for the intervals. I recommend starting with a slower VO2max pace (such as 8K and 5K pace) and then increasing the pace in the final segment. That way the start of the interval isn’t overly anaerobic.
5x (600m @ 5K pace + 200m all-out)
6x (400m @ 5K pace + 400m @ 3K pace)
4x (400m @10K pace + 400m @ 5K pace + 400m @ 3K pace)
The work-to-rest ratio orients itself on 1:1 but the rest period can be significantly lower if you perform this as a race-specific workout. You could also jog until your heart rate drops to 120 bpm.
Pyramid VO2max Intervals
This type of VO2max workout works well for 5K and 10K training. Not only does it teach you how to switch gears in a race, but it also develops a sense of the subtle differences between paces. A pyramid workout starts with a short, fast interval, and then you climb up the ladder to longer less intense paces, before coming down again finishing with a fast pace. The nature of this type of workout also improves your lactate tolerance.
300m @ 1500m pace
600m @ 3K pace
1000m @ 5K pace,
1600m @ 10K pace
1000m @ 5K pace
600m @ 3K pace
300m @ 1500m pace
One set of this workout (an accumulated 3.4 miles or 5.4 km of 10K to 1500m pace) is sufficient for all except very advanced runners. You can always tweak the duration of the work intervals according to your training level. The rest intervals can be equal between all work intervals as shorter, faster work bouts require a longer break relative to their duration.
Combo VO2max Workouts
Combo VO2max workouts are an excellent choice in preparation for a half-marathon and marathon. Rather than having a dedicated VO2max workout, run a few intervals at maximal aerobic capacity after a segment at lactate threshold. I wouldn’t recommend this as a regular practice, but it is a convenient method to maintain VO2max in the race-specific phase of HM- and marathon preparation, where LT training has priority.
2 miles @ 15K pace + 1 mile @ 10K pace + 3x 1000m @ 5K pace
3 miles @ 15K pace + 4x 800m @ 3K pace
Aim for a 2 – 3 minutes rest between all intervals, or a 400m jog. The example is for advanced runners, but you can downsize the duration of the intervals according to your level.