The 3 Best Interval Sessions to Boost Your VO2max in Cycling

vo2max intervals in cycling

Doing ineffective intervals sucks. Especially, when you try to improve your VO2max. They might be hard but don’t cause a sufficient stimulus. You get tired, but eventually not stronger or faster. 

If you want to improve your VO2max, you need intervals that challenge your aerobic capacity. And although training responses to intervals are different across individuals, looking at what the science has to say is a good start. 

So here are the 3 best researched VO2max interval sessions. We will review each and I give you my take based on my experience as a coach and an athlete.

Here we go!

1. Intermittent Exercise Intervals

Intermittent intervals are alternating short bursts of very high intensity with a short period of low intensity. An excellent example of these micro intervals is Billat’s 30/30 intervals.

Veronique Louise Billat is a French physiologist and university professor. If you heard about Ronnestad she’s probably the French version. 

Her research about endurance performance is invaluable for our understanding of cycling training today. She’s a specialist in running also and published a book about how pace changes make you a faster athlete.

Billat devoted years to figuring out more and more effective interval training. She started with a 3-minute interval protocol at VO2max. And finally progressed to what is known today as Billat 30/30 intervals. 

You ride 30 seconds at 100% VO2max or more and do 30 seconds of either 50% interval power or endurance pace in between. During the 30 seconds off your metabolism is still ramped up to VO2max for a significant amount of time. You get a 1-minute interval for just 30 seconds of effort. You should spend 15-30 minutes total at 30-30 intervals to create a good stimulus. Read more about why and how to do 30/30 intervals here.

Her Norwegian counterpart Ronnestad, however, came up with 30/15 intervals. The idea is by cutting the break to half you gain more time above 90% of VO2max or max heart rate. Yet, the study is flawed. Therein they compare 3x13x30/15 vs. 4×5 minute intervals. Unfortunately, this is comparing apples with oranges because you compare 19.5 minutes of higher power output to 20 minutes of lower power output. Or from a metabolic standpoint, you compare 29.5 minutes of work with just 20 minutes of work. No surprise the 30/15s come out on top.

In my experience, some athletes have problems completing 30/15s. For example, I send some of my athletes to the lab to find their VO2max. Afterward, they go out and perform the 30/15s at VO2max power. Sad to say, they weren’t able to complete the full set with the prescribed power. Therefore, I suggest performing clean 30/30s instead for long-term progress. But of course, if the 30/15 feels good than go for it.

Now, how do you find the right power for microbursts? Well, for the 30/30s you can use your 5-minute peak power, and if the 30/15 feels difficult try to go at 95% of your 5-minute peak power.

The VO2max Microbursts: 30/30 and 30/15 Intervals

  • Warm-up: Perform a warm-up of 15-20 minutes with 1×2 minutes at Tempo. 
  • Mainset for Beginners: 2x8x30/30 at 30 seconds at 130-140% of FTP, 30 seconds at 50-60% of FTP
  • Mainset for Intermediates: 3x8x30/30 at 30 seconds at 130-140% of FTP, 30 seconds at 50-60% of FTP
  • Mainset for Competitive: 3x10x30/30 at 30 seconds at 130-140% of FTP, 30 seconds at 50-60% of FTP
  • Recovery in between sets: Try a 1:1 or 2:1 work-rest-ratio, so if your set takes 10min to complete, ride easy for 5-10min in between
  • Cool down: Ride an easy endurance pace to let the workout sink in

Let’s look at another classic of VO2max intervals that pro riders like Peter Stetina use to boost their aerobic and anaerobic capacity.

2. Standard VO2max Intervals

You can categorize standard VO2max intervals in the 2-5 minute interval range. Why 2-5 minutes interval length? Well, there’s a bunch of research out there for these “longer” HIT intervals. One study to mention is from Seiler and colleagues. They examined the physiological response for 24x1min, 12x2min, 6x4min, and 4x6min intervals. They found out that 1-minute intervals are too short to reach VO2max, while the 4-minute intervals caused the highest exposure at VO2max.

