Vo2Max Interval Workouts

VO2Max Interval Workouts

A majority of my athletes sign up for coaching with a primary goal in mind: run faster.

There are many types of workouts you can include in your training to get faster: tempo runs, speed workouts, and hill repeats. Speedwork is a broad term that can encompass many different types of workouts, one of the most effective of which is VO2max intervals.

VO2max is a technical term that refers to how much oxygen you consume during a run. (This article explains more about VO2max and its relationship to running.) The higher your VO2max, the more oxygen you consume and deliver to your muscles, and the faster you run.

Vo2Max Interval Workouts

When most runners think of VO2max intervals, they think of workouts done the track, such as 6 x 800m (½ mile or two laps around a standard track). However, you don’t need to hit the track in order to run fast. Time-based VO2max intervals on the road will increase your speed. The road will also add variation in terrain, which decreases risk of injury (especially if you are prone to IT band syndrome or runner’s knee) and make your workouts more race specific for races on the road.

Yes, time! There’s nothing magical about 800 meters (½ mile) on the track.  Your physiological systems don’t know pace and distance – they respond to time and effort.

The same workout could actually elicit different physiological responses from different levels of runners. Sub-elite athletes may complete 1K repeats at in less than 4 minutes, while back-of-the-pack runners may take over 6 minutes to run 1K. The sub-elite runner is running an appropriately hard VO2max workout, while the slower runner will be running a workout that is too physically demanding and that results in either slowing down or risking injury.

Research indicates that intervals lasting 3-5 minutes are optimal for improving your VO2max and aerobic capacity. Running at VO2max for less than 3 minutes and you may not fully reach your VO2max in the workout, while running at over 5 minutes makes it too strenuous to hold the appropriate pace. By running for time instead of distance, you keep the workout in the appropriate zone, no matter what level of runner you are.

You don’t want to skimp on the recovery intervals during VO2max interval workouts. You need to slow down during the recovery intervals and take your time to recover in order to keep running hard in the subsequent intervals.

As with any speed workout, you want to be running at least 15-20 miles per week before adding in speedwork. Be sure to include a sufficient warm up, including dynamic stretches.

Vo2Max Interval Workouts

VO2Max Interval Workouts


5 minute warm up at easy run pace
4 x 3 minutes hard, 2-3 minutes recovery jog
5 minute cool down at easy pace


15-20 minute warm-up at easy run pace
3-4 x 5 minutes at 3K-5K race effort, 3-4 minutes recovery jog in between
15-20 minute cool down at easy run pace

For the hard intervals, you want to run about a 8 on a scale of 1-10 (1 being a light jog, 10 being an all-out sprint). Jog as lightly as you need to during the recovery intervals to bring your breathing back to normal. For most runners, running at VO2max means 3K (2-mile) race effort or slightly faster than 5K race effort.

Do you prefer to run by time or distance for speedwork?

Share this post

16 Responses

  1. I’m usually a run for distance type gal but I started doing run for time intervals and kind of liked it. Those workouts were on the road but on the track I like distance. It’s more measurable to me which feels like there’s an end in sight!

    1. Running by time works so well on the roads, at least for shorter intervals. Plus with the track it’s measured out – no staring at the watch to countdown distance!

  2. Ah speed – so elusive and we work so very hard to get it! I love how you explain the right way to chase it here. I’m a big fan of time and not distance – my coach has taught me that. I’ve also become a master at HR zones so it’s like training in a whole different way and I love it!!

    1. It is so much work – months and months just to save some seconds off of each mile! I’ve noticed that about your workout when you share them and think it’s awesome – and clearly it pays off for you!!

  3. Good old VO2 Max. I prefer running economy and lactate threshold runs, but VO2 max is obviously important to developing better running economy. I just like the longer efforts of lactate threshold runs. I’m a curmudgeon, let me be 😀

  4. Great tips! I almost always run for distance, rather than time, but I love the idea of focusing more on time and effort. I’m hoping to get some VO2 max workouts in the next few weeks… I did very few over the last month or two, but shorter intervals are my favorite!

  5. Dang, I miss these types of workouts! I should write up a post specifically about how to run speed work safely during pregnancy. It’s hard because there’s no black and white rule. They used to say nothing over 140 bpm for heart rate, but of course you know that everyone’s heart rate is different. Then they say that as long as you’re able to hold a conversation (that you’re not breathing too hard) then you’re okay. But, man, I think it boils down to knowing our own bodies. I know I’m going off on a pregnancy tangent here, I’m sorry! I just really miss those REALLY hard workouts. I mostly like doing intervals by distance, but once in a while I’ll do them by time, and only on the treadmill.

    1. You should write a post about that! I bet there’s some research out there that supports running faster during pregnancy. The heart rate rule seems archaic and arbitrary.

  6. I first started running by time when I trained with you! I got really into those types of workouts for a while even after the half marathon! then I fell off with doing them by time but I am sort of back to those workouts again. they are great!

    1. I really like them because you can go with how you’re feeling that day – cover more or less distance in the time – and there’s not the pressure of a certain pace. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

subscribe to get 3 free (and fun!) speed workouts