What is VO2 MAX & Why is it Important to a Training Plan?
Written by Holden Rethwill

We all know the age old argument that doing a ton of steady state aerobic work is the best way to boost your engine (amongst other health benefits)…but how many of you have hours upon hours to train per day like professional triathletes and marathoners do? Yeah, that’s what it takes…hours and hours and hours, and then more hours of this Zone 2 (maybe 3) work, along with a chunk of Zone 4/5 work (to be more specific, studies show that the best results were yielded from 80% Zone 2 and only 20% mixed in “race pace” or Zone 4/5, but again, this includes many hours per week of training). Not only does it require all of this time – elite marathoners/triathletes train a minimum of 10-15 SESSIONS, not hours, per week – but when not implemented purposefully and correctly, you can chalk a lot of of it up to junk miles that actually end up being a hinderance.

Now, I’m not arguing against Zone 2 work at all. I think it’s amazing and more people should get on that gravy train at least a couple times per week. What I am against is the person who wakes up and bikes the exact same route at the exact same pace every day. Or the person who jumps in the pool and swims the same amount of laps at the same pace every day. You get what I’m saying? Zone 2 is great, but should not make up all of your training. Junk miles, or as some call it “no man’s land training” or “black hole training”. We can go into more of why it’s junk at a later time.

End rant…at the end of the day, I know I don’t have the time for 10-15 training sessions per week, and most likely neither do you.

H.I.I.T. Training

Insert the H.I.I.T. style of training…for those of you who don’t know, HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training.

See any resemblance here? Do our VO2 max days tend to be high intensity? Yes. Are they interval style training? Yes. VO2 MAX day. Aka sprint real fast, get some rest, do it again, ouch my legs hurt, day.

Benefits of VO2 Max Training

A few of the benefits associated with this (painfully good) style of training are as follows:

Optimizes the heart’s capacity to send blood to muscles.

Increases the number and density of mitochondria as well as oxidative enzyme activity.

Increase in mitochondrial density = more energy available for muscles = more force production over longer periods of time.

Without getting too scienc-y on you, and in short, the increase in oxidative enzyme activity allows your body to adapt to burning fat at a faster and more efficient rate.

Strengthens skeletal muscles for higher force production.

After just a few sessions of this style of training, your skeletal muscles begin to see small blood vessel changes. These changes improve the flow of oxygen in and out of the muscle, as well as help to optimize oxygen delivery to oxygen utilization. These adaptations result in an increase in the strength of the skeletal muscle fibers themselves.

Optimizes venous return to heart.

Lowers insulin resistance and results in adaptations that cause enhanced muscular fat oxidation and improved glucose tolerance (aka become a fat burning machine).

What does a VO2 Max Workout Look Like?

Each session should be a short burst (sprint) followed by at least triple the same amount of time for rest (1:3+ work:rest ratio). Here’s an example:

6-8 sets of:
60 second AMRAP
15/12 cal bike
Max air squats in the remaining time
Rest 2-3 minutes between sets

Here’s another example:

4-6 sets of:
30 second bike/run/row at a MAX effort intensity
rest 3-4 minutes between sets
(spoiler alert, if you go hard enough during the 4 sets, you shouldn’t need to do sets 5/6)

How often should you train VO2 Max?

I would recommend hitting this style of workout maybe two, maximum of three times per week for optimal results. That said, this too should not make up all of your training. Too much high intensity can have adverse effects just like too much black hole training. Ever try running from a lion every day of the week? That’s basically what you’d be doing to your body because it doesn’t know the difference, at a cellular level, between a high intensity workout and running for your life (GET TO THE CHOPPA).

More is not better, better is better. So make the sessions count and then make sure you’re recovered in between! 

At the end of the day, what am I trying to get at here? Am I telling you that slower steady state cardio is bad? Hell no, I do it at least 2-3 times per week because it feels good and I know Zone 2 work is great for balancing my body out and can help to trigger a parasympathetic response (this is especially important when you have no energy living with an infant, ain’t nobody got time for adrenal fatigue). 

What I am saying is that if you spend ALL of your time doing the same thing over and over (black hole training), and avoid the classes that hurt (VO2 Max day), you’re missing out on an extremely time efficient way to cause rapid responses within your body both from both a performance and aesthetic perspective.

Get all the most interesting VO2 Max workouts and more (from all the other Zones too!) with our Invictus Motor Program now on SugarWOD. We take the thinking out of it for you so all you have to do is show up, train, and improve your engine!