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New VO2max workouts lead to impressive gains in fitness

Veronique Billat is at it again. The French scientist who brought that proud old physiological variable VO2max to its knees, replacing it with the much more valuable and predictive vVO2max, and who was the first scientist to show endurance athletes exactly how to optimize vVO2max, has now developed two new vVO2max-expanding workouts which can produce huge improvements in performance. The concept of vVO2max can be simply defined as the velocity which produces the highest-possible rate of oxygen consumption. The classic Billat strategem for hoisting vVO2max, as well as lactate threshold and efficiency of movement (economy), was a workout consisting of five three-minute intervals at vVO2max, with three-minute 'float' recoveries after the intervals. The diminutive genius from the University of Lille was able to show experimentally that this simple workout, carried out on a weekly basis, could upgrade vVO2max and lactate threshold by 3% and economy by 6% in as short a time as nine weeks (1). Never one to rest on her laurels, Billat has now developed a pair of vVO2max sessions which can lead to impressive gains in fitness. In one of the new workouts, the idea is to warm up thoroughly and then alternate just 30 seconds of moving along at vVO2max (instead of the classic but agonising three minutes) with 30 seconds of 'floating' at 50% of vVO2max (2). In her new research, Billat studied eight well-trained male endurance runners, with an average age of 34, who were running about 35-40 miles per week. Their average VO2max was a pretty decent 60 ml/min.kg-1, their mean vVO2max was 18.5 km/hr (a pace of 5:13 per mile) and their lactate-threshold velocity was 82% of vVO2max, or 15.2 km/hr (6:21 per mile). After these runners were evaluated for VO2max, vVO2max, and lactate-threshold running speed, they carried out two different workouts, as follows: 1. After warming up with 15 minutes of easy jogging, they alternated 30-second work intervals at 100% of vVO2max with 30-second recoveries at 50% of vVO2max, sustaining this pattern for as long as possible. For example, a runner who had a vVO2max of 20 km/hr (5.55m per second) would run 166 metres during the 30-second work intervals and about half that distance (83m) during the 30-second recoveries, thus achieving 50% of vVO2max. If you are worrying about the exactness of the recovery interval, let me reassure you that hitting 50% of vVO2max 'right on the head' during recovery intervals is not that important; the gains in fitness associated with the workout come from the vVO2max work, not specifically from the recovery effort. It is important, however, for the recoveries to be run slowly - at some speed reasonably close to 50% vVO2max - so that you can sustain 100% of vVO2max, and not some lower percentage, during the work intervals.

2. The second workout was a continuous run (no work intervals, no rest intervals - just hard, sustained running) in which the athletes warmed up and then ran for as long as possible at a speed exactly halfway between their lactate-threshold velocity and vVO2max. In practice, this turned out to be an average of about 91% of vVO2max, or approximately 16.9 km/hr (5:43 per mile). Thus, during the at-vVO2max interval workout, the athletes were running at an average tempo of 78 seconds per 400m, but in 30-second 'chunks', while in the continuous session the runners scampered along at 85 seconds per 400m without stopping. In both cases, Billat's athletes kept working as long as they possibly could. The athletes conducted both sessions on a synthetic track while breathing through a portable telemetric metabolic analyser, which allowed Billat to determine their actual rates of oxygen consumption. Is this strange, or what? Strangely enough, when the athletes carried out the continuous workout at a speed halfway between lactate threshold and vVO2max (ie at a velocity lower than vVO2max), more than half of the runners (five out of eight) actually reached their maximum rate of oxygen consumption! Hold on, you must be saying! Isn't vVO2max the running speed which elicits VO2max? How could five of the runners move along at an intensity halfway between lactate threshold and vVO2max - ie 9-% slower than vVO2max - and still pull good-old VO2max out of the hat? If that question troubles you, bear in mind that 'Veronique's vVO2max' is reached in the laboratory during a treadmill test in which running speed is steadily and progressively increased in an effort to make the rate of oxygen consumption rise as high as possible. Each specific velocity utilised in this test is sustained for a relatively short period of time, and the first velocity which corresponds with VO2max is chosen as vVO2max. Now you see it! Since each velocity in Veronique's test is 'touched on' for a relatively brief period, it is quite possible that a speed slower than Veronique's vVO2max could actually elicit VO2max - if it were given enough time to do so! Veronique's test, however, does not permit dawdling at various speeds, so vVO2max is reached at a rather high speed (that is to say, a higher speed than the minimal velocity which would provoke VO2max). Although that makes the 'halfway-between lactate threshold and vVO2max' workout seem pretty good (since it could call up VO2max in more than 50% of the runners), the trouble with the halfway workout was that it actually produced VO2max for a very short duration of time within the workout. In fact, VO2max was sustained for an average of only two minutes and 42 seconds during the halfway session, even though runners were able to keep going at the halfway pace for an average of eight minutes and 20 seconds (the rest of the time, of course, being spent below VO2max). Thus, just 32% of total running time was performed at VO2max.

