What to Do Next: A VO2Max Intensive Plan

By PCG Founder & Coach Hunter Allen

Spring is here, and the riding season has begun in earnest. You’ve done some racing or some fast group riding by now and found your fitness to be exactly where you want it to be, or maybe you’ve found it needs to up it a notch. We all want to continue to improve and increase our functional threshold power (FTP) each year and throughout the season, but sometimes it seems like we aren’t improving any longer. For continued success, it’s important to improve throughout the year. This is especially challenging when you get to a stagnation point where it seems impossible to nudge the FTP needle any higher no matter what you do. You try long rides, fast rides, sprinting, resting, riding slow, but none of those tactics seem to help you get off your plateau.

I’d like to give you an idea that has worked for many of the athletes I’ve coached over the years who needed to break through a plateau in their fitness. Athletes of all levels reach plateaus and struggle to break through to the next higher level, so regardless of whether you’re a pro tour rider or just getting started with more serious and faster recreational cycling, this idea can help you. 

Impulse-Response Model

Before I give this secret away, however, we have to remember what exactly causes training stagnation and how you can prevent it. First, let’s examine the impulse-response model developed by Dr. Bannister in 1975 to get a clear understanding of what it is and how it impacts us. One of the clear advantages to training with a power meter is that all of us are now training within this impulse (dose) and response model. The training dose is defined clearly by how many watts you can do for certain periods of time, whether a ten-minute interval, a hard three-hour tempo ride, or an epic six-hour endurance ride over two mountains. The training dose can easily be quantified by wattage, training stress score, and kilojoules, among other things, which are all ways of understanding the work you can do. 

Fatigue, Fitness, and Performance

In Dr. Bannister’s impulse-response model below, we see three major factors at work: fatigue, fitness, and performance. The pinkish line represents fatigue starting at the far left of the chart at zero training, which in this example means you haven’t trained at all for a while. You begin with a dose of training (your first ride), and what happens to your body?

First you get fatigued, so that pink line goes up pretty steeply, since you had no previous fatigue and now you just introduced quite a lot. Because of the training stress you put your body under, your body says, “Whoa, I might have to do this again really soon, so I’d better get stronger and be more prepared for the next dose of training.” Physiologists and cycling coaches call this adaptation, because your body is now adapting to the training load and improving in many ways. This adaptation results in a higher level of fitness, which is the second component of Dr. Bannister’s model. 

Fitness (the blue line) increases after some of the fatigue has been reduced (one of the key reasons you always need to rest), and you’ll notice that even though the training dose has stopped, the body continues to adapt and improve from just that one session. 

The third component to the equation is performance. What happens to performance when you’re fatigued? It goes straight through the basement! The more fatigued you are, the lower your performance will be, regardless of your fitness level.    

There is eventually an optimal combination of these three components; that is when you want to race. Dr. Coggan and I built the performance manager chart inside TrainingPeaks’ WKO+ software on Dr. Bannister’s model to accurately predict when you might have a best performance. Let’s flip this model around a little. What if we did a 40k time trial every day for an entire year starting on January 1? We’d all go insane by February 1, of course, but take a look at the performance chart below that demonstrates the answer to this question within the impulse-response model, set to illustrate a training dose of 100 TSS points (the number of points you score when you do a 40k TT) every day for an entire year. 

First, we’d become fatigued pretty quickly, and the pink line would quickly go up to 100 TSS per day. Second, our performance would go through the basement, into the ground and down into the bedrock. Finally, our fitness would gradually begin to increase ever so slightly over the year as our bodies began adapting and digging out of this hole. Notice how the blue line (fitness) begins to climb towards 100 TSS/day, which means we’re becoming more and more adapted to that daily dose of a 40k time trial. When we look at performance, our third component, we see it begin to rebound from that massive hole to China we just dug; amazingly, it begins to ascend right along with the blue fitness line and climbs to  your zero point, where we might say you’re in balance, neither fatigued nor fresh. 

