100% VO2max Development Concepts

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    A few different “conditioning” ideas have been discussed in other threads but this thread will explain a VO2max development concept that we’ve been testing the last year. VO2max training is gaining traction in other sports but is still poorly designed in most programs. No matter which events you swim, VO2max is critically important to the amount of quality training you can accomplish and to recovery. 100% VO2max is also a weird term in physiology; it doesn’t actually represent the highest effort you can achieve but relates to all the energy systems working at maximum capacity at any given time — respiratory muscle, the heart, the vascular system, muscle oxygenation, oxidation cycle, phosphagen regeneration, glycogen usage, and gluconeogenesis. Below 100% only aerobic capacity is heavily stressed; above 100% only anaerobic capacity is heavily stressed (there are differences in trained and untrained populations).

    The general structure of a USRPT set is based on aerobic development through anaerobic stress using intervals which may improve VO2max. The only thing missing is an exact point where we can stress 100% VO2max. Events under 200y/m (for experienced swimmers) are all executed well above 100% VO2max. 200’s are probably in the 110-130% range, 100’s in the 150-160% zone, and 50’s are sprint efforts.

    Just as every other USRPT concept focuses on specificity, in order to improve 100% VO2max we must train in the 100% zone. For trained athletes, a continuous high-effort lasting 5-6 minutes will plateau VO2 for about 4 minutes. From research, an athlete running a mile in 4 minutes will be at or above 100% VO2max for about 2 minutes and peaks at about 107%. But because these are continuous efforts to failure they are very hard to repeat during a training session.

    2-4 minutes of stress is not enough time to change the delivery system. In order to induce adaptations to our energy delivery architecture, we really should apply stress for 12-18 minutes. We tested a couple of program designs on an electronic stationary bike. :60 work/:20 rest worked fairly well but progressive overload to :72 work/15: rest probably fell well outside our desired range. :40 work/:20 rest with overload to :48/:12 seemed to keep the training in the desired zone.

    So, it seems that 50’s @ 200 pace, :30/:20 is a little too fast and (for me) 100’s @ 500 pace 1:10/:20 is a little too slow. The optimal 100% zone is probably obtained using 75’s. :49-50/:20 as long as I can do at least 11 repetitions and preferably 16 before changing a variable. Find the :40-:60 second distance/intensity combination the athlete can maintain for at least 12 minutes before failure. Try to keep rest under 22 seconds. Also, I don’t think multiple failures are really beneficial for this training session. In the cycling tests, we never did more than 1 failure and progression was consistent. Save the anaerobic energy for the event relevant sets.

    Training in the 100% zone just means the athlete is optimizing VO2max development which will improve their ability to train at every other pace. This is the much sought after “aerobic base”. Any other pace used as “aerobic base” training is LESS efficient.

    After building initial VO2max the athlete can transition to race-specific paces and sets focused on technical development but I would maintain a VO2max session 1-2 times a week throughout a macrocycle. Again, just 12-18 minutes will induce adaptations to the weakest point in the architecture.

    Bronze-Level USRPT Coach
    Gold-Level Coaching Candidate


    Hi Ryan,

    A question re your 5th para where you discuss ideal swim pace/rest interval. What do you mean by “I don’t think multiple failures are beneficial”. Do you mean that the swimmer should “complete the set” i.e. if you went 12 75s at 50:20 (=1:10), you should do all 12 reps off a 1:10 turn around? Or do you mean to stop after 1 failure? If so what if that is rep #3?

    Given that this is about an approixmate Vo2Max rather than pace, isn’t it always better to complete the set and get the work in?



    Yes, stop at 1 failure. But it’s a guideline. If the distance and pace are closer to an event like the 500 then treat it as a regular USRPT set. If it’s in addition to work for 200/100/50 swimmers then use it as a “conditioning” set.

    You want to find a pace and interval that yields about 11-16 reps. If they die at 3 well something was wrong or the set was misprogrammed. I tell my guys to slow down on the first rep all the time cuz they take it out 3-4 seconds too fast.

    “Given that this is about an approximate Vo2Max rather than pace, isn’t it always better to complete the set and get the work in?”

    I’ve gone back and forth on this. On a 1:10 interval 12 reps is 14 minutes. I’m usually in the 12-16 range to failure with this set. If I do 7-8 one day I just move on to the actual race sets (I’m 100/50 free and fly). I’m not sure what the value of resting another 1:10 then trying to get your system back to 100% VO2max is. If you do 3 more reps to failure, you probably hit 100% somewhere in rep 2, then exceeded 100% on rep 3. So, half of the reps at the restart are just working back to the desired level. This adds another 4:40 to the set. I could’ve just rested during that time and moved to my pace sets…

    However, if this set is for purely fitness reasons then yes, finding and maintaining a VO2max pace/interval that you can maintain for 15-20 minutes is going to be the MOST efficient use of your time. You might be surprised how adding 5 seconds to the rest period allows you to maintain a target pace much longer. 10 reps using 50:20 might turn into 16 using 50:25.

    Another observation:
    When you’re getting back in shape, 100% VO2max doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be breathing hard. If the delivery deficiency is in the local peripheral muscle then the pulling muscles will get that slight burning sensation and lose power. It usually takes 4-8 sessions to get into the “had to stop cuz I couldn’t catch my breath” failure.

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