Posted On Feb 18, 2022 |

Improving your ability to utilise oxygen is something every cyclist can benefit from but how can you improve it and importantly why should you?

Power on the bike can be generated in two ways, aerobically (using oxygen) and anaerobically (without oxygen).

Although the anaerobic system is quick to deliver energy it is a time-limited system due to the fatigue-inducing by-products, it creates (lactic acid). As a cyclist, it is better to produce power aerobically as much as you possibly can, because you will be able to sustain that power for longer.

The higher your Vo2 max, the greater your capacity to utilise oxygen, which means the higher the ceiling is of your aerobic ability. Your Vo2 max defines the size of your aerobic engine.

So, what is this Vo2 max that we hear so much about?

There is a clue in one of its other nicknames 'aerobic capacity', in that it is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can effectively consume. It is important to differentiate oxygen intake (your breathing rate) from oxygen uptake (what is actually processed). Breathing harder and deeper does not increase uptake, this is an element that needs training.

Vo2 max is quantified by ml/kg/min but in cycling terms, we are more interested in your power at Vo2 max, which lies between 105% - 120% of your FTP with a time range of between 3 to 8 minutes.

Although genetics do play some part in your Vo2 max, most of the factors that determine your Vo2 max ARE actually trainable, which is great news for us all!

Yes, elite athletes will be operating at or very close to their genetic potential, but it's rare for the average cyclist who has to train around work and life commitments to hit their genetic ceiling. So this key factor in your cycling performance will have some scope for improvement.

Benefits of a high Vo2 Max

So now we know what is VO2 Max….What are the benefits and why should you try and improve your VO2 Max?

- Ability to sustain medium-hard efforts for longer – Oxygen is important during exercise as it is used to break down the carbohydrates, fats and protein in your body into usable fuel for your muscles. If less oxygen is available, your muscles will fatigue quicker due to a build-up of lactic acid.

- Improved FTP Score - More oxygen in your bloodstream means less lactic acid will be produced for a given workload so you can train harder.

- Improved recovery from hard efforts – Your body will be able to clear fatiguing by-products such as lactic acid from the body quicker.

- Reduced stress levels - A higher fitness level can prevent physiological stress from accumulating.

- Boosted immune system – An improved VO2 Max means you will have an increased amount of oxygen in your body. As you exercise your blood flow increases and enables your immune cells to perform more effectively, which can help to strengthen your antibodies, meaning you will get sick less often.

How to improve your VO2 Max?

If you are new to cycling then just riding on a consistent basis can improve your Vo2 max and almost any kind of training will be of help. If you've been cycling for some time though, you will need to become more focused on dedicated structured training to further improve this key determinant of cycling performance.

One of the best ways to train this particular energy system is via interval sessions of around 3 minutes at 110 - 120% of your FTP. If you've ever tried Vo2 max intervals then you will know just how demanding they can be, which is where the added impetus of a group training session can really make a difference.

Here at Njinga, we offer a weekly Vo2 max based training session on our schedule at key times of the season. Although there are a multitude of ways and formats that you can effectively train in the Vo2 max zone (aka Zone 5) here at Njinga we employ a 'peak and fade' protocol, where the power target actually drops for the final minute of each interval.

COACH TIP: VO2 max training sessions are hard and therefore should be performed in moderation. We recommend just one VO2 Max based training session a week for maximum benefit.

Image above: Njinga session structure - 5 x 3-minute intervals at 115% of FTP for 2minutes followed by 1 minute at 105% of FTP.

The reason for this drop-off in the final minute is that it allows you to continue working for the required duration, and extend the effort out to 3 minutes. Despite this drop-off, initially set at 10%, you will still be working with a very elevated heart rate and therefore the high oxygen uptake that you need in order to bring about the desired adaptations.

Another reason is that it allows our athletes to progress at their own rate, as they become stronger they are encouraged to gradually raise the drop-off across all intervals until it is at the same power as the first two minutes.

As our cyclists get stronger we first encourage them to increase their effort in the final 1-minute block of each interval to 110% - Up from 105%. 

Image Above: VO2 Max session progression – For the final 1 minute you will increase your effort to 110% of your FTP score – A 5% increase.

Over time as our riders become stronger we encourage our riders to hold 115% of their FTP for the entire 3 minutes of each interval.

Image Above: VO2 Max session progression – You hold the same power for the final minute as you do for the first 2 minutes. Therefore the 3-minute blocks are all completed at 115% of FTP.

Once this is achieved the percentages of FTP for the first two minutes will be increased to 120% with a 10% drop-off for the final minute and the process starts again until the athlete is doing all intervals at 120% for 3 minutes, which is the 'gold standard'.

COACH TIP: Ensure you are well rested before attempting this session as it’s all about quality over quantity when it comes to training smart. 


Now that you have an understanding of how, by stressing the very upper end of your aerobic range, you will benefit all of your cycling via a trickle-down effect, we hope you will be motivated to commit to a weekly Vo2 max based session whenever they appear on the Njinga timetable. These sessions will not only raise your FTP but provide the necessary room for it to grow, even more, this pain WILL be rewarded with the proportionate gain.

Keep your eyes peeled for our VO2 Max session returning to our schedule soon.

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Chris is a senior Njinga Cycling Coach and qualified Level 3 Cycling Coach. Chris takes regular group training sessions at the Lab and our structured 8-week programme sessions and is a keen and experienced road cyclist himself. To find out more about Chris and other members of the Njinga Team visit our About Us page.

Categories: Indoor Training