On the left side of the graph we see training load in TSS per day done over the entire year in both CTL (chronic training load, the blue fitness line) and ATL (acute training load, the pink fatigue line). On the right side of the graph, we have training stress balance (TSB), which again is how fresh or fatigued you might be and indicates whether or not you might crack out a new peak performance. When your TSB is a negative number, a good performance is unlikely, because it means you’re fatigued, but when your TSB is a positive number, you’re more rested (which is when good performances are likely), and if your TSB is zero, you are in balance, neither rested nor fatigued, and a good performance could happen but may not.

Sometime around August and September you become completely adapted to riding a 40k time trial every day. This is your new norm and you no longer have any trouble doing it. You have also now entered the training stagnation zone and are no longer improving. (You thought I was just rambling, didn’t you?) So here you are, completely adapted to doing 100 TSS per day every day, but since that’s all you ever do, you won’t get any faster or stronger from here on out. This is what we want to avoid. 

Avoiding Stagnation

How do we avoid training stagnation? We have to have a way to recognize it, which is why we use a power meter and the WKO performance manager chart to quantify it. Sure, you can guess that your training has stagnated without using these tools, but life is definitely easier when you know for certain. Another factor to look at is improvement. How long ago was it that you made an improvement in your FTP? If you haven’t improved in the past sixteen weeks or longer, something needs to change.

The most likely change you need to make is to increase your overall training load, which means increasing both your training volume and intensity, and possibly frequency, as well. By increasing the amount of training you do and the intensity of that training above your current load, you will presumably rise out of the stagnation. How much more you need is highly individual. While one person might need to increase his training load by only 5%, others might need as much as 15% to see any real change in their fitness. 

I’ve found that an eight-week block of intensive, focused VO2Max training can get you off your plateau and to that next level you’ve been seeking. VO2Max training should normally be done after you have a solid foundation of threshold and sub-threshold work, and it is used to sharpen and hone your shorter efforts between three and eight minutes long. These are important time periods in cycling; most race-winning moves last about this long, and many of the make-it-or-break-it, shit-hits-the-fan-riding-in-the gutter times are about this long. If you do any mountain bike racing, you know there are plenty of three- and five-minute VO2Max efforts in a two-plus hour race. 

VO2 work is a key component to success in bike riding and racing. It is also quite a painful and uncomfortable place to train; you’re breathing very hard (panting), it takes major mental effort to keep focused, and your muscles are screaming at you the entire time to stop. You have to look at your miniature power meter mounted on your handlebars and hold some narrow range of wattage to ensure you’re indeed training at your VO2Max level. This discomfort is one of the key ingredients to breaking free of your training stagnation; it means you’re stressing your body’s physiological systems highly, and because of this you’re pushing hard against the glass ceiling of stagnation.

The Plan

You’ve most likely never done a long and hard focused block of VO2Max training like the one I’m going to share with you. That’s probably because no one in their right mind would want to do this unless he knew for sure it was going to work. I can assure you that it does work, and it works very well. Not only will you break out of your stagnated training pattern, you’ll also improve your threshold power and your VO2Max power, or what I like to call your velocity at VO2Max.

The VO2Max intensive program works you three days a week on your VO2Max. These are two early days in the week, typically Tuesday and Wednesday, and one day during the weekend, when you should add in some more VO2 work in your weekend ride. The Tuesday and Wednesday workouts are focused just on VO2 work and nothing else, which allows you to really exhaust the system over a period of two days and two very intense workouts. Giving that system a break for a few days before revisiting it on the weekend allows you to get back to the needed freshness in order to access that high intensity. Let’s look at a typical week’s worth of workouts so you can get a better sense of what I mean.

Monday

Monday is a rest day or easy recovery day; 1 hour maximum, with watts less than 56% of your FTP.

