Do we need VO2max workouts?

If you’ve read anything I’ve wrote on this blog, you know I like evaluating accepted doctrine. Most of the time the tried and true accepted ideas turn out right, but every now and then you find something so ingrained in our sport that people just accept it without asking the question, does this really work and make sense?

While on a run with an athlete I help out the topic came up that college coaches would ask if he did traditional workouts like mile repeats or what have you, and the answer was no. Of course, as the person writing the training, I knew this, but it really made me think a bit. A little earlier I had done my review of the last season where I took a look at all the workouts, tried to figure out if they accomplished what I wanted or not, and tried to see where the next step was in progressing certain aspects. While doing this, it hit me. I never think of things as VO2 work anymore, but I know lots of good coaches do. So obviously running at paces around what people call VO2max does something good, but does it do what everyone claims and is it needed?

After mulling things over in my head for a while and looking back at the training. I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is NO.

Now I know this may be semi blasphemous and once again you might dismiss this as some crazy theory that some crazy kid has, but hear me out first.

According to the experts, what is the purpose of VO2max workouts? Let’s turn to my lovely Jack Daniels book for his answer:

“The idea of an interval session is to accumulate a good bit of time working at 95 to 100 percent Vo2max…”

He goes on to talk about how long it takes to reach VO2max and all that jazz. He then gives you this handy dandy chart that shows how the recovery time and the length of the interval can be modified to spend the most time at VO2max. Simplifying all of this, we can say the goal seems to be to spend the most time at VO2max according to JD. The question is, does that really matter at all?

My answer is No. Let’s leave out the science for a minute and look at some of the training done by some athletes I work with. Let’s look at some of the workouts that would seem to meet Daniels VO2max workout category. They have to be near VO2max, so typically they’d have to be at 3k pace or slightly faster but I’ll include some 5k pace workouts.

Workout 1-3 sets of 2×800 w/ 200m easy At 5k pace, 3-4min rest
VO2?- Nope, 800m is slow, you might reach near it for a bit, but then the stupid things are broken into sets with long rest between so you’d quickly return back to normal.

Workout 2
-3x (4×400) at 3200 pace 40sec rest between reps, 4min b/t sets
VO2- well the pace is fast enough, and the rest is short, but the total reps in one set is so low that by the time you start spending lots of time at VO2max, you’ve got that dang long rest of 4min.
Workout 3- 1200- 5k pace 400-mi pace 800-3200 pace 300-mi pace 600-32 pace 200-800 pace 3:30min rest
VO2- WHAT?!! This workout makes no sense in a VO2max program… sorry couldn’t resist. Physiologically, the rests are long, the paces are fast enough, you’d spend some time at VO2, but not as much as if you just did 5×800.

I could go on but that’s enough.

You’ll probably notice that none of these workouts would accomplish Daniels goal of staying at VO2max for a long time. Why? Because either they are too short, too long of a rest, or too slow. According to Daniels book it takes around 2min to reach VO2max. So during all of these workouts, the athletes aren’t spending that much time in the so called zone that gives the improvement…So the athletes shouldn’t have done that well at a race that is at around VO2max, like a 3200, right? Well, if you consider a 9:04 crappy, along with a 31 and 40 etc. crappy (all being large PR’s), then you are right and I’m an idiot.

If you look back at the same kids CC training. No VO2max workouts like you’d traditional see.

So why does it work without VO2max?

Because we aren’t concerned with VO2max. It’s not the limiter in what we do. Hell, you can’t even change it that much. Lastly, it seems like most of the new data is showing that it’s a consequence of something else, not a be all end all. For example, look at things on the muscular level. VO2max seems to be tied with amount of muscle motor units recruited. Increase motor unit recruitment, increase VO2max, without doing anything to the so called cardiovascular system…

If VO2max isn’t what we should be aiming for then what is the point of some of the intervals mentioned above? It depends on what you are training for. They could serve as direct support, or as specific endurance or even speed endurance. In the case mentioned above with athletes training for a 3200, so it served as specific endurance.

Instead of being concerned with how much time they were spending at VO2max, we are concerned with creating specific endurance. How do you do that, well go read I’ve written on it before, but for a brief refresher we are basically looking at doing two things.

1. Extending the ability of the athlete to last at the goal pace. Thus why we start with short intervals at race pace and try and extend the length of those intervals as the season goes. It’s also why we decrease the recovery or try and create specific endurance via having the athletes hold a steady clip in between running at race pace (i.e. alternation of 400 at 3200, 1200m at 5:40 pace).
2. Bringing together speed endurance and direct support/strength endurance. In this case we try and blend the over and under distance work. This is where you get workouts like some of the above where you switch long and short intervals with the longer starting out at 10k-5kish paces in the beginning and progressing towards 3k, while the shorter vary between 800-3k pace depending on the point.

