When to De-emphasize VO2 max Training in Cross Country

Posted by Scott Christensen

Since the early days of exercise science testing and experimentation, it has been accepted that aerobic power development is one of four training domains used in preparing distance runners.  Consider the combined energy zone events of the 800 meters through the 10,000 meters; including both short and long cross country competitions.  Improvement in the anaerobic glycolytic domain in all of these races hinges on better management of hydrogen/lactate ion presence; while aerobically, the three domains are: improving running economy, shifting the lactate threshold, and boosting aerobic power.  These three aerobic domains have a sliding influence based on the distance of the race.  The shorter distance races lean more toward aerobic power, while the longer races lean more toward running economy.  Today we will consider how this relates to when to deemphasize VO2 max training.

For exercise scientists studying aerobic power, there is a maximum rate of oxygen consumption that can be measured during incremental exercise, or exercise of increasing intensity.  This maximum value is called VO2 max (V is volume, O2 is molecular oxygen, and max is maximum). 

Maximal oxygen consumption reflects the cardiovascular and respiratory fitness of an individual.  For distance coaches, VO2 max is an important determinant of aerobic power during prolonged exercise and is a crucial variable in race performance.


* Training Resource: Speed Development for Distance Runners


In experienced runners, once the VO2 max system is nearly developed through a combination of athlete physical maturity, and plenty of prior vVO2 max work, a switch to the other two training domains of lactate threshold and running economy is necessary for continued success.  The training route most commonly taken is to implement a series of workouts that fractionalizes individual vVO2 max intensity into longer training runs.  These can be done as either continuous runs or inter-style workouts as shown in table 1.  

Let’s look at a couple of case studies on how vVO2 max fractionization can be used in training to either add to or replace 100% vVO2 max work.

  1. Shannon is a junior and has been on both the high school varsity cross country and track teams for the past two years. She has run 5:05 for 1600 meters, 11:12 for 3200 meters, and 18:43 for 5000 meters in cross country.  Her tempo run pace always correlates to her 85% vVO2 max date pace and she seems to recover in 24 hours from the workout.  As expected, her improvement has slowed a bit as she has gotten older.  Let’s diagnose Shannon and look at specific training.  Shannon no doubt has a mature VO2 max system already in place, so despite continued workouts at vVO2 max pace, it is not going to improve much.  Her aerobic capacity work, mainly done as long runs, are her favorite thing to do because they come easily to her.  Typically, females are a couple of years ahead of males in VO2 max development, and some more than that.  If Shannon is to get faster at distance races, then her best route to success is to try to raise her LT pace from 85% vVO2 max to a value closer to 90% vVO2 max.  Her LT paced workouts need to evolve from continuous tempo runs to critical velocity (CV) runs done as intervals (table 1). To address this, Shannon should continue to do vVO2 max paced training sessions bi-weekly beginning half-way through the general preparation period, and concurrently do CV paced runs bi-weekly at the same time; doing both all the way to the championship meets in the competition period.  When Shannon begins the CV interval sessions she will first have to start with a 3200 meter test to determine her vVO2 max date pace and then do the mathematics to determine CV pace. Let’s say on August 10, Shannon runs 11:40 to exhaustion for a 3200 meter time trial, so her present-day vVO2 max pace is 5:50 per mile.  For the next fourteen weeks, Shannon should do seven spaced workouts at her date CV pace, in this case, 90% vVO2 max, to improve her LT.  The typical total volume for each of the seven sessions should be 4-5 miles done as intervals.  The date pace for Shannon is set at 350 seconds (5:50/mile) divided by .90 for a workout pace of 6:28 per mile, but she will not run a full mile at that pace, so one more mathematical division must be done. Shannon’s typical CV workout is 6 x 1000 meters with 90 seconds recovery between each repetition.  Her calculated date pace for today is 6:28/mile or 4:03/1000 meters.  As her 3200 improves throughout the year, the fractionally derived CV pace will too.
  1. Jack is a 21-year-old junior in a successful collegiate program. His athlete profile for 5000 meter personal bests notes 14:35 as a freshman and 14:21 as a sophomore. His desire is to compete in 10 kilometer championship track and cross country races over the remaining two years of school.  In high school, his best marks were 4:14 for the 1600 meters and 9:15 for the 3200 meters.  Jack’s improvement has slowed a bit as he has gotten older and the chances of running sub 14:00 in college have dimmed.  Let’s diagnose Jack and look at specific training.  Jack has spent his career stimulating adaptation to his VO2 max system and it has reached developmental maturity. So, despite continued workouts at vVO2 max pace, it is not going to improve much more.  In moving to frequent LT work sessions, Jack will not only shift to an aerobic capacity emphasis to perform well at 10k, but his 5k time may drop as well; probably lower than it ever would have with just continued vVO2 max paced work.  During each week of training, Jack should do a long run with frequent surges that accounts for 22% of his weekly volume, a tempo run of five miles at 85% of his vVO2 max, and a critical velocity (CV) pace workout.  The rest of the week is basically recovery runs at the aerobic threshold.  A typical CV work session for Jack would be 4 x 2000 meters at 90% of vVO2 max with two minutes of recovery between repeats.  Follow this unit with five minutes rest and then do 3 x 200 meters at 800 meter pace with 90 seconds recovery between repeats.

Aerobic power training exercises are not done in isolation from the other aerobic domains.  Work sessions directed toward VO2 max improvement also concurrently improve aerobic capacity and running economy.  Greater aerobic power can also help shift the lactate threshold to a higher pace. 


* Coaching Resource: Advanced Topics Symposium in Cross Country


Running economy, which is the efficiency a distance runner consumes food energy and oxygen molecules to facilitate movement, is dependent on aerobic power because the economy too is heavily dependent on greater blood flow to the muscles.  Running economy improves with VO2 max training, as does lactate threshold velocity.  However, there comes a time when VO2 max training needs to be deemphasized and economy and lactate threshold training emphasized with specifically targeted workouts if further development of the cross country runner is to occur.





Scott Christensen - Scott Christensen’s teams have been ranked in the national top 10 eight times. He won the 1997 High School National Championship and his squads have captured multiple Minnesota State Championships. Scott has coached 13 Minnesota State Championship-winning teams and 27 individual Minnesota State Champions. He was the USTFCCCA Endurance Specialist School junior team leader for the World Cross Country Team in 2003 and the senior team leader in 2008. Scott is a 14-year USATF Level II endurance lead instructor.

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