Killer intervals for VO2 max

For a cyclist, a solid aerobic engine is essential. When you go for a ride, you stimulate your aerobic system, but stimulation depends on the intensity. Therefore, trained cyclists need a greater absolute and relative workload to improve the VO2 max.

Thus, if you are an experienced rider, doing hard intervals or races is necessary to make further progress. Elite athletes will sometimes reach a plateau where there will no longer be significant increments. At this level, the riders still train to work at VO2 max – to stay fit and maintain maximum intensity longer.

Maximum power test

As I have described previously in How to train with a power meter for VO2 max, it is a perfect idea to do a 5minutes all-out test to find your average Watt at maximum oxygen consumption. There are other tests, but this one is easy to use and still very reliable. You can do the test on a stationary bike or the road if you are the lucky owner of a power meter.

Killer intervals for VO2 max

Athletes should do all intervals with an intensity found in the maximum power test.

3 x (3 + 3min)
This one is a winner. Done correctly, you got 9 minutes of practical training at your VO2 max. You can make a slight twitch to this one by completing the recovery period faster, and that will give you more time with maximum oxygen consumption.

5 x (40 + 20sec)
I like this one very much even though it is not as effective for your VO2 max as interval program no. 1. These intervals are perfect for race preparation. Typically, I recommend 3 to 4 sets.

1 x 5min
Very tough interval. Also, this interval is an excellent test of your VO2 performance.

12-20 x (30+30sec)
One of my favorite workouts. Based on scientific studies, these intervals are best in theory. But like in all other training situations, it is crucial to be motivated for what you decide to do.

Take action

Looking to increase your VO2 max? Then you need to be doing killer VO2 max intervals! These short, high-intensity bursts of cycling can help you achieve the results you’re looking for.

So, what are you waiting for? Give them a try today!

23 thoughts on “Killer intervals for VO2 max”

  1. Do you really recommend only 1 x 5′ set? I see, in other coaches’ website and forum, that it’s common a 5 x 5′ approach..

  2. Century Trainer

    i have been doing these intervals for a couple of months now and am certain they have made a difference. time will tell if they help me beat my century ride pb later this month. fingers crossed and i will let you know!!

  3. Pingback: VO2 Max Is Crucial In Road Cycling

  4. I like your articles and training tips. However, sometimes I find your descriptions very cryptic. You tend to assume that all readers are familiar with certain terminologies. This article is a good example.

    I don’t know what you mean by: 3 x (3 + 3min.)
    I can see that somehow this adds up to 9minutes, but can you perhaps write it with a little less jargon. Clearly the brackets mean something, but what?

    3 repeats of 3mins, with 3minute rest between?


  5. TLC (Time Limited Cyclist)

    Of the 4 workouts you have them listed 1 thru 4 where you make the argument “Really like this workout and currently this is my favourite workout if you want to boost your VO2 max quickly.”. Does that mean that #4 is the best for boosting VO2 or is #1 “the winner”? You don’t like #2 as much as #1, #3 is hard but effective (not as much as 1 or 2?) and then there’s #4.

    I too am a cyclist with limited training time (job, kids, etc…). I try to do as many high intensity workouts as I can reliably reproduce which means every other day essentially with easy spins or off days in between. Could you do these workouts realistically more than a few times a week?


  6. TLC>> Thanks for commenting, I have decided to remove the numbers because they were not supposed to show a rank of the intervals. I use all the mentioned intervals together with a group of other VO2 workouts.

    High-intensity training every second day is a realistic and safe way to improve performance. If you reduce the volume of intervals it becomes possible to do them every single day. I use such a strategy for specific tapering protocols etc.


  7. My 5 min max was 380. I followed all 14 days of the vo2 max programme. After the 1st 7days I adjusted the remaining programes as If I had a 400 watt 5 min max. Managed to get a second place , so I think the routines work well. Are there any follow-up routines available?
    Thanks Ralph

  8. Hi Jesper, I have started the Vo2 Booster and going well , in the final six weeks to my event – 2k individual pursuit I would like to know if I should reduce the 3+3 to 2+2 and ride at a higher percentage of 5′ test? With the work to rest ratio equal it would still be aerobic, with a small anaerobic contribution but working at higher powers which would be more event specific. Even closer to the event 2′-3′ race efforts with long recoveries, should these be done as negative splits 1’at 95%2’100%3’105% of cruise power for the event?