You blend this together and all of the sudden an athlete can race at that goal speed. Why? It’s not because of VO2max. It’s because you gradually adapted the WHOLE body to be able to run at race pace for that race pace.

As a quick tip. These mixed workouts are a good way of creating specific strength endurance. Just think of what happens. The faster work injects a little lactate into the system, while the slower work (depending on the pace) either teaches the body how to use that as fuel at a quick pace, or teaches it how to deal with it near race paces. It’s an easy trick. Think about If you do 5×800 at 3200 pace. It’s not going to be until the 4th or 5th rep when you’ll have decently high lactate simulating a race. If you throw in a 400 at 1500m pace or a 300m at 800m pace and then do another rep at 3k pace, all of the sudden that faster rep threw a lot of lactate in there. Lastly, the switching of paces also helps with muscle fiber recruitment. The faster stuff “forces” recruitment. Which then is trained/used during the goal race part…

What should you get out of this? Rethink WHY you do VO2max workouts. Is there a better way? Is there a different reason why it works?

I think so. Scientific theory thinks so. But most importantly, practical experience proves the theory. For years now, I’ve gone further and further away from using anything that resembles 5×800 or something similar. And the results have gotten better and better.

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    1. Richey and Stine on August 19, 2009 at 4:55 pm


      Interesting post. This is the first year that I am employing a Specific Endurance Model in our training as opposed to the tradition AT->LT->VO2 model. I understand your progression for Specific Endurance 400s->600s->800s->1K's, but how would you incorporate these mixed workouts?

      Would you start out with 10K/3K mix, then 5K/1500, then 3K/800? Or would you begin with the extremes here too and move towards the middle, using the slower and faster paces as support with the final key mixed workouts being a mix of 5K/1500 paces?


    2. Anonymous on August 19, 2009 at 7:50 pm

      I keep hearing about effectively using lactate at a quick pace. Does this goal belong in the base phase? Does it make sense to accumulate some amount of lactate (with 400m at 1500m pace or something) before setting off on a tempo? Or should it only begin as you enter a specific training block?

    3. stevemagness on August 19, 2009 at 8:53 pm

      Richey and Stine- Great question. and thanks for coming to the blog.
      Mixed workouts- I’ll write a bit about these more later to explain the reasoning behind them.

      But in general here’s how I progress them. After doing a good amount of work at the support periods, then it’s time to connect the supports. What I’m talking about is connecting the aerobic and anaerobic supports. So for a 5k, an example would be mixing 1200 at 10k pace and 400 at 1500 pace. As you progress, you can do it in several different ways, depending on the goal and what the athlete needs. If we want to work on specific speed endurance then we connect specific work with some faster work. In that case we’d take the longer interval, make it slightly shorter to say 1000m and speed it up to 5k pace. So, the workout would be 1k,400,1k,400,1k or something like that. A lot of times, if I’m concerned with speed endurance, I’ll increase the pace of the shorter segment slightly. So we might see something like 1k (5k), 500 (3k), 1k, 400 (15), 1k, 300 (800).

      That’s just one example. In another setting you might want to connect the mix paces with slower shorter segments. For example maybe the mixed segments are at 10k and 5k pace or even 10k and 3k pace. In the first case you are working more on the aerobic side of specific endurance.

      These mixed workouts also do a great job of working on strength endurance if done correctly. If you recall, strength endurance is connecting something that requires a large degree of “strength” with some sort of endurance running. In this case, strength can refer to number of muscle fibers recruited. Traditionally we think of doing hill work as strength endurance work. But mixed workouts accomplish similar things. Think about it. On the faster work you are going to recruit a much larger pool of muscle fibers and then the longer segments trains those fibers. The exact definition of enhancing strength endurance.

      I'll post some progressions I've used in the past for 5k CC to give you an idea later.

      anonymous- I'll answer your question soon. Got to go run.

    4. stevemagness on August 21, 2009 at 1:06 am

      Anonymous- Alright, another good question.

      The answer is a little ambiguous, because we really don’t KNOW as much as we portray we do. And when I say we, I mean all coaches, scientists, and athletes.

      In general, I think it’s a good idea to try and teach the body how to use lactate at faster paces. The question is how do you do this. This ties in nicely to strength endurance work and I’ve actually written about this topic before. In elites and Africans the idea is to create an ability to use lactate very well at race paces for 3k-10k athletes. You can even make it where they are in a steady state for much of the race. So you should search those posts.

      But to directly answer your question. I think you should progress to where you are introducing some lactate to high end aerobic running. Start off with maybe simple speed variations/surges of 30sec during a steady run. It’s nothing hard but it introduces a little lactate during an easy run. Then you can progressively bring the pace down. So the next step might be doing some alteration work with 200m at 3k pace followed by 1400m at just slower than Threshold for a couple miles. Then progressively increase that to where maybe you are running 800m at 3k pace and 800m steady for a few miles. That’s if you are training for a 3k.

