The Velocity at VO2max (vVO2max)

vVO2max - The Velocity at VO2max

The Velocity at VO2max (vVO2max) is the velocity, at which the maximal oxygen uptake or VO2max occurs. It’s been shown to be strongly linked to success across a range of endurance running events and is often used as key training intensity.

Importantly, the velocity at VO2max can be improved through specific training.

In this article we’ll take a look at the vVO2max and how it affects endurance running performance. Look at how to find your velocity at VO2max. See what research tell us about improving vVO2max. And look a some sessions to target your vVO2max.

What is the vVO2max?

As we increase our running speed from an easy running speed to a faster running speed, our lungs, heart and muscles all increase their workrate, in order to meet the demands of running at a faster speed. This leads to an increase in oxygen uptake.

If we continue to increase running speed, then oxygen uptake continues to increase until at a certain running speed oxygen uptake reaches its maximum (called VO2max). The running speed where oxygen uptake is at maximum is the vVO2max – this stands for the velocity at VO2max – and even if we were to run at faster speeds we would not see any further increase in oxygen uptake.

Whilst the scientific definition of vVO2max relates to velocity (m/s) associated with VO2max, from a practical standpoint vVO2max can be related to speed, or, running pace.

In the example below, you can see how oxygen consumption increases linearly and then starts to plateau. For this athlete we can see that oxygen uptake is near maximum at 20km/h and doesn’t increase significantly, even when running speed is increased to 21.5km/h. 

vVO2max Running

So why doesn’t oxygen uptake increase beyond the vVO2max? At this point your heart, lungs and muscles have reached their upper limits for oxygen absorption (lungs), oxygen transport (heart and circulatory system), and oxygen uptake and use within aerobic metabolism in the working muscles.

Whilst, you can still run at faster speeds, the additional energy needs must now be met through anaerobic metabolism.

In this way the the velocity at VO2max is the minimum running velocity that elicits VO2max. And, represents the VO2max running speed where there is the lowest total anaerobic contribution. 

Typically the anaerobic energy contribution at vVO2max would be between 10 and 20% for a well trained runner. Training at the minimum velocity of VO2max, allows athletes to maximise the aerobic training benefit whilst minimising the anaerobic component.

It’s considered a key training intensity by many athletes and coaches as its the minimum velocity that allows you to place the greatest stress on the aerobic energy.

The vVO2max is also considered a key predictor of endurance running performance. And, explains differences in performance between two athletes with the same VO2max values. This is because unlike with VO2max, the vVO2max relates to both aerobic capacity and running efficiency.

vVO2max and Endurance Running Speed

The vVO2max has been shown to be highly predictive of endurance running performance. It can be used to provide useful information for athletes competing over middle to long distance running events (McLaughlin et al., 2010; Billat et al., 2003; Billat and Koralsztein 1996; Noakes et al., 1990; Morgan et al., 1989;). 

When researchers looked at the physiological characteristics of a group of male and female Kenyan distance runners they found the vVO2max was the best predictor of 10km running performance (McLaughlin et al., 2010). In fact, it’s considered one of the best predictors of endurance running performance because it integrates both aerobic capacity (VO2max) and running efficiency (McLaughlin et al., 2010; Morgan et al., 1989).

In this way, the velocity at VO2max can be used to explain the differences in running performance, between two athletes of equal VO2max, or equal running economy. 

If two athletes have the same VO2max values or have a similar running efficiency, then the athlete with the highest vVO2max will be running at a greater velocity for any given percentage of their VO2max. As long as there was no decrease in the sustainable %VO2max, or lactate threshold, then any improvement in vVO2max should directly transfer to improved running speed and performance over a range of race distances.

The example below highlights how both VO2max and running efficiency impact vVO2max. Here, both athletes have a similar velocity at VO2max despite Athlete A being more efficient and the Athlete B having a higher VO2max.

vVO2max Running Efficiency

vVO2max Running Tests

The vVO2max can be determined through either laboratory based incremental running exercise test performed on a treadmill, or assessed using field based tests. Unlike many other tests (like VO2max and lactate threshold tests), the velocity at VO2max can be assessed to a high degree of accuracy using a simple field based test. 

In fact using a field test to assess the vVO2max is probably more directly transferable to training situations.

vVO2max Incremental Running Test

The velocity at VO2max can be assessed using a laboratory based incremental test in which oxygen consumption is measured whilst increasing the speed incrementally. As running speed is increased, oxygen consumption increases linearly.

At a certain running speed we start to see a plateau in this increase in oxygen uptake and oxygen uptake will not increase further. The velocity where we first see maximum oxygen consumption is said to be the velocity at VO2max.

The exact running speed where VO2max occurs is not always easy to identify during incremental exercise. There are also questions as to how well this transfers to running outdoors. As such field based tests are commonly used to establish vVO2max.

vVO2max field based tests

The most simple field test for estimating the velocity at VO2max is to perform a 6 minute time trial in which the average speed sustained over the time trial gives an estimation of vVO2max.

The use of a short duration time trial is based on research that found that the vVO2max can be sustained for approximately 6minutes (Billat et al., 1999; Hill et al., 1997) although some subjects can sustain the vVO2max pace for longer. A 5-minute test has also been proposed (Berthon et al., 1997) although the 6 minute test is generally the preferred test length.

Using recent race performances to establish your vVO2max running speed

If you’re like me, then the thought of completing a 6 minute all out running time trial during training really isn’t appealing. 

It’s often difficult to replicate this kind of effort in a non competitive situation. An alternative, is to use a recent race performance, or an estimation of your current running level to estimate your vVO2max. 

