Three VO2 Max Workouts

By Ryan Warrenburg, ZAP Fitness

If you’ve been a consistent reader of this column you’ve probably noticed my aversion to hard interval training. I spend a lot of time preaching the importance of consistent aerobic volume and the value of tempo based workouts. This type of work is the cornerstone of successful distance running performance and long-term development regardless of age or ability.


This type of aerobic training, developed by legendary coach Arthur Lydiard, focuses on periodization; starting with a base building phase comprised primarily of easy running, moving to hill repeats, tempo work, and ultimately fast running at or quicker than race pace. Lydiard pioneered this type of training in the 1950s in his native New Zealand and turned a small island nation into a global distance running powerhouse, winning Olympic medals and setting world records along the way. Notice that final phase about running fast? With most advice I dispense I tend to omit that part, or gloss over it, but this month I’d like to share three VO2max workouts for those final 6-8 weeks leading into a key 5k-10k race.

Before Lydiard revolutionized training theory, high intensity interval training was the predominant training method. Even as Lydiard trained athletes were coming into prominence, setting records and winning medals, there were still athletes winning using the high intensity model, including the only American to ever win the 5,000m Olympic gold medal, Bob Schul, who won the gold in 1964 at the Tokyo Olympics. Mihaly Igloi, famous for his regular twice a day interval sessions that could go on for hours, coached Schul and others with great success. Igloi’s methods serve notice that high intensity interval training has an important place in training theory, however Lydiard remains the most influential coach in modern distance running and his principles form the lens through which most coaches view training.

Continue Threshold Running

While aerobic running and tempo-based training are the most important components to training, training the anaerobic system is a crucial piece of the puzzle for peak racing performance. You should continue to include tempo running and fartlek in the final 6-8 weeks of your training cycle, but this is also the time where you will want to mix in 3-4 specific workouts that will prepare your body for the searing discomfort that is 5k racing. It’s that leg burning, stomach churning type of pain you don’t experience in longer races such as the marathon (relax, I know marathon running is very hard, its just a different pain), and it takes some practice to handle it well.

Recovery is Critical

The mistake most people make in this specific phase of training is not changing the way in which they recover between hard workouts. You might, and probably should, find yourself running slower on your easy days during higher intensity phases of training than during your initial base phase, despite your fitness being markedly improved. The reason for this is that interval training is much harder on the body than easy distance running, and the increase in stress makes recovery critically important. Most people will need to lower their training volume by 10-20% during this higher intensity training cycle to be able to recover properly between harder efforts.

The Workouts

These are hard sessions; there is no way around it. The idea is to reach maximal effort multiple times in a training session. Remember run easily for 10-20 minutes before the workout and to cool down for 10 minutes afterward.

Workout 1: Hill Repeats 

Hill repeats are the best way to introduce hard intervals into your training because the impact force on the body running uphill is a fraction of what it would be on flat ground. There are a number of other benefits to hill training (which I know is exciting for everyone to hear!), but I won’t discuss them all here (improving efficiency, speed, and power – sorry I couldn’t resist!). To execute this session find a hill where you can run uphill for 3 minutes or more. You will do two sets of repeats. Each set is comprised of three repeats: 3 minutes, 2 minutes, and 1 minute. Run the 3 minute repeat at an effort you could hold for a 1 mile race, the 2 minute repeat a little faster, and the 1 minute repeat a little faster than the 2 minute repeat. Jog easily downhill for 2 minutes between the 3 and the 2 and then 3-4 minutes after the 1. Then repeat for set 2.

Workout 2: Cut Down Intervals

This workout is easily done a track, but can be done anywhere you know the distances. This session should get progressively faster so the end of the workout is faster than the beginning, which is great training mentally and physically for finishing fast in races. The workout consists of repeats of 1 mile, ¾ mile, 2 x ½ mile, and 2-4 x ¼ mile. Each interval should be followed by a very, very easy ¼ mile jog. The mile should be at 5k goal pace, the ¾ mile repeat should be 1-2 seconds per ¼ mile (or lap) quicker, the ½ repeats another 1-2 seconds per ¼ mile quicker, and the ¼ mile repeats should be 1-2 seconds quicker than the pace of the ½ mile repeats.

Workout 3: 3 Minute Repeats

These can be a distance if you’d like, but time works a little better to make sure you can get the right effort. The number of repeats will vary depending on your experience or fitness level from 4-7. Take a very easy 3 minute jog between each repeat and aim to run the intervals at a pace you could hold if you were running a 15 minute race.

Again, the use of these types of workouts should be rare, accompanied by adequate recovery, and take place only after you have established a solid aerobic base of training. However, when executed properly VO2max intervals can give you the fitness to take your racing to the next level.

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*This Article Originally Appeared in the February 2015 Issue of Running Journal