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.