  9. The 2nd and 4th workouts seem very similar.

    Do you recommend rest time in between the sets on the 5 x (40 + 20sec.)?

  10. Hi
    I ve been doing these programs and find they have been very helpful and perversely enjoyable!

    One question – cadence. Do you recommend say 90-95 in a heavy gear or 110 in a lighter gear? I have been doing the former, but thinking about some sessions at high cadence instead as a change.


  11. I have found that even doing 1 or 2 mins of high intensity intervals on my rest days help the recovery and help keep me “sharp”. Thanks for the website…great stuff!

  12. Hello,

    at first I thank you for briliant articles.

    And I have three questions:
    1. I often train in hills, and I do intervals there. Downhill is no intensity (no endurance, only descent). Is it right recovery? Or better intervals on a flat because the better recovery(endurance)
    2. What are better intervals 3 min plus 3min or 30 seconds plus 30 seconds?
    3. I am contemplating about buying your e book. Can you tell me about book more?

  13. great articles

    i can’t afford a power meter, but i’ve found riding intervals while training or commuting on a fixed gear very helpful, especially on hills

  14. Thanks for all the great info. I found it extremely useful. Been cycling for years, and go with a fast group each season every sat. A couple of them are racers and I can usually keep up. My question is. I want to start racing this year (finally bought me a good carbon fibre bike). So I have been traing pretty hard at our local gym inside. After reading your article on VO2 Max sesions I decided to try this morning the 3 x (3 + 3 min). I am 56 yrs old, which by calculation means my MHR should be 164. Upon doing the Interval training, I can reach over 170 with moderate to hard effort and on the last interval I pushed over 180 for the last 90 seconds. So, I’m a little confused as you can probably deduce. Since the idea is to exercise at 95% of MHR. My intent is to increase my VO2 max, so should I continue with the greater than 100% MHR or drop back down to 95%? I appreciate your imput. Thank you.

  15. There is a huge standard deviation on age-predicted max heart rate, 95 are within the range of +/- 20 beats of the predicted value. So your maximum heart rate is 180 (or maybe even higher). And training won’t change your maximum heart rate, but your VO2 max will go up.

  16. How many of these sessions would you recommend per week? Also, should I do them year round, or only in the weeks leading up to a race? Thanks.

  17. The 30/30 intervals was studied using runners,are you sure it will work for cyclists? Vo2 max is hit later on the bike.

  18. @Jordan – 0 to 3 times per week depending on your goals. It’s possible to do these intervals all year, but normally I only use structured VO2 intervals maybe 2/3 of the season (estimate).

    @Richard Hand – Yes, you’re right that the most important studies using 30/30s intervals are performed with runners. Fortunately, these intervals also work on cyclists. For example the VO2 max booster program has successfully used these intervals to improve 5min max power for thousands of cyclists since it was released in 2009.

  19. TortoiseOnABike

    I’ve started doing intervals on an indoor Cross-Trainer where I can measure power output and energy consumption quite accurately and control intervals easily.

    However it occurred to me that Intervals are about training energy pathways and neural configuration in the muscles, so presumably its muscle group specific? and so to get any benefit I need to do it on the bike using the same muscles and not a Cross-Trainer which uses more muscles but only some of the same ones?

  20. Hi! If recovery is longer, will it ruin 3+3min interval training toltally? I find nice to do all invervals in same road with tail wind but it takes bit long to ride back to start agains headwind with recovery pace.

  21. Hi Jesper, I am very new to more effective cycling. I bought myselt a trainer to do more indoor workouts, these VO2 interval sessions where the one is described Like 3X ( 3+3min) , how do jou perform it, I make use of a heart rate?

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