      You can take the same concept for a 15 with a few adjustments. Start out with 100m at 15 pace followed by 400m at threshold, for a couple laps. Then progress to maybe 300m at 1500, 300m at threshold. Then maybe cut it 100m at 1500m pace, 100m at threshold type pace for 1200m. Be creative.

      But all of this introducing lactate into the system during aerobic running has to be preceded by building a solid high end aerobic foundation. So, starting with traditional threshold work and such to build that base of support is essential. The next step is to introduce the squirts of lactate during that kind of work and then progress towards it being more specific.

      With HS kids I’d say you could probably start some of these easier high end aerobic w/ some lactate work in the early season of CC or track for example. Generally 12wks out from the first big meets works well if you have a developed team. Or in the elite or more developed athletes, during the pre-competition or special period.

      Lastly, just as an extension to this question. I have a little pet theory of having 400m segments at mile pace in the middle of a threshold run. In theory, if you are running directly at threshold you will be in a steady state. Then you inject some lactate and it brings the lactate to a higher level, but if u stay at threshold after it should stay consistant at that new lactate level. If you could increase lactate high enough while still being able to stay at/near threshold, it might be a really good way of teaching the body how to deal with and use lactate in the muscles while there is still a large amount in the blood (so that not as much can just be shuttled from muscle to blood).

      Hopefully that answers your question, if not feel free to ask more.

    5. Anonymous on August 21, 2009 at 1:32 pm

      The fast segments during a threshold run were exactly what I was wondering about. It does seem like an interesting extension of the specific work I have seen done (alternating race pace with stretches of steady state running). In a way, it's a pretty similar workout, but it seems a bit less intense. It would also teach athletes not to run faster than threshold, as they would find out quickly that they were running over their head. Would it make sense to have those intermittent intervals the goal race pace of whatever race the athlete is focusing on (instead of inserting 400m at 1500, one might insert 600m at 3k pace or 800 at 5k pace)?

    6. Dave Elger on September 7, 2009 at 5:10 pm

      Sorry this is way too complicated for an old school running like me. I still prefer the 800 meter repeats- I am now old and slow so running them in 3 minutes- all I do is run one workout (8-10 x 800)at 10K pace with 60 sec. recovery- then next time I might only do 4-6 at a pace 5-10 seconds faster with a full 2 or 3 min recovery. Easier for me to reproduce the workout and quantify change in fitness and also simulates the feel of actual racing- When I am strong enough I'll drop down to 400s to work on turnover and leg speed, and anaerobic metabolism. Too many coaches get caught up in trying to design complex workouts when all I think you need to do is manipulate recovery and speed of straight intervals. Just my opinion.

      • Positive Contribution on July 17, 2018 at 11:25 am

        With all due respect he’s talking about training runners for peak performances. Not old hobbyjoggers who just enjoy running.

    7. Anonymous on December 3, 2009 at 2:57 pm

      Great blog Steve, what sort of recovery would you suggest for the mixed workouts? If i was doing a 1k 500m 1k 400m 1k 300m for example?

    8. Anonymous on September 21, 2010 at 1:16 am

      Now I’m confused. Say you are an old guy who jogs about 4 to 5 miles a day, four days a week and maybe hitting a trail for 7 or 8 miles a few times a month. Old guy wants to get faster for that occasional 10K run with 5,000 of his closest friends to get the $20 T shirt. Said old guy does not have a personal trainer, a track or a calculator, just sneakers and sidewalks.
      Could he get the benefit you advocate by doing the daily jog at above race pace early into the jog, then slow down when need be, then pick the pace up to race speed or better as he recovers? I think your idea is that the length of the above race pace will increase as he continues to train and the slow periods will become shorter and he will become faster at that distance. Is this right?

    9. sports compression socks on February 3, 2011 at 12:31 pm

      I love your site. It has been a real help for me as I deal with this subject. Thanks a lot.

    10. Anonymous on June 5, 2012 at 1:44 pm

      Hi Steve,

      Any chance you could write about how you would progress these alternations sessions for HS xc teams?

    11. Joël Léonard on September 14, 2014 at 12:26 pm

      Great post Steve, and just in time for me !
      I introduced last year in my running routine some workouts where during 20-30 min I alternated threshold run and 300 m fast run. More recently, I started with workouts alternating 5-10 K stretches with 1.5 k streches. I really like that kind of workout, and beside what you explained they have also (in my opinion) the following interest :
      – they introduce diversity, which is nice for motivation
      – to some extent they are a good way to learn changing pace as in racing
      – overall they learn you to try to run faster when it already seems hard. And what is interesting is that most of the time, you begin to realize that you ran faster and that it was not so difficult after all. A great way to mentally push your limits!

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