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Boost Your Fitness With These Race-Specific VO2 Max Workouts

Runners compete in a road race

“Once a Runner” author John L. Parker once described an interval workout as “the modern distance runner’s equivalent of the … iron maiden.” Runs that push your oxygen uptake to its maximum – VO2 max, in the exercise science world – are by their very definition quite challenging. They require focus, an ability to persevere, and no shortage of sweat.

As an infomercial pitch, the above description probably wouldn’t sell a lot of products, except for this one little catch: VO2 max intervals are ridiculously efficient at producing fitness gains.

Because these sessions are working to improve your body’s ability to transport oxygen, they are essentially raising your performance ceiling in all events lasting over one minute. This is especially true for events that require the highest blend of sustained aerobic power and speed, namely events ranging from the mile to 10K.

A marathoner can still be pretty solid while shirking VO2 max-esque work; a 5K runner is going to leave a lot on the table if they dodge it. That’s where specificity kicks in. Depending on what types of races you want to excel in, it’s worth the time to find the right kind of session for your needs.

Runners start training for a 5K race

VO2 Max Workouts for 5K/10K Runners

VO2 max workouts are most commonly associated with track athletes and road racers who compete at short distance. This makes sense, as VO2 max pace is what you could hold for an 8- to 10-minute all-out race. Milers, two-milers, 5K and 10K runners all compete at paces within a few percentage points of VO2 max. This is an intensity range they’re going to want to be very proficient in.

When structuring intervals, elite running coach Jack Daniels notes that it takes roughly two minutes to reach VO2 max if you’re well rested. That means short intervals like 400 meters generally won’t be very efficient, as you’ll complete the interval before you reach 100 percent of VO2 max. (I say “generally” because you can always shorten the rest period and get to VO2 max quicker. Daniels offers the example of starting a new 400-meter interval every two minutes as a way to accomplish this – regardless, it’s much less efficient).

It’s for this reason that intervals lasting three to five minutes—things like 800s, 1000s and 1200-meter repeats—are favored when working this system. In general, you’re going to want to accrue 12 to 20 minutes at this pace over the course of a workout.

By running a few percentage points slower, you can also incorporate longer intervals like miles, 2000s, and 3000-meter repeats at 5K to 10K pace into your workouts. Recovery should be equal to the time spent running hard, with a cap of about five minutes.

Workouts can be a straight set of a given distance or can vary depending on what you’re trying to simulate. I prefer a jogging recovery, but new runners or those accustomed to walking certainly have that option.

  • Example 1: 4 x 800m (or 4 x 3 minutes) @ VO2 max intensity (3:00 jog recovery after each interval)
  • Example 2: 5 x 1000m (or 5 x 4 minutes) @ 5K race pace effort (3:00-4:00 jog recovery after each interval)
  • Example 3: Ladder workout of 2000m @ 10K pace; 1600m @ 5K pace; 1200 @ VO2 max; 800 @ VO2 max (3:00-5:00 rest after each)

VO2 Max Workouts for Half Marathons and Marathons

As I mentioned earlier, a marathoner can get away without doing intervals. That doesn’t mean they should.

Increasing aerobic capacity is beneficial to all runners, and those faster sessions should make marathon pace quite comfortable. For that reason, an early-season emphasis on VO2 max work is highly beneficial for half marathoners, marathoners, and even ultramarathoners. Better yet, assuming the training load remains consistent as you move into your race-specific phase, most of those gains will carry forward.

Twelve to 20 weeks out from a marathon is a great time to target this work. For someone running a late fall marathon, this would entail a summer spent working on intervals and racing 5Ks and 10Ks (utilizing workouts like examples 1-3).

As the marathon approaches, you’ll want to adapt the workload to better meet race day demands. This can be accomplished by folding VO2 max intervals into sessions that combine different paces. Not only will this get the VO2 max work in, it’ll also help you learn to run fast on tired legs—a skill that cannot be undersold in marathoning.

  • Example 4 (advanced): 3-mile tempo (4:00 jog); 4 x 1000 @ VO2 max (3:00 jog)
  • Example 5 (intermediate): 10 minutes @ tempo effort (3:00 jog); 4 x 3 minutes @ VO2 max effort (3:00 jog)

VO2 Max Workouts for Trail Runners

A man on a trail run

Not all runners feel compelled to race on paved surfaces. Some, in fact, like to get down and dirty. Trail running has a lot of technical elements not found in road and track racing, but for all the root-hopping and creek-crossing the sport affords, it’s still governed by the same physiological laws.

That doesn’t mean the difference don’t count. Musculoskeletal strength and the brain’s ability to rapidly process stimuli are huge components of running fast in the wilderness. Mixing those variables into VO2 max training is a great way to make those gains even more specific to the trails.

At the same time, make sure you do these types of workouts on trails where it’s safe to run fast. Nothing ruins a workout faster than a bloodied knee and gravel under your skin.

Because many trail races are long—like, really, really long—there are myriad opportunities to combine workout stressors in a manner that better replicates race day (not that any of these workouts can really replicate a 100-miler in the Sierras…but I digress).

Much like the marathon sessions prescribed above, starting at tempo/lactate threshold effort and working down in intensity is a good option as it pre-fatigues the legs and helps you adapt to running intensely while tired. For a trail runner, proficiency in this department is vital to success.

  • Example 6: 2 x 5 mins @ VO2 max (equal jog recovery), followed by 2 x 3 minutes (equal recovery) on runnable singletrack trail.
  • Example 7: 8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 minute fartlek, starting at tempo effort and picking up to VO2 max effort for the last few minutes (half-time recovery for first five intervals, then equal time)

VO2 Max Workouts on Hills

This is one last VO2 max workout I want to touch on, and it can be used for 5K runners, marathoners and trail racers alike: hill intervals.

Fighting gravity is an excellent way to get your respiration rate up in the first place; adding in a healthy dose of pace makes it all the more effective. Sessions like 6 x 3 minutes uphill not only maximize your oxygen uptake, they also develop power and efficiency in the process. As an early-to-midseason session, I cannot recommend this work enough.

In a perfect world, you’d find a long but not-too-steep hill (3-6 percent grade) with good footing. As far as recovery is concerned, you can jog back down to the base of the hill or, if you live in a mountainous area, progressively work your way uphill.

It may be tricky for everyone to find a suitable incline, but it’s amazing how many pancake-flat areas have a sled hill, tall bridge, or converted garbage dump just waiting to be scaled.

It may stink (especially if your hill really is a converted garbage dump), but you’ll be all the better for it.

  • Example 8: 5 x uphill 800 @ VO2 max effort (3:00 recovery or jog to base of hill)

By Philip Latter. Latter is a former senior writer at Running Times and co-author of Running Flow and Faster Road Racing. His work has also appeared in Runner's World, runnersworld.com, and ESPN.com. He currently coaches athletes at The Running Syndicate, in addition to his day job coaching high school runners at Brevard High School (NC).