Time to Read

5 minutes

Points of Interest

  1. Early pioneering and endurance building
  2. But what about VO2 max?
  3. Does interval training work for even highly-trained athletes?
  4. Combining volume and intensity training
  5. Conclusions



In the world of endurance sports, your VO2 Max is the foundation on which the rest of your fitness is built. Technique, efficiency, equipment, injury resistance, power to weight ratio etc are all important, but they don’t come close to matching the importance of a solid VO2 max number.

As the bedrock of endurance, coaches and athletes across the endurance sports spectrum have experimented for decades to try to find the most effective way to improve the VO2 Max of their athletes.

With different coaches preferring different methods, what does the science say? We’ve looked into the research and in this article will share with you what the data shows, so you can take this information forward and make more informed training decisions.

Early pioneering and endurance building

Arguably the most famous running coach of all time, Arthur Lydiard believed in an approach that saw his athletes complete incredible mileage every week in what he called the ‘marathon-conditioning’ phase of training. Even his short and middle-distance athletes would accumulate 160km (100 miles) per week in training, building their aerobic base.

This method has influenced endurance coaching across other endurance sports. Training mileage in cycling, swimming and rowing is all huge in an attempt to build an endurance base.

Elite cyclists are known to ride (in some cases) over 1500 miles per week in winter training and Michael Phelps claims to have swum around 50 miles per week in his peak training periods. Elite GB rowers will hit up to 300km per week in training.

With all of these sports (plus medals to back up the approach) adopting the volume approach to endurance, it seems there’s no arguing that the first point of building endurance (and therefore VO2 Max) is to work – a lot!

But what about VO2 max?

Where VO2 Max isn’t the only factor in endurance performance, it’s arguably the most important. With this in mind, let’s dig into what the research says about training to improve VO2 Max…

A 2013 meta-analysis of the research around VO2 max in response to high intensity interval training displayed that the approach has a beneficial effect on improving VO2 max along with general endurance, although high intensity steady state cardiovascular work also elicits significant improvements of VO2 max.

Interestingly, the meta-analysis also pointed out that longer intervals (3-5 minutes in duration) fared better at improving VO2 max than the shorter, more intense intervals. This shows that it’s the time at a higher-than-normal intensity that is important, rather than the intensity of the effort generated.

Does interval training work even for highly-trained athletes?

The research that suggests that yes, even in highly trained individuals the effects of interval training will still be beneficial. If we take a look at this 2002 study looking at interval training program optimization in highly trained endurance cyclists, we can see that even elite athletes will still improve their performance with an interval based protocol.

The study just mentioned is looking at more nuanced elements of programme design rather than an outright improvement of VO2 max, but by looking at individual intensity/interval and recovery periods and their effects on performance, it is relevant as an example of how interval training benefits endurance athletes.

But there’s more to this story….

Combining volume and intensity training

If we consider what we know so far, that most endurance sports tend to favour a higher volume, lower intensity model for the bulk of their training and that intervals work to further improve performance when needed, how do we distribute this training load to ensure we work best when it matters?

The answer may lie in this analysis work done by Siler in 2010, where he analysed work to answer the question What is best practice for training intensity and duration distribution in endurance athletes?

In analysing the data he concluded that..

‘athletes training 10-13 times per week perform 80% of training sessions performed at low intensity, with about 20% dominated by periods of high-intensity work, such as interval training at approx. 90% VO2max.’

Another interesting conclusion from his work is that there appear to be no long-term benefits to the interval training over the lower intensity work, so perhaps it should be used sparingly by endurance athletes, only in the lead up to competitions in order to bring them to peak fitness on race day.

A little like Lydiard did in the 1950’s….


What the data shows is essentially that VO2 max should be built over the long term with high volume blocks on low intensity endurance work, with intervals introduced up to 12 weeks out from competition.

When the intervals are brought into training, longer (3-5 minute) but slightly lower intensity (80-85% of VO2 max) intervals should be favoured to build VO2 max and speed endurance, with the last phase of training introducing intervals of 90% VO2 max.

When the intervals are introduced, they should take up only 20% of the total training time.

No matter what endurance sport you perform, these basic principles largely remain the same, so when you’re designing your training programme, take into account what the lab data shows and you could shave a lot of time off your races!

Read Next:

No Pain, No Gain?

The 3 Key Interval Workouts for Cyclists

How to Sleep for Success

September 26, 2019 — Stephen Hoyles for KYMIRA Sport

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