VO2 max workouts

The 5 Best VO2 max Workouts for Runners

VO2 max workouts are incredibly effective at producing fitness gains. Although VO2 max alone is no stand-in for race performance, no fast times are possible without a high maximal aerobic capacity. 

“VO2 max workouts are incredibly effective at producing fitness gains.”

This article focuses on the practical application of different VO2 max workouts. For a more detailed definition of VO2 max, I recommend reading How to Improve VO2 max

VO2 max 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 VO2 max. 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 VO2 max. Hence, the final weeks of race preparation for longer distances are more centered around your aerobic threshold and anaerobic threshold. But that doesn’t mean you should neglect VO2 max. Both your aerobic and anaerobic thresholds are a percentage of maximal aerobic capacity. In other words, the faster your pace at VO2 max, 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 VO2 max Workouts

What is true for all race distances is that you should precede VO2 max training with speed workouts in the weeks prior. Remember that VO2 max is between 1500m 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 undoubtedly fall short of your potential in your VO2 max workouts.

Therefore, I highly recommend sprinkling your base training with short hill sprints and 200m efforts at an 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. 

But you must also establish a solid aerobic base with easy and long runs. The higher your weekly mileage, the more VO2 max training you can absorb. Since about 10% of your weekly training volume should dedicated to developing your maximal aerobic capacity, a 25-mile week would net you 2.5 miles of VO2 max intervals. A 50-mile week would double it to 5 miles. Huge difference!

With that in mind, let’s explore 5 effective VO2 max workouts.

Short VO2 max Intervals

Short VO2 max intervals typically precede longer intervals in your training cycle. The advantage of short intervals is that you can maintain a pace of 100% of VO2 max (vVO2 max) throughout all intervals. The downside is that the actual time your heart is working at or near maximal aerobic capacity is relatively low compared to longer intervals, as it takes the heart rate about 2 minutes to reach VO2 max 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 VO2 max Intervals

Long VO2 max 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 VO2 max. These efforts are also highly race-specific for 5K and 10K runners. 

3 examples of long VO2 max 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 VO2 max 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 VO2 max paces is used for the intervals. I recommend starting with a slower VO2 max 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 VO2 max Intervals 

This type of VO2 max workout works well for 5K and 10K training. It teaches you how to switch gears in a race and 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 and 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 VO2 max Workouts

Combo VO2 max workouts are an excellent choice in preparation for a half-marathon and marathon. Rather than having a dedicated VO2 max workout, run a few intervals at maximal aerobic capacity after a segment at lactate threshold. I wouldn’t recommend this as a regular practice. Still, it is a convenient method to maintain VO2 max in the race-specific phase of HM- and marathon preparation, where LT training is prioritized. 

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.

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Sandro Sket, CSCS

Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist

Hi, I’m Sandro. A lifelong endurance athlete,
coach, and founder of RunningFront.
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