Tuesday

Tuesday is your most intense day of the week, provided you have recovered from the weekend’s activities. You can move this to Wednesday if need be, shifting things by a day. Tuesday is the day you want to do some 3- or 4-minute efforts in order to maximize the intensity. Push super hard and do all the intervals. Get motivated to crush them.

Try this workout on Tuesdays: 

Warm-up (WU): 10 minutes endurance pace (56-75% of FTP).

Main Set (MS): The goal is to do seven 3-minute hard pushes at VO2 Max power. Rest at least 3 minutes between each. Your job is to hold your watts over 118% for each one, and for the entire 3 minutes! So don’t start your interval on a section of road that will include a downhill. The rest period is 56-75% watts. Afterward, ride at 75-85% of FTP in your tempo zone for at least 45 minutes and include some fast pedaling bursts (about 30 seconds long) every 5 minutes. 

Cool-Down (CD): 15 minutes. 

Wednesday

Wednesday is another VO2 max workout, also very intense. I would go with some 5- or 6-minute efforts here, as the intensity is a notch below yesterday while still training your Vo2 max system. Do less than 40 minutes of intensity here. If you’re feeling gassed from yesterday, you might even limit it to 25 minutes of Vo2 work total.

The following Wednesday workout is made to really challenge your Vo2 system. Do the 5-minute intervals to get the lungs opened and pushing hard; the 3-minute final intervals are done to fully exhaust the Vo2 system.

WU: 15 minutes endurance pace (56-75% of FTP).

MS: One 5-minute interval right at 100% to ensure you’re warmed up and ready for the Vo2 work, then ride 5 minutes easy at 56% or less. Begin your Vo2 efforts with 6×5 minutes with watts at 113-118%, doing your best to hold this steady for the entire effort. Do all six and add a seventh on if your watts are still within 5% of your third interval. So if your third interval average is at 110%, then stop doing the intervals when you can’t complete two consecutive intervals at a minimum of 105%. Take 5 minutes recovery between each at 56-75% of FTP.

Finish the workout with 2 hard 3 minutes all-out VO2 max efforts with watts over 115%, resting for 5 minutes between each.

CD: 10 minutes

Thursday

Thursday is either an active recovery day or an endurance ride for a couple of hours. Make sure you don’t overdo it today, especially if you’re planning a big weekend. Ride 1-1.5 hours, just easy and cruising. Try to keep the HR below 68% of your threshold HR, and the total average watts for the ride should be below 55% of your threshold watts.

Friday

Friday is a day for tuning up for the weekend, or if you are planning a big weekend of training, maybe today is a day you can string together that third day. A classic tune-up ride the day before a race is 1.5 hours at endurance pace (56-75% of FTP) with 3 x 1 minutes hard (over 130% of FTP), with at least 5 minutes of easy riding between each. Also do 3 x 30 seconds hard sprints (all out!) with 3 minutes between. Rest is just easy and cruising.

Saturday

Saturday is a great day to return to VO2Max work. If you’re racing, get in some solid hard race-winning intervals during your race (hopefully so you’ll win). If you’re not racing, today is the day to make sure you get VO2Max within your ride. While Tuesday and Wednesday were totally focused on Vo2 max, today is more of a “kitchen sink” ride, with Vo2 max being an important component of it.   

Try this workout on Saturdays:

WU: 15 minutes at endurance pace (56-75% of FTP).

MS: Do 3 x 1 minute fast pedaling, then do 4 big ring sprints: 53:15 from 22 mph, two gear shifts to 14, then to 13. Rest for 3-4 minutes between each. To improve your VO2Max and your ability to win races, try out the following race-winning intervals, the exact simulation of what a wattage file would show for a rider attacking in a race for the race win. Try for at least five efforts and up to eight in one session. 

Each interval begins with a 30-second sprint (15 seconds out of the saddle), and you must average 200% of your threshold wattage in these first 30 seconds, with a peak of at least 300%.