Here we’re looking for a running speed that you could sustain for around 6-9minutes in a race situation. Some athletes use a specific race distance such as 3km race performance to determine their vVO2max. Whilst this works for some runners, this is not effective for all. There is a large element in individuality here and you will need to adjust this. 

If we consider an athlete that can run 3km in 8minutes and another who can run 3km in 15minutes, then the intensity at 3km pace will be very different for each athlete. In the case of the first athlete the velocity at VO2max would be pretty close to their 3km running speed, whereas with the second example it would likely be closer to their 1500m or mile running speed.

For me I use 3km running speed for longer (1km) vVO2max intervals and a slightly quicker running speed for shorter intervals (600-800m).

Training to Improve vVO2max

What research tell us about improving vVO2max

Researchers believe that the best method to improve the vVO2max is through high intensity interval training run at the vVO2max running speed.

One of the most popular approaches involves running 5 x 3minute (or equivalent distance e.g. 5 x 800m or 5 x1000m) intervals at vVO2max, with 3 minute active recoveries. This is based on research that found that the use of these intervals, along with tempo training and easy pace training, led to a 3% increase in vVO2max and a 6% improvement in running economy after four weeks of training (Billat et al., 1999).

Some research suggests that 3 minute intervals at vVO2max speed may not be sufficient to attain VO2max (Hill et al., 1997; Hill and Rowell, 1997). Further research suggests that the use of repeated shorter 30s intervals (30s) at vVO2max with 30s recoveries at 50% vVO2max may be a more effective means of increasing the overall time spent at VO2max (Billat et al., 2000).

However, the real benefits from this type of training are less likely to come from the actual time spent running at VO2max. Especially, when we consider that VO2max is unlikely to show significant improvement in well trained runners.

This has led to some coaches questioning the usefulness of training at this intensity. However, training at the vVO2max is not specifically about increasing VO2max, but rather it places the greatest training stress on the physiological factors that contribute to top end aerobic fitness and performance – the ability of the lungs to efficiently inhale and absorb oxygen, the ability of the heart and circulatory system to transport oxygen, and the ability of the muscles to work at high intensities for sustained periods of time.

In reality, the training benefits are more likely to come from a combination of improved neuromuscular co-ordination – which we know is key to improved running efficiency, increased cardiac output and stroke volume, increased muscle capillarization and hypertrophy of slow twitch muscle fibres.

In addition to this we know that the velocity at VO2max is strongly linked to endurance running performance. We also know that unlike with the VO2max, well trained athletes can achieve improvements in the vVO2max following specific running interval training. Therefore, why wouldn’t we look to include some training at this intensity?

Example vVO2max training sessions

Below are some examples of vVO2max interval sessions.

Shorter vVO2max interval sessions:

Repeated intervals of 30seconds at vVO2max intensity, 30seconds at 50%vVO2max intensity.
This can be completed as either:

  • One continuous set e.g. 20 x 30secs at vVO2max, 30secs at 50%vVO2max, or, 
  • Multiple sets e.g. 4 x (5 x 30secs at vVO2max, 30secs at 50%vVO2max), 2-3mins recovery between sets

The main problem here is that the short duration of the intervals makes controlling intensity difficult.

An alternative involves running these by distance rather than time:

  • 16-20 x 200m at vVO2max, 100m recovery at 50%vVO2max, or,
  • 4 x (4-5 x 200m at vVO2max, 100m recovery at 50%vVO2max), 2-3mins recovery between sets

Longer vVO2max interval sessions:

Repeated longer intervals at vVO2max. Again these can either be run by time or distance:

  • 5 x 3minutes at vVO2max intensity, with a 3minute recovery run at 50%vVO2max, or,
  • 6 x 800m at vVO2max intensity, with a 400m recovery run at 50%vVO2max

Ensure you have completed adequate base training and have good experience of interval training before completing any intervals at this intensity. Always Include an appropriate warm up before these sessions, including low intensity warm up followed by dynamic mobility and activation exercises, drills, and accelerations.

Further considerations with vVO2max training

We know that the velocity at VO2max is influenced by both running economy and aerobic capacity. As such, any training that improves one of these factors should result in an improvement in your vVO2max. Therefore, in addition to running intervals at vVO2max you should utilize the methods discussed in the VO2max and exercise economy sections (e.g. adequate training volume, optimizing training intensity, strength/resistance training for endurance), and also ensure you include intervals run at intensities above vVO2max.

vVO2max Summary:

  • The vVO2max represents the minimum velocity required to elicit VO2max.
  • It’s considered to be one of the best predictors of endurance performance over a wide range of distances from middle-distance to long-distance races, due to the way it integrates the maximal aerobic capacity and running economy.
  • The vVO2max can be determined through an incremental treadmill test in which oxygen consumption is measured whilst increasing the speed incrementally.
  • It can be estimated using a 6-minute field test in which the average speed provides an estimate of vVO2max.
  • Alternatively you can use a recent race performance to identify the pace you could sustain during a 6-9minute maximal effort.
  • The vVO2max can be improved through the use of intervals run at vVO2max running speed, combined with equal duration recoveries, run at half the vVO2max speed.
  • Research suggests that shorter intervals tend to be more effective at increasing the total amount of time spent at VO2max. Longer intervals are considered more effective at increasing stroke volume and maximum cardiac output.
  • vVO2max intervals lead to improved neuromuscular coordination, running efficiency, cardiac output and stroke volume, muscle capillarization and hypertrophy of slow twitch muscle fibres.
  • Since the vVO2max is influenced by both the VO2max and running economy, any training that improves either VO2max or running economy should have a positive effect on vVO2max.

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