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today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

If You Want to Win, Train at a High Percentage of VO2 Max

By Frank Horwill

The world's leading work physiologists agree that about one-third of the total weekly mileage should be devoted to work between 80 and 100 per cent of VO2 max.

All this is very well, but supposing the athlete has never raced many of these distances (speeds), and has no access to a heart-rate monitor? One quite accurate assessment is to use the 4-second rule for men and the 5-second one for females. This is how it works.

John is a 4:00 / 1,500m runner, which is 64 secs a lap. If we now add 4 secs to this (68 secs), that is his forecast for running 3K. If we add a further 4 secs to the 3km prediction (72 secs), that is his forecast for 5km. The forecast for 10km would be 76 secs / 400m.

For women, we follow the same method using a 5 sec differential. For instance, Mary is a 4:30 / 1,500m runner, which is 72 secs / 400m. Thus her predicted times for 3km, 5km and 10km are 77 secs / 400m (9:37.5), 82 secs / 400m (17:17.5) and 87 secs / 400m (36:15) respectively. In John's case, his forecast is 8:30 / 3km, 15mins / 5km, and 31:40 / 10km. At world-class level, the 4 second and 5 second rules are considerably less - for example, the speeds per 400m in the 5km is 62 secs, and in the 10 km, 64.8secs / 400m.

The athlete is now in a position to work out fairly accurately what speed he needs to run at to get into the high-boosting VO2 max zone.

Here's John's programme

Let's assume that John is about to start winter training. On Sunday he goes for a long-slow run of two hours at around 70% VO2 max. Next day he wants to run for one hour at 80% VO2 max. He has never raced 10km but his estimated speed is 31:40 or about 5:03 per mile. 80% VO2 max is 16secs / mile slower (5:19 / mile). So he runs, or attempts to run, for one hour at this speed, and if all goes well he will cover about 11 miles. He can always make adjustments if it proves a little too exhausting, but at least he knows the target to aim at.

The day after this, he wants a recuperative run, so he runs for 45 minutes and is able to talk to his training partner most of the way. Refreshed from the easy run the day before, he decides to train at his estimated 10km pace of 31:40 (76 secs / 400m), and does 3 x 2 miles in 10:06 with 200m jog recovery or 90 sec rest.

Next day is a slowish run for an hour but the day After this he goes for a big VO2 max booster, the estimated 5km pace. Repetition miles look a little daunting, so he opts for 6 x 1km at the estimated speed of 72 secs / 400m, which is 3 mins / 1km with 60 secs rest. He has a day off and starts the same type of work again, but this time he swops the 95% VO2 max session (5K pace) for one at 100% VO2 max (3km pace) - so he tries 16 x 400 in 68secs with 45secs rest.

The overall week's work would look like this:

Sunday: 70% VO2 max, two-hour run (about 16-18 miles).

Monday: 80% VO2 max, one hour (about 11 miles).

Tuesday: 70% VO2 max, 45mins (about 6-8 miles).

Wednesday: 90% VO2 max (10km speed), 3 x 2 miles in 10:06, 90 secs rest.

Thursday: 70% VO2 max, one hour (7-9 miles).

Friday: 95% VO2 max (5km speed), 6 x 1K in 3mins with 60 secs rest.

Saturday: Rest

Sunday: Begins cycle again.

Why to start fast

Now, traditionalists of the old Lydiard school will look a little askance at winter work starting with so much comparatively fast work. The Lydiard concept of working up to 100 miles a week at 75% VO2 max certainly does improve the oxygen uptake by about 17 per cent to 75 miles per week, but after that there is little return.

Research has shown that in two groups of equal ability who started their winter build-up in different ways (one concentrated on steady running which progressively increased, the other incorporated the preceding high VO2 max sessions from the outset and maintained a set mileage pattern without progressions) that, while both groups advanced, the high VO2 max percentage group were vastly superior when tested. What's more, their injury was no worse and no better than the other group.

The point which must be stressed over and over again to European and Western distance runners is that research shows that, on average, black runners in Africa are doing one-third of their total mileage each week in the 80-100% VO2 max zone, compared to only 10 per cent by European athletes.

Here's an alternative programme

Astrand has a programme with which he believes the oxygen uptake can best be improved. The advantage of his method is in its simplicity and variety. Here is a week-by-week table of his recommendations.

Week 1: Run five minutes at maximum effort. Note the distance run. Then run the same distance 20 per cent slower. For example, supposing 2km is covered in five minutes (you would have to be world- class to do this! but most male club runners can handle 1,800m and most females 1,600m). Twenty per cent slower to run the same distance would be 300 secs + 60 secs = 6 mins, repeated many times with 30 secs recovery. This is about 85% VO2 max.

Week 2: Run the same distance as achieved in Week 1, this time 15 per cent slower, eg, distance run, 2km, run 2km in 5:45 with 45 secs rest, repeated until the time cannot be recorded. This is about 90% VO2 max.

Week 3: Run the same distance as in Week 1, now 10 per cent slower (10 per cent faster than in Week 1), eg distance run, 2km, run 2km in 5:30 many times with 60 secs rest. This is about 95% VO2 max.

Week 4: Same distance as Week 1 run 5 per cent slower, eg, distance, 2km, run 2km in 5:15 with 75 secs rest. This is about 100% VO2 max.

In the second following month, a maximum time of only four minutes can be run. For example, if 1,600m is covered during this time, 20 per cent slower would be 240 secs + 48 secs (4:48), repeated four times with 90 secs rest. This is about 95% VO2 max. Ten per cent slower would be 1600m in 4:24 x 3 with two minutes rest. This is about 105% VO2 max. In the third month, a maximum run of three minutes can be done. For example, if 1,200m is covered in three minutes, 20 per cent slower would be 180 secs + 36 secs (3:36). Repeated as many times as possible with 60 secs rest. This is about 90% VO2 max. Ten per cent slower (3:18 for 1,200m) would be about 97% VO2 max.

Or try this

Another variation is to do a five-minute run one week, followed by a four-minute effort the next week and concluding with a three-minute outing in the third week, starting with 20 per cent slower efforts reducing to 10 per cent. Two such efforts per week will suffice. Although there have been criticisms about the validity of VO2 max readings as a means of forecasting performance, these are mainly directed at times achieved in longer distances. World-class performers up to 10km have had consistently high readings. Here are some scores: Roger Bannister, VO2 max 78, world mile record in 3:58; Seb Coe, VO2 max 82.6, 1:41.73/800m, 12 world records; Steve Cram, VO2 max 82.1, world mile record in 3:46.31; Said Aouita, VO2 max 82.1, world 1,500m record in 3:29.45; Ingrid Kristiansen, VO2 max 70, world 10km record in 30:59.42.