Now is not the time to think: 'So what?' Remember that time spent at VO2max is a critically important variable during training. Many experts believe (with backing from research) that time passed at VO2max during training is a much more potent fitness expander for endurance athletes than time spent at 80, 90 or even 95% VO2max. The reason for this is clear: if you are forcing your heart to send as much oxygen as possible to your muscles and also forcing your muscles to use the incoming oxygen at the highestpossible rate, that creates a maximal stimulus for the heart and muscles to adapt by enhancing the body's capacity to process oxygen. If you use a less intense stimulus, the muscles and heart will 'believe' they are meeting the demands of training quite well (since you haven't tried to push through the upper limit of O2 utilisation) and you will thus generate a smaller adaptive response to the training. Much better results for 30-30 While the continuous running at a pace halfway between lactate-threshold speed and vVO2max led to a paltry total of less than three minutes at VO2max and 8:20 of overall running, the somewhat unusual strategy of alternating 30 seconds at vVO2max with 30 seconds of floating produced an average of 19 intervals at vVO2max before exhaustion set in, 9:30 of high-quality running, and a grand average of seven minutes and 51 seconds at VO2max (83% of the total). In other words it produced 19% more VO2max running than the continuous run! An additional 309 seconds were spent at VO2max during the 30-30 workout compared with the continuous run, yet blood-lactate levels were similar in the two efforts! Interestingly, three individuals were able to complete between 22 and 27 intervals during the 30-30 workout, with as many as 18.5 minutes completed at actual VO2max. By contrast, the most expansive time spent at VO2max during the continuous run was seven minutes. If you are wondering how 27 30-second work intervals can lead to 18.5 minutes at VO2max (instead of, say, 13.5 minutes or less), bear in mind that runners often sustained VO2max during the 30-second recovery intervals too, even though they were running at only half of vVO2max! Obviously, there was a 'physiological lag' occurring, with the runners' bodies taking longer than 30 seconds to downshift oxygen usage as running pace slowed. When the three subjects who hit 22-27 intervals during the 30-30 run tried the continuous exertion, one runner did not even reach VO2max, despite lasting seven minutes at the continuous pace! Another runner ran at VO2max for just 5:45, and the athlete who crested at VO2max for 18:30 during the 30-30 workout logged his max oxygen-burning rate for only 4:30 during the continuous run. These are huge differences!

The 30-30 workout is a powerhouse and, even though heart rate soars to near maximal near the end of the session, it is tolerated well, even by rather inexperienced runners, who

tend to struggle with the more-challenging (5 x 3 minutes @ vVO2max) 'classic.' Indeed, Veronique has carried out new experimental work with modestly fit physical education students (VO2max = 54 ml/ min.kg-1) showing that a twice-weekly regimen of 30-30 workouts can boost VO2max by a whopping 10% in just 8-10 weeks! Veronique recommends using the 30-30 session early in the season as an excellent, easilytolerated way to kick-start improvements in VO2max, vVO2max, lactate threshold, and running economy. Anecdotally, 30-30, even when carried out to the point of exhaustion (ie the point at which vVO2max can no longer be sustained for a 30-second work interval) appears to be a little easier on runners' muscles and tendons than the crueller '3-3' session (5 x 3 minutes at vVO2max, with 3-minute recoveries). After a month or so, you can progress from 30-30 to another Billat workout, the '60-60' (60 seconds at vVO2max alternating with 60 seconds of floats, again until exhaustion calls your name). Once you have become a master of 60-60, you can begin the classic (and much tougher) three-minute-interval-at-vVO2max workout to further improve vVO2max, VO2max, lactate threshold, and economy - and also broaden something called tlimvVO2max (the amount of time you can run continuously at vVO2max before stopping from fatigue). It so happens that tlimvVO2max is an excellent predictor of endurance performance in its own right. Rating the workouts Will 5 x 3 minutes improve VO2max, vVO2max, lactate threshold, and running economy more effectively than 30-30 and 60-60? In many cases, the answer is yes: the average time at VO2max during the 5 x 3 is around 10 minutes, about 25% more high-octane time than during the 30-30. Thus, moving from 30-30 to 5 x 3 is a beautiful progression, both in terms of the ease with which the workout can be accomplished and also the magnitude of the stimulus for physiological improvement. Note, though, that individual variations might make the 30-30 better than 5 x 3 for some athletes. This is probably true of the athlete mentioned above, who lasted for 27 intervals during 30-30, totalling up 18:30 at VO2max; even if this runner spent all of 5 x 3 at VO2max, which is most unlikely, he would not be able to amass as much time at VO2max as he had done with the 30-30 effort. If you are the kind of runner who can handle more than 20 work intervals with the 30-30 session, you may want to think about alternating 30-30 with 5 x 3, even during the later stages of your overall training progression. Taking another course - shifting to 6 x 3 or even 7 x 3 - is not recommended, as the basic 5 x 3 appears to be quite challenging to the musculoskeletal system, even for experienced runners. If you are new to PP and are not sure how to calculate your vVO2max, simply go to the track on a day when you are feeling great, the wind is a non-factor, the temperature and humidity are salubrious and your mental stress levels are low. After a great warm-up, set sail on the track at the fastest speed you can sustain for six minutes. After six minutes, mark where you are on the track and compute your vVO2max. For example, if you have

