What is VO2max?
Firstly, VO2max is shorthand for aerobic capacity and is essentially the maximal rate of oxygen an athlete can inhale and absorb in the body. As oxygen is used to break down carbohydrates and fats into usable fuel for your muscles, you can see why a higher VO2max is preferable in endurance sport.
As for those numbers, VO2max is the maximum amount of oxygen in milliliters you can use in one minute per kilogram of body weight. In his pomp, Indurain’s VO2max came in at 88ml/min/kg. Compare that to a non-trained individual, who typically comes in at around 40ml/min/kg, and again you can see why increasing your VO2max is important to strong cycling. Essentially you’ll have a larger fuel tank to ride longer and, ultimately, faster.
But how can you determine your current VO2max so you can set a benchmark to aim for? There are various self-prescribed methods that aren’t accurate enough for us to recommend. Instead, we’d suggest contacting your nearest university who have a sports-science lab wand are likely to offer a test at a reasonable price. Here they’ll have a gas analyzer, which is key for accuracy of results.
Vision triathlete Michelle Vesterby includes targeting VO2max increases in her training regime, with impressive results year on year
How to increase VO2max
Firstly, you need to maximize the use of oxygen. The harder you cycle, the more energy is supplied by anaerobic means (without oxygen), so here the intensity of your cycling is key. Numerous studies have shown that working at an intensity that raises your heart rate between 65-85% max HR is the ideal range to focus on VO2max.
Broadly speaking, for a generally fit commuter-level cyclist, ride at this intensity for at least 20 minutes three to five times per week and you will start to improve your VO2max – depending, of course, on your starting point.
Beyond those gentle commutes (above), many of you will be riding much further, which will give you a greater opportunity to build a strong VO2max. Now, you can hold a steady heart rate within that range but that can become boring. Instead, intervals will not only increase VO2max but are also more fun.
One proven session is to warm up for around 15 minutes at a steady pace, before riding slightly harder for 15 minutes but still at a conversational pace. You should then do five intervals of 3-5 minutes at a fairly hard pace with rest intervals the same as your work effort. Finish with a cool-down of around 10 minutes. This is a great set to maximize oxygen use and increase your VO2max.
Once you’ve increased your VO2max, you can then work on power output and speed with shorter, tougher intervals. Now you’ve raised your VO2max, you’ll find your physical foundations are greater to work harder in the really hard efforts. You’ll also find that losing weight will increase your VO2max – again, paying dividends come the races.
Keep it real
One final word: before you think you’ll eclipse Indurain, Lemond and the top level riders of today’s WorldTour teams and top level triathletes like Vesterby, that’s probably not realistic. Not only do professional cyclists enjoy the privilege of riding for their job, but genetics also sets a cap on your aerobic capacity, so no matter how hard you train, at some point along the way you’ll reach your ceiling.