Frank Horwill



  • These articles were first published many year's ago and whilst some are as relevant today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

Boosting your VO2 Max

By Frank Horwill 

Now that winter's coming, here's a useful programme for boosting your VO2 max

A 15-minute running test around a 400 metre track can lead to revolutionary improvements in fitness in just 12 weeks. The object of the 15-minute test is to cover as much distance as possible. A secondary factor is that the distance run can predict VO2 max with 95 per cent accuracy. I recently tested a male runner this way and estimated his oxygen uptake as A week later he paid £40 for a sophisticated treadmill VO2 max test at a British Olympic Medical Centre; they gave him

As the distance run indicates current fitness levels, so the same distance run can be used as a basis for further training. Let us imagine that an athlete runs exactly 4,000m in 15 minutes. The target in 12 weeks time is 4,400m, which correlates to a 10 per cent improvement in VO2 max. To achieve this, a minimum of four training sessions a week are required, which can be allocated on an every other day basis. Should a keen athlete decide on 12 sessions a week (twice a day training) there will be a correspondingly greater improvement in fitness, ie, a greater distance run on the test. Here's the procedure:

1. Halve the distance run on the test - in this case, 2,000m. Once a week, run 4 x 2,000m in 7½ minutes with 60 seconds recovery after each rep.

2. Double the distance run on the trial - in this example, 8,000m (about five miles). Run this distance once a week in 30 minutes + 3 minutes (33 minutes total).

3. Calculate the time per lap run. In this example, it is 90 secs per 400m. (If the distance run was 5,000m it would be 72 secs/400m.) Halve this time, ie, 45 seconds, and subtract 8 seconds = 37 secs. Once a week run a series of 200m repetitions in 37 secs starting with 90 secs recovery, which decreases by 15 secs after each 200m run, eg, 37/90, 37/75, 37/60 down to 37/15/37. At this point, return to the original rest time and repeat. These continue until the time calculated cannot be recorded. This may be 8 x 200m or 28 x 200m.

4. Multiply the distance run on the test by four, eg, 4 x 4,000m = 16K (about 10 miles). Run this distance once a week in 60 mins + 9 mins = 69 mins.

The object of the exercise

The aim of all four of these training sessions is to improve the overall times each month. If the minimum volume is chosen, the sessions can be apportioned each week as follows:

  • Sunday: Long run (4 x test run in 69 mins minus)
  • Tuesday: Repetition 200s with declining recovery
  • Thursday: Double-distance run (33 mins)
  • Saturday: Half the distance run x 4 with 60 secs recovery

If the maximum volume is chosen each week, it's a good idea to do the double-distance run each morning and arrange the remaining sessions as above.

We must now ask: what is the physiological basis for this regime? It is as follows:

1. The training is specifically designed to improve the distance run in 15 minutes. If this is achieved, VO2 max (fitness) will correspondingly improve.

2. The world's leading work physiologists are agreed that VO2 max is best improved by running at between 80 and 100 per cent of VO2 max. To understand this we must remember the key:

Percentage of VO2 max
Approximate Related Pace
95 5K

We can now apply this key to each individual session. If we take 1. listed above, this is between 3km and 5km pace (100-95% VO2 max). As fitness improves it will approach the latter more. Consider session 2. This approaches the athlete's 10km speed (90% VO2 max). As fitness improves, it will also become a lactate-response run in the range of 90-95% VO2 max. If we analyse session 3, this approximates to 1,500m speed which is 110% VO2 max. Finally, session 4 is analogous to half-marathon speed, as the 4 x the distance run improves from 69 mins to 63 mins, which will be 80% VO2 max.

So what's a 'lactate-response run'?

I've mentioned that session 2 with improved fitness will become a lactate-response run. Many athletes are mystified by this term. If a person goes for a jog, the amount of lactate circulating around the body will be negligible and the activity can continue for a very long time. If, however, the individual ran 800 metres full out, the body would be saturated in lactic acid, for no other middle-distance event produces so much saturation. This is why the great Olaf Astrand suggests that all runners should race 800m regularly because they will be better able to cope with lesser amounts of lactate accumulated in longer and slower races.

In a lactate-response run we do not want the former (jogging), nor do we desire the latter (800m speed). We require a point in our running speed just below the level where lactic acid begins to accumulate rapidly which we can maintain for four miles (6.5km). Now this cannot be our best 5km speed, nor is it our best 10km speed, for it will be too slow. It is between the two. When we get bogged down for some time with the same VO2 max figure, it is the lactate-response run that will improve our fitness further with less likelihood of injury doing faster work on the track.

Start in the winter

After 12 weeks on the outlined programme a second test is carried out, and the further distance covered must inevitably lead to new calculations resulting in progressively faster sessions. This type of training is best started in the winter and continued throughout the year, with modifications made to accommodate specific race requirements. For example, session 1, 4 x half the distance run in 7.5 minutes can be altered to 8 x a quarter of the distance run with 3 mins.45 secs recovery. Session 3, repetition 200s, can be altered to 400m reps at the same speed with the same recoveries as for the200s. This, of course, will result in fewer reps being done.

So far we have discussed mainly aerobic fitness. The ability to sprint is a major asset in most sports. Basic speed is tested by running 40 yards (36.6m) full out from a standing or crouch start. The general goal is for males to get well under five seconds and for females to get well below six. Whatever figure is recorded, this can predict the potential 400m time with 95 per cent accuracy using this formula: 40 yds time x 10 + 2 secs = male 400m potential time; 40 yds time x 10 + 3 secs = female 400m potential time. Thus a male who records exactly five seconds has the potential to run 400m in 52 secs. A female who records six seconds has a potential 400m time of 63 secs. When the 400m potential time has not been achieved, it is usually because sprint training repetitions have not exceeded 200m. The burning of sugar (glycolysis) in a 400m race starts after 300m, so work involving 350m full-out sprints is required.

It may be trite to say that poor sprint ability will not improve if it is ignored. Small amounts of sprint work done every other day in winter will get the reflexes toned up. All distance runners should have a sprint coach as well as their own distance-running coach. To ignore this often leads to the athlete becoming a one-pace runner.