If you’re using a cyclo-computer, try to reach at least 28-30 mph and hold for 30 seconds. Then ride for 3 minutes and really hammer at 100-110% of your threshold wattage (or the best speed you think you could maintain for an hour), finishing with an out-of-the-saddle 10-second burst after the three minutes is over. Try to reach 200% of your threshold wattage again or 28-30 mph.

Rest for 5-6 minutes between each. Then ride at endurance pace (56-75% of FTP) for 45 minutes, but slow down every 5 minutes and do a big gear burst from almost a dead stop. Stay seated and push that gear over until you reach 85-90 rpm; then you’re done, and it’s back to endurance pace. 

Now, for some threshold work! Do 4 x 12 minutes just above threshold, about 100-105% of your FTP watts. Do your best to hold it there! Rest for 5 minutes between each. Finish with 45 minutes at sweet spot (88-93% of FTP) and do a burst every 3 minutes to 120% of your FTP, holding for 10 seconds before returning to sweet spot. Endurance for 20 minutes.

CD: 5 minutes

Sunday

Sunday is a great day to ride long and just pile on some training stress. If you’re feeling decent, I recommend doing plenty of sweet-spot and threshold work here if you can. Try this workout:

WU: 15 minutes, just getting the legs and heart pumping at endurance pace (56-75% of FTP).

MS: The goal today is to push it up another notch in your distance. Try for at least an hour longer than your normal long ride; ride for 4 hours if you normally go for 3 hours, or 5 hours if your norm is 4 hours. Keep the watts between your endurance and tempo pace (70-90%) for the majority of the ride. Mix it up with some pushes at the upper end of tempo (85-90%) and get in some solid endurance riding, as well. In the second hour of riding, do 2 x 15 minutes at your threshold (91-105% of FTP) watts. Rest for 10 minutes between each with some easy pedaling watts, <56% of FTP. In the last hour of riding, just try for some tempo pace (around 40 minutes) with watts from 85-90% of FTP.

CD: Nice and easy for 15 minutes. Recovery shake!

Am I doing the work necessary to continually stress my body so that it adapts and improves?

Many athletes and coaches alike think they should focus solely on one energy system or another and that if they work in the other systems, they’ll somehow mess up the adaptation. This is a myth.

When you focus on one specific system, yes, you’re pushing hard on at least two focused workouts a week, along with executing that work in the beginning of the workout when you are freshest. The other days can still have work at different training zones or levels, and that’s actually encouraged, as each of the levels can enhance others and create a more rounded level of fitness.

VO2Max is hard, but it helps to give you head room for your FTP to improve, so FTP work is necessary when doing Vo2Max work. In order to break through your fitness stagnation, you need to do at least 4-6 weeks of work on the Vo2 system, though 8 weeks of work would probably be fine, as well. 

As you examine our own training this spring, make sure to ask yourself, “Am I doing the work necessary to continually stress my body so that it adapts and improves?” You can answer that question easily if you’re testing yourself on a regular basis (in order to learn whether or not you’re improving, it’s imperative to test yourself a minimum of every six weeks). You can also answer this question by continually increasing your training load, intensity, and even frequency, along with the focus of your training. We all get stuck in our little training ruts and forget we’ve been doing the same thing over and over for so many years, though unfortunately this rut hasn’t really led to any meaningful improvement. 

This VO2Max intensive program isn’t for everyone or for all the time, only for those specific instances when you’re at a plateau and have a solid foundation of fitness in your legs, or possibly when you’re just ready to mix it up a bit. Keep these factors in mind when training this spring.

Make it a powerful day!

Hunter Allen is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach and former professional cyclist. He is the coauthor of “Training and Racing with a Power Meter” and “Cutting-Edge Cycling,” co-developer of TrainingPeaks’ WKO software, and CEO and founder of Peaks Coaching Group. He and his coaches create custom training plans for all levels of athletes.