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How Can You Improve Your Cycling VO2 Max?

Although not the only thing that matters, every good cyclist has a good VO2Max, which is why if you want to become a better rider, you can’t ignore it. In this post we will dive in a little deeper into what VO2Max is, why it matters and how you can improve it.

What is a VO2Max?

VO2Max is the peak rate of oxygen consumption during exercise and establishes the upper limit for endurance performance. Your VO2Max demonstrates the size of your aerobic engine or, your ability to use oxygen as fuel where a bigger aerobic engine translates into the production of more power for longer periods of time.

There are four essential components of your VO2Max:

  1. The pulmonary system - how good your lungs are

  2. Maximal cardiac output - how good your heart is

  3. Oxygen carrying capacity of the blood

  4. The ability to use oxygen at the working muscle – mitochondrial density, capillarisation and oxidative enzymes

Why are these VO2Max components important?

  • A higher blood output from the heart (stroke volume) means more oxygen can be sent to the working muscles for energy. Perhaps the most important adaptation from endurance training.

  • A dense capillary network around muscles offers a larger surface area for oxygen uptake

  • Blood Oxygen-Carrying Capacity: this deals with haemoglobin and red blood cells. The higher the red blood cells, the higher the blood capacity to carry oxygen.

  • Increased mitochondria in the muscle results in improved oxygen uptake; hence, more aerobic energy to power your muscles.

Remember, the aerobic system sustains energy production, making VO2Max crucial for cyclists.

How can you improve your cycling VO2Max?

Although your VO2Max will have a ‘cap’ or ceiling based on genetics, sex and age, endurance training can elicit improvements in all the four components listed above.

Lower Intensity, Long Duration Cycling

Long Slow Distance (LSD) training is a staple for any cycling programme to increase your VO2Max by cycling at about 60%–80% of your maximum heart rate for a steady and sustained period — 1.5hrs +. These workouts contribute to increased capillary density around Type I muscle fibres, which enable you to use more oxygen. Developing your type 1 muscle fibres fibres also improves your ability to recycle lactate enabling you to hold higher intensities for longer.

Furthermore, your ability to take on more oxygen in these fibres also encourages fatty acid usage as its primary fuel source, leading to conducive conditions to promote improvements in body composition and mitochondrial biogenesis or, an increase in mitochondria in the muscle.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT)

High Intensity Interval Training helps see adaptations in both the cardiovascular (cardiac output) and neuromuscular systems (mitochondrial function, recruitment of type IIA muscle fibres). By training at close to 90% of your maximum (VO2Max) and for the time that this intensity can be maintained is a way to optimise interval training.

How does this work?

  1. Through a VO2Max Test you can determine the power at your VO2Max. Or calculate 95% of your max heart rate

  2. You can then determine the length of time you can hold this power output (tMax) – normally 3-7mins.

  3. Choose a rest period that enables you recover sufficiently so you can reach the desired intensity in subsequent intervals. Rest periods will typically be 2mins or a work:rest ratio of 1:1, 2:1.

  4. The goal is to accumulate around 12-20mins of “work” in total.

An Example

  • Let’s say you come in for VO2Max testing and your Tmax is 340watts.

  • We can then set some intervals based off this number

  • 95% of 340 = 323.

  • 4 x 4mins @323w with 4mins recovery

Need more help with your cycling?

If you’re interested in improving your VO2Max as a cyclist then check out our cycling package which combines in house vO2Max testing as well INSCYD remote testing to build a complete profile of where you are now and how you need to improve.


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