travelled 1800 metres, your vVO2max would be 1800/6 = 300m/minute, or 5m per second. This, of course, would be a tempo of 80 seconds per 400m. Your classic workout would then be 5 x 900m in three minutes each, with three-minute jog recoveries. The new 30-30 workout would be alternations of 30 seconds at 5m per second pace with 30 seconds of float - until you could go no more. That, of course, means that you would cover 150m in 30 seconds, about 75m in the next 30 seconds, 150m in the next half-minute, and so on - until your legs feel like stones. The 60-60 would entail 300m in one minute, 150m in the next minute, 300m in the following minute, etc. It may be a good idea to get hold of a set of orange, plastic cones, which can be placed around the track at strategic locations, corresponding to the distances you need to run for your 30-, 60-, or even 180-second intervals. Since your actual pace during the recovery intervals is not critically important (as long as the pace is easy), your best bet will be to mark off your work-interval distance with great accuracy. You can then simply jog easily during your recovery interval, making sure that you are at one end of your work-interval arc when the next work interval begins. Incidentally, if you are a cyclist (or triathlete) and want to know your vVO2max on the bike, you can perform exactly the same test as I have described for runners: on a day when you are feeling terrific, warm up and then ride as far as possible in six minutes. Figure out your distance covered and thus your vVO2max. You are then ready for some great vVO2max-enhancing workouts, namely: 1. Cycle 1/12 of your vVO2max test distance in 30 seconds, easy pedal for 30 seconds, 1/12 of the distance in 30 seconds etc until exhaustion; 2. Cover 1/6 of your vVO2max test distance in 60 seconds, easy pedal for 60 seconds, and so on; 3. Cycle 5 x 3 minutes at vVO2max, with 3-minute recoveries. Experienced bikers can complete more than five three-minute intervals if they wish, since the impact forces associated with biking are much lower than for running. Swimmers and rowers can, of course, follow exactly the same protocol for vVO2max testing and training. Naturally, runners, cyclists, swimmers, and rowers will want to recheck their vVO2max, using the six-minute test, every 4-6 weeks or so, then use the new vVO2max as the appropriate training speed. Background and summary information 1. In a paper published in 1984, which still makes good reading, the famed coach Jack Daniels was the first scientist to describe the importance of a runner's actual running speed at VO2max (maximal aerobic capacity), which he termed vVO2max (3). 2. vVO2max is generally defined as the minimal velocity which elicits VO2max in an incremental exercise protocol (ie a test in which a runner's rate of oxygen consumption is

assessed while running speed is increased in specific increments - often 1 km/hr - with each speed sustained for a relatively short period of time - usually two minutes). 3. Although runners and exercise physiologists refer to vVO2max as though it were a single entity, there are actually many vVO2maxs, ie many speeds which would cause a runner to 'hit' VO2max before reaching exhaustion. If this seems incredibly confusing, remember that the incremental exercise test used to determine vVO2max allows runners to remain at each speed for only a short period of time (often two minutes). As a result, a runner might be very close to VO2max but not actually reach it while running at 17 km/hr, for example, but then 'strike VO2max gold' while sizzling along at the next test speed of 18 km/hr. According to the test, the runner's vVO2max would thus be 18 km/hr, but in truth if the runner had been allowed to keep running for longer at 17 km/hr, he might well have been able to 'hit' VO2max at the slower speed; at high-quality running speeds, oxygen-consumption rate tends to climb even when speed is absolutely constant, an effect which is often called the 'slow component of oxygen uptake'. To make matters even more interesting, many runners can run about 40% faster than vVO2max and still stir up VO2max for a brief period before falling prostrate on the track. While this '140% of vVO2max' might be sustained for only 70 seconds or so and VO2max itself might be reached for only the last 15-18 seconds of the brief effort, nonetheless VO2max is attained and 140% of vVO2max would also qualify as a 'vVO2max'. 4. With so many vVO2maxs to choose from, Veronique Billat has made a serious and elegant effort to find the vVO2max which, when used in training, would produce the greatest gain in performance. Ingeniously, Billat has developed her six-minute test (an allout effort lasting six minutes, with vVO2max calculated as average velocity) and has also shown that a workout consisting of 5 x 3 minutes at vVO2max, with three-minute recoveries, is an incredible booster of vVO2max, lactate threshold, running economy, and performance. Owen Anderson

vVO2max workouts