Getting Unstuck from Doing Long Slow Distance to Increase VO(2max)

From the mid-1980s to the late-1990s while competing in Biathlon and Cross Country Skiing our coaches taught us that long slow distance (LSD) would improve aerobic conditioning and VO(2max), the maximum volume of oxygen our body could process. Having a high VO(2max) was supposed to be a predictor of performance. We diligently went along with this paradigm until the debate started between LSD and High Intensity Intervals (HIT). Optimum performance is achieved through a careful, scientific and artful balance between training volume and intensity.

This paradigm shifted to more specific measurements of heart rate at VO(2max) and heart rate at Lactate Balance Point (Anaerobic Threshold or LT), but what becomes more valuable goals are to 1) increase the speed at VO(2max) and LT and 2) increase how long can you maintain these paces, T(max) and T(LT).

As a busy entrepreneur and health professional I am always looking at ways to minimize the amount of training time I need, while maximizing the long term performance benefits of the training I do complete without injuring myself; the same as professional and recreational athletes.

My goal is to regain the level of fitness I had 10-15 years ago. One measure of fitness is my VO(2max) which in 1995 was 69ml/kg/min which was measured on a bike in a university laboratory. There are many inexpensive and fairly easy to execute treadmill tests to assess your level of fitness. I chose one that increases the incline and has a steady pace, it is also suitable for endurance athletes (see test). After 6.5 minutes with a speed of 7.0mph, incline of 10% and a heart rate of 188 bpm my legs couldn’t go any further. This put me at an estimated VO(2max) of 55ml/kg/min, excellent for my age group.

How do I increase that over the next 4-6 weeks? While training 15-20 years ago that would have been by using the long slow distance runs and roller-skis. In 2003, it was shown that intervals at V·VO(2max) of 60% of T(max) is more ideal for increasing VO(2max) in trained runners than 70% of T(max). In moderately trained runners a later study manipulated the interval times and intensities. The authors showed that after 10 weeks of two interval sessions at 60% of T(max) at V·VO(2max) 8 x 1:1 with two recovery runs of 60 min at 75% of V·VO(2max) was slightly better than higher velocity intervals for improving VO(2max) and V(LT), however shorter more intense intervals with 4.5 min rest were shown to be more effective at training T(max) and V·VO(2max) (Esfarjan and Laursen, 2007).

Finding V·VO(2max) There are many different ways to determine your current, go to a laboratory if you want to be precise otherwise use the assessment as tool to see change when you re-test in 6 weeks. The Runner’s Edge author Matt Fitzgerald outlines ten Pace Zones and some easy assessments to figure out what your paces should be to achieve specific physiological adaptations. Having come from the school of five heart rate zones, I was surprised to learn that are actually some grey pace zones, zones where you are not getting as much benefit as you could be. Using the above test I know that my heart rate at VO(2max) is 188 bpm. This pace is confirmed a threshold pace test I completed a couple of weeks ago based on this PZ8 or V·VO(2max) is 8.9 mph – 9.02 mph.

Finding T(max) To find T(max) a treadmill or track, find a speed that elicits your heart rate at VO(2max), for me that was 188 bpm. After a proper warm-up, generally 10 minutes easy to moderate pace, time how long you can maintain the speed, as you fatigue your heart rate will increase for the same speed.

What Intervals are Optimal? Intervals combine a work period with a rest period. Prior to this bit of research I was completing VO(2max) interval sessions of 5 x 3:00 min at V·VO(2max): 3:00 min recovery walking at 4.0mph, twice per week and increased the work duration by 15s every training session. It took me about 90s to just get my heart rate above 170 bpm.

Perhaps if the recovery speed was a bit faster time at the higher heart rates would be longer. Runner’s Edge is challenging my concept of training only with heart rates. I monitor both my pace and heart. The fitter I get, the lower my heart rate is at a given pace.

Even with all the calculations, technology, pace zone settings and planning it still important that part of your analysis is learning the art of running with feeling. I will usually adapt my training plan according to how I feel that day or even during the session, for example during this morning’s base PZ3:PZ2 run I decided to take a longer recovery between intervals at about the 30 min mark.

Adapt your training plan to how you feel that day. Only do these types of runs twice per week and include some base and recovery runs at lower intensities.

Current plan is for 16 weeks, in 4 week intervals focus to first focus on VO(2max) while increasing base endurance then to switch to more speed endurance intervals to boost V·VO(2max) and T(max) as I approach the beginning of the Grouse Grind season in June and the taper for Seek the Peak in July.


Esfarjani F, Laursen PB. Manipulating high-intensity interval training: effects on VO2max, the lactate threshold and 3000 m running performance in moderately trained males. J Sci Med Sport. 2007 Feb; 10(1):27-35. Epub 2006 Jul 2

Smith TP, Coombes JS, Gergahty, DP Optimising high-intensity treadmill training using the running speed at maximal O(2) uptake and time that this can be maintained. Eur J Appl Physiolo 2003 May: 80(3-4):337-43.


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