Therefore, they’ve concluded that 3-5 minute HIT intervals are what you’re looking for. However, as the 2-minute intervals were pretty close to the 4-minute intervals, I think that 2-5 minute intervals are the range to go for VO2max intervals. Additionally, from my experience as a coach more inexperienced riders tend to pace 2-4 minute intervals better than 5 or 8-minute intervals. Thus, they gain more time at VO2max with shorter intervals.

  • Warm-up: Perform a warm-up of 15-20 minutes including 1×2 minutes at Tempo
  • Mainset 2min: 8×2 minutes at 110-125% of FTP – Goal: Highest sustainable power across all efforts
  • Mainset 4min: 4×4 minutes at 110-125% of FTP – Goal: Highest sustainable power across all efforts
  • Recovery in between sets: Try a 1:1 work-rest-ratio, so 4min easy
  • Cool Down: Ride an easy endurance pace to let the workout sink in

3. Long VO2max Intervals

The last VO2max workout I want to suggest to you is the 8-minute intervals. And again it’s Seiler and colleagues who were responsible for the study.

The researchers divided 35 amateur cyclists into 4 groups. Group 1 did low-intensity training only. Group 2 did 4x16min intervals twice a week. Group 3 did 4x8min intervals twice a week. Finally, group 4 did 4x4min intervals twice a week. Furthermore, subjects should complete the intervals at the highest power they can sustain for the entire set of intervals.

The riders had to complete performance tests before and after the training intervention. Performance metrics were VO2max, VO2max power, Peak Heart Rate, and power at 4 mmol/l lactate.

Researchers found the biggest increase in physiological capacity in the 4x8min group. Because VO2max in the 4x8min group increased by 10.4% compared to 6.5%, and 5.6% in the 4x16min or 4x4min group. Additionally, power at 4mmol/l lactate, associated with threshold in studies, increased in the 4x8min group by 16.2% compared to 9% and 8% for the 4x16min and 4x4min group.

So, it seems like if you drop the intensity slightly and you go longer, you get a better training stimulus. Or to put it differently, 32 minutes at a lower intensity worked better than 4x4min at a higher intensity. However, we should always take the result with a grain of salt. See, there are studies out there that found an 8x4min setting more effective than a 4x8min setting. Additionally, we don’t know how a 4x8min setting compares to a 5x4min or 6x4min setting.

Anyways, I think you should give the 4×8 minute intervals a serious go because they had such an impact and it adds some variation to your standard or microburst intervals.

  • Warm-up: Perform a warm-up of 15-20 minutes including 1×2 minutes at SwSp
  • Mainset: 4×8 minutes intervals 106-120% of FTP – Goal: Highest sustainable power across all efforts you may use your 20min peak power as an orientation
  • Recovery in between sets: Try a 2:1 or 1:1 work-rest-ratio, so 4-8min easy
  • Cool down: Ride an easy endurance pace to let the workout sink in

Final Thoughts

Here you go with the 3 most effective VO2max workouts. Keep in mind to pace all efforts consistently. It’s about the best average, not about starting too hard and being unable to perform the last set. 

Pace yourself. Keep in mind, you want to be able to finish all prescribed efforts. Because if you blow up, you’ll miss precious training stress. 

What separates top performers from everyone else is that they know when to hold back and trust the process. They believe in the training plan. Make sure you have a plan you can rely on. 

Ready to Boost Your VO2max?

If you enjoyed this and you want to become a faster cyclist, then try my structured training plans. These plans result from research and experience as an elite bike racer and professional cycling coach. The plans train the fundamental endurance components like anaerobic threshold, VO2max, lactate clearance, and durability. In addition, you find my VO2max Specific Plans below. Enjoy!

  1. The Block Periodization Plan, 4 Weeks (6-8 Hours)
  2. The Block Periodization Plan 2.0, 12 Weeks (6-8 Hours)
  3. The Polarized Training Plan, 8 Weeks (6 Hours)
  4. The Polarized Training Plan, 8 Weeks (10 Hours)
  5. The Polarized Training Plan, 8 Weeks (15 Hours)

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Dr. Veronique Louise Billat:

Billat intervals: the magic bullet for your next PB?

Interval training at VO2max: effects on aerobic performance and overtraining markers: