The Velocity at VO2 Max (vVO2max)

vVO2max - The Velocity at VO2max

The Velocity at VO2max (vVO2max) is the velocity, at which the maximal oxygen uptake occurs. It’s strongly linked to success in a range of endurance running events. And a highly effective training intensity.

The good news is… the velocity at VO2max is highly trainable and can easily be improved with specific training.

In this article we look at:

  • The vVO2max and why it’s a key factor in endurance running performance.
  • Look at how to identify your velocity at VO2max.
  • See what research tells us about testing and improving it.
  • And look at some specific training sessions.

What is the vVO2max?

As we increase running speed—from a slow jog to faster running speeds—our lungs begin to inhale more air, our heart pumps more blood, and our muscles work harder and consume more oxygen.

If we were to plot oxygen consumption on a chart—in relation to running speed or velocity—then we would see as running speed increases there is a linear rise in oxygen consumption. This continues until a specific running speed, where oxygen uptake peaks.

Beyond this running speed, oxygen uptake will not increase any further no matter how fast you run.

The running speed where oxygen uptake peaks is the vVO2max, which stands for the velocity (v) at the maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max).

While the scientific definition refers to the velocity (m/s) associated with VO2max, from a practical standpoint this can be related to speed (kmh or mph), or running pace (in minutes per km, or mile).

In the example below, you can see how oxygen consumption rises linearly and then plateaus. For this runner we can see that oxygen uptake is very close to maximum uptake at 20km/h and then plateaus when running speed increases to 21.5km/h.

vVO2max - oxygen uptake vs running speed

So why doesn’t oxygen uptake increase beyond the vVO2max?…

Put simply, your lungs, heart and muscles have reached their upper limits for oxygen absorption (lungs), oxygen transport (heart and circulatory system), and oxygen uptake and use within the working muscles. While you can still run at faster speeds, we must now meet these additional energy needs through anaerobic metabolism.

In this way, the velocity at VO2max represents the minimum running velocity that achieves peak oxygen uptake.

Essentially, it represents the point of maximum oxygen uptake with the lowest total anaerobic contribution—for most runners, anaerobic metabolism will only contribute around 10 and 20% of total energy at this speed. 

Therefore, training at this speed allows athletes to maximise the aerobic training benefit, while minimising the anaerobic component.

For this reason, it’s considered a key training intensity by many runners and coaches because it places the greatest stress on aerobic metabolism and the cardiovascular system.

It is also a key predictor of distance running performance. Where it explains differences in performance between two runners with the same VO2max values. This is because unlike with VO2max, the velocity at VO2max relates to both aerobic capacity and running efficiency.

vVO2max and Endurance Running Speed

The vVO2max is highly predictive of endurance running performance. It provides useful information for runners 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 to be best predictor of 10km running performance (McLaughlin et al., 2010).

So, why is it such a good predictor or endurance running performance?

It is considered one of the best predictors of endurance running performance because it integrates both aerobic capacity and running efficiency (McLaughlin et al., 2010; Morgan et al., 1989).

Think of it this way: if you’re an efficient runner with great aerobic fitness then you will better transfer your aerobic fitness into faster running speeds. In this way, it can explain the differences in performance, between two runners with equal VO2max, or equal running economy.

As an example, if two runners have the same aerobic capacity, or have a similar running efficiency, then the one with the fastest velocity at VO2max will run at faster speeds for any percentage of this peak speed.

So, as long as there is no decrease in other fitness components—the lactate threshold, fractional utilisation etc—then any improvement will transfer directly to improved running speed over a range of race distances.

The example below highlights how both aerobic capacity and running efficiency impact the velocity at VO2max. In this example, both runners achieve similar speeds at VO2max. This is despite runner A being more efficient, and runner B having a higher aerobic capacity.

vVO2max Running Efficiency

vVO2max Running Tests

The vVO2max can be identified through laboratory based incremental running exercise test performed on a treadmill, or estimated using field based tests.

Unlike many other tests (lactate threshold, aerobic capacity, running efficiency etc) this can be assessed to a high level of accuracy using a simple field based test. In fact, using a field test is probably more directly transferable to training situations.

Incremental Running Test

As mentioned, we can assess the velocity at VO2max using a laboratory based incremental test. Here, oxygen consumption is measured while running speed increases incrementally.

As running speed increases, oxygen consumption increases linearly. Then at a specific running speed we see a plateau in oxygen uptake. Beyond this oxygen uptake will not increase further—even at faster speeds. In this way, the velocity at VO2max is the lowest speed at peak oxygen uptake.

The exact running speed where this occurs can be difficult to identify during incremental exercise. There are also questions about how well treadmill test results transfer to outdoor running. For these reasons, we often prefer to use field based tests.

vVO2max field based tests

The most simple field test is a 6-minute time trial. You can then use the average speed from this as an estimate of the speed, or pace at VO2 max.

So, why use a 6-minute time trial?… We base this on research, that found the vVO2max can be sustained for approximately 6minutes (Billat et al., 1999; Hill et al., 1997). It should be noted that some runners can sustain this pace for longer than six minutes.

A 5-minute test has also been proposed (Berthon et al., 1997), however the 6 minute test is the preferred test length.

Using race performances

For me, the thought of completing a 6-minute all out running time trial during training isn’t appealing. And it can be really challenging to commit to that level of effort in a non-competitive situation.

One alternative is to use a recent race performance, 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. While this works for many runners, this is not effective for all. 

Let’s consider an example where one runner can run 3km in 8minutes, and another in 15minutes. Here, the actual intensity at 3km pace will be different for the two runners:

For the 8minute 3k runner, the velocity at VO2max would be very close to 3k pace or speed.

With the 15minute 3k runner, 3k pace would only equate to around 95% VO2max.

For me I use 3km running speed for longer (1km) vVO2max intervals, and a slightly quicker running speed (close to 1500m pace) for shorter intervals.

How to Improve vVO2max

What research tell us about improving vVO2max

Researchers believe that the best way to improve this 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 this speed, with 3 minute active recoveries.

This is based on research where a combination of these intervals, tempo and easy pace running, led to a 3% increase in vVO2max and a 6% improvement in running economy after just four weeks of training (Billat et al., 1999).

Some research suggests that 3-minute intervals may not be enough to achieve VO2max in training (Hill et al., 1997; Hill and Rowell, 1997). Further research indicates that the use of repeated shorter 30s intervals (30s) at vVO2max, with 30s recoveries at 50% of this speed, may be a more effective way to increase the training time spent at peak oxygen uptake (Billat et al., 2000).

That said, the real benefits from this type of training is less likely to come from the actual time spent running at VO2max. Especially when we consider that aerobic capacity is unlikely to improve significantly in well-trained runners.

This has led some coaches to question the usefulness of training at this intensity. 

But here’s the thing… training at this intensity is not really about increasing VO2max.

What it does is place the greatest training stress on the physiological factors that contribute to top end aerobic fitness and performance—the ability of the lungs to inhale and absorb oxygen, the capacity 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.

Truth be told, 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 fibers.

Besides this, we know that the velocity at VO2max is strongly linked to endurance running performance.

We also know that unlike with VO2max, well-trained runners can achieve significant improvements in their vVO2max following specific running interval training.

With this in mind… why wouldn’t you want to include some training at this intensity?

Example vVO2max Workouts

Below are some examples interval sessions and approaches that I recommend. Here, I would run the shorter intervals at close to 1500m pace, and the longer intervals at around 3k pace.

For all of these workouts, ensure you have already completed adequate base training, and have a good level of experience of interval training, before running intervals at this intensity. And always Include a good warm up before these sessions, including low intensity exercise followed by dynamic mobility and activation exercises, drills, and accelerations.

Short Intervals

Short repeated intervals of 30seconds at vVO2max (or just above), with 30second recoveries at half this pace.

You can complete this as either:

  • One continuous set e.g. 20 x 30secs intervals, 30secs recoveries.
  • Multiple sets e.g. 4 x (5 x 30secs intervals, 30secs recoveries), 2-3mins recovery between sets.

The major problem here is that the short duration of the intervals makes controlling intensity difficult—gps pace isn’t helpful during such short intervals.

An effective alternative involves running these by distance rather than time:

  • 16-20 x 200m at vVO2max (or slightly faster), 100m jog recovery at half this speed.
  • 4 x (4-5 x 200m at vVO2max (or slightly faster), 100m jog recovery at half this speed), 2-3mins recovery between sets
  • 8-12 x400m at vVO2max (or slightly faster), 200m jog recovery

Of all the sessions, the one I find most effective is the 400m intervals. I run these at close to 1500m pace, but I’ve tweaked the recovery so it’s only around 2/3 the length of the interval. So for me, this works out at 400m intervals with around a 150m jog recovery. It’s challenging but highly effective!

Longer Intervals

Repeated longer intervals, which can be run by time or distance:

  • 5-6 x 3minutes at vVO2max, with a 3minute recovery at half the interval pace.
  • 5-6 x 800-1000m at vVO2max, with a 400-500m recovery run at half the interval pace.

The longer intervals work well but are most useful in the build up to key races. You can see an example of how to incorporate these within the advance 10k running plan.

Sprint Intervals

Another approach that is really effective is to include some sprint and speed endurance intervals.

So, why use these?… As we’ve seen, the velocity at VO2max is influenced by aerobic capacity and running efficiency.

With this in mind, you can improve this by specifically targeting running efficiency. And one of the best approaches is sprint intervals.

You can read more on the benefits of these in my article on sprint training for distance runners.

In the meantime, here are some sprint interval workouts that you can use…

  • 6-10 x 8-10second hill sprints, 2-3mins jog recovery
  • 6-8 x 200m speed endurance intervals (90-95% of maximum effort), 3:30-5min jog recovery
  • 5-6 x 300m speed endurance intervals (90% of maximum effort), 4-5min jog recovery

Ideally, you should be using these year round to maintain and develop top end running speed and efficiency. Alternating between hill sprints and short speed endurance intervals is an effective approach.

Further Considerations

We know that the velocity at VO2max is influenced by both running efficiency and aerobic capacity. So, any training that improves one of these factors will benefit vVO2max.

With this in mind, in addition to running intervals you should employ the methods discussed in the VO2max and exercise economy sections—adequate training volume, optimizing training intensity, strength/resistance training for endurance—and as mentioned make sure to include sprint and speed endurance intervals.

vVO2max Summary:

  • The vVO2max represents the minimum velocity needed to achieve peak oxygen uptake.
  • It is one of the strongest predictors of endurance running performance across a range of distances—from middle to long-distance. This is because it integrates maximal aerobic capacity and running economy.
  • It can be measured through an incremental treadmill test. This requires measuring oxygen consumption while increasing the speed incrementally.
  • We can estimate it using the average velocity achieved during a 6-minute field test.
  • Alternatively, you can use a recent race performance to identify the pace you can sustain, during a 6-9minute maximal effort.
  • We can improve it by completing intervals at vVO2max running speed. We combine these with equal duration recoveries, run at half this speed.
  • Research suggests that shorter intervals are more effective at increasing the total time spent at VO2max. We consider longer intervals 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 fibers.
  • Since it’s influenced by aerobic capacity and running economy, any training that improves either of these will have a positive effect on vVO2max.
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