Optimal Bike Training: Threshold Power vs VO2 Max

In the last couple of weeks I have covered the importance of VO2 max intervals. Even though VO2 max is an important physiological skill, threshold power is even more crucial. The absolute power output at your threshold power is often a lot more important than the absolute number at VO2 max. That also explains why the athletes with the highest VO2 max values not per definition are the strongest performing riders in the peloton.

VO2 Max intervals improves your threshold power

Even though VO2 max is not the single most important power output, it still needs lots of training because the physiological adaptations to VO2 max training are the same as the you receive from threshold training. The biggest difference is the time needed to train to achieve the same progress.

Intervals close to VO2 max is a really potent stimulus for your aerobic system. Actually, it there is scientific evidence indicating that well trained athletes must have intervals close to their VO2 max to continue further progress. VO2 max intervals not only improve your VO2 max power, they also give a great lift to your threshold power.

Remember that threshold power is only a percentage of your VO2 max. You don’t train specific physiological skills with threshold power intervals that don’t get stimuli at VO2 max. If decide to train at lower intensity than VO2 max, you have decided to train your aerobic system less effectively. Bump.

VO2 Max Intervals are better than threshold intervals

I know that there are circumstances where intervals at lower intensities are handy, but from a strict theoretically point of view, VO2 max training is the most effective.

There is a common myth that training exactly at threshold power is the most optimal way to train. Let me make it clear:

There is nothing magical about training exactly at threshold power. Training a little above or below threshold power improves performance in exactly the same ways.

Conclusion: Training exactly at your threshold power is great, but slightly below or above threshold power is just as great. Well trained athletes need training close to their VO2 max, because it helps them to further progress of both VO2 max AND threshold power. From a strict theoretically point of view, VO2 max training is the most effective way to improve your performance in endurance disciplines like road cycling. Both VO2 max and threshold power training can be beneficially for riders at all levels.

9 comments… add one
  • SimonQ Link

    What you say makes perfect sense but Hunter Allen and others are also mad about 2 x 20 min and Sweet Spot Training (SST) sessions.

    Each week I have been doing 1 – 2 x VO2 sessions, 1 x 2 x 20 min LT and 1 x longer endurance ride with up to an hour of SST (~95% LT) and had some of my best form ever, including being able to hold fast pace over long distances (break/fast bunch riding).

    It may well be that I would have gone even better on the limited training time that I have doing more VO2. Would I be better to drop the 2 x 20 min and adding a VO2 session, especially if I was only doing two rather than three sessions during the working week?

    It also strikes me that LT stuff is fine if you are training 25 hours a week as Hunter et al are ususally talking about what their pros are doing but if you have very limited training and only riding every second day a heavy diet of VO2 could be the answer…

  • SimonQ,

    it’s difficult to say what works best for you. It’s important to notice that we are talking about small differences. If you feel better doing 20min LT workouts and simply hate VO2 intervals then the choice is not that difficult.

    There is not scientific evidence for theory about sweet spot training. My main point in this article is that there is nothing magic about training exactly at lactate threshold. There is no sweet spot. Train a little above or below (sweet spot) works just as fine.

    Actually I’m intending to refer to some studies that illustrate why I recommend VO2 intervals.

    Best regards,


  • Jeff Link

    first I like to say I really like your articles. As for the training at VO2 article. As I understand you have to be tested to get your VO2. I know what PT LT ect and understand training at those levels. but I am confused how do you train at your VO2 max, (I understand the intervals), but what measurment are you using to know you are in that window?

  • It’s not a scientific method since all readers shall have a fair chance to perform these training programs. VO2 max power is your maximum average power output in a 5min test.

    If you train repeated intervals like 30/30sec you will reach VO2 max after app. 5-8 intervals.

  • marvin tolentino Link

    I e-mailed earlier about the terms yopu used on your program and i think i got but i dont have a power meter.can i use results from a heart rate monitor instead?

  • Robert Link

    Hi im studying fitness and cant seem to find the result and consequence of additional exercise above the VO2max?
    could you help me understand this area better.
    thanks rob.

  • Patrick Link

    I have read in many places that it takes 1.5-2 minutes before you hit vo2max power. In this case, wouldn’t a 3x3x3 workout really not do a whole lot for vo2max? I.e. wouldn’t longer intervals at slightly below vo2max power be better?

  • Gerry Link

    Hi folks,
    I am quite sure lots of vo2max intervals give you a lot of bang for the buck (ie. power increase per training hour spent). But like anything, there is no free lunch. Muscles can adapt quite rapidly to new stimuli but there are other parts in your body that cannot adapt at the same speed. I.e. joints, sinews, ligaments etc etc. Pushing your form to the top with more intervals weeks before an important race is fine. However for long term sustainable performance increase you should pay attention to all aspects i.e. you will need sub-threshold base training, ftp training, vo2max intervals, sprints etc. Keeping training volume inverse to intensity. If you for example ride 3 times a week for 4-5 hours/week I’d suggest something like 1 x 2h sub-threshold plus 2x (2x20min) ftp, and every second week replace one ftp session by a (6x4min) vo2max session. 3-4wk’s before a race you can try to substitute a ftp session by v02max every week. 2-3 weeks before the race replace both ftp by vo2max but keep the base training. After the race drop the vo2max for a while. If you want/can train more try to add a sub-threshold or ftp session first, and only then do a vo2max every week. When you feel pain (i.e. inflammation) in you signews pause first and start only sub-thresh sessions for a while. Keeps you healthier. Just my 2cents.
    BTW: I did almost everything wrong in my youth and learned my lessons, now I think I know better and I am coaching my son, he is one of the top ten youth triathletes in switzerland, he trains about 6-8hrs/week (year avg). while his competition does 10-15hrs.

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