The Mad Max Program: Improve VO2 Max And Critical Power!

If you're a competitive athlete who is forced, by athletic necessity, to use your lower extremities to propel you toward a particular destination (i.e. end zone, soccer goal, hockey net, etc.), you've undoubtedly heard of the infamous VO2 max.

If you're a competitive athlete who is forced, by athletic necessity, to use your lower extremities to propel you toward a particular destination (i.e. end zone, soccer goal, hockey net, etc.), you've undoubtedly heard of the infamous VO2 max.

You know, VO2 max, the often-misunderstood measure of oxygen consumptive capacity. VO2 max, the ever-measured but often-overestimated determinant of performance.

VO2 Max, What The Heck Is It?

For starters, VO2 max is a measure of the body's ability to take up, transport and utilize oxygen. Being principally aerobic organisms (yep even you weight trainers are principally aerobic), it should come as no surprise that it's important for both daily functionality and for athletic performance.

In fact, its importance is underscored by decades and decades of research and thousands of research papers examining this physiological parameter (which is measured in terms of liters of Oxygen consumed per minute or, adjusted for body mass, in terms of milliliters of Oxygen consumed per kilogram of body weight per minute).

Why's This VO2 Max Thing Is So Important?

When VO2 max is moderately high, there is a large buffer zone in which energy can be generated efficiently (i.e. aerobically). When performed with low to moderate aerobic demands, activities can be carried out with much more comfort for much longer periods.

The most extreme example of what it means to suffer from a low VO2 max is obvious in the elderly. Many elderly individuals have VO2 max values that are 1/4 or 1/5 of their younger counterparts.

For these individuals, the activities of daily living can exceed their aerobic abilities (VO2 max) and they generate lactic acid doing things as simple as carrying groceries, walking, climbing stairs. Like when healthy individuals lift weights, granny feels the burn while walking in the garden. And that burn leads to rapid fatigue.

Obviously, on the other end of the spectrum, many elite athletes can consume oxygen at double the rates that most normal people (2x the VO2 max) and this means that with such high VO2 max values, the oxygen cost of running a 5-6 minute mile is well below the VO2 max for them.

Therefore during this type of intense work, they consume oxygen, generate little lactate, and aren't forced to slump over and pray for a quick death (as I would be in trying to run a 5-minute mile).

But Stop Right There!

One error many individuals tend to make is to assume that since VO2 max is a measure of how much total oxygen you're equipped to consume, it must be a primary determinant of aerobic exercise performance. It isn't. In fact, while having an above average VO2 max is essential for being a good aerobic athlete, it cannot explain the difference between the winners and the also rans.

The main determinant of performance is instead, something called critical power. Critical power is the maximal intensity that an individual can maintain forever (theoretically, of course) without fatigue.

If you take 2 athletes and one can run at 10 mph without fatigue (but 11 mph causes rapid fatigue) while another can run at 11 mph without fatigue (while 12 mph causes rapid fatigue), smart money is on the second guy, regardless of his VO2 max. Having a high VO2 max and a high critical power are the keys to aerobic success.

Let me clarify one thing though. Since most people associate the phrase "aerobic athlete" with distance runners or cyclists, I want to clarify that many other athletes also benefit from improved critical power and VO2 max including hockey players, soccer players, etc.

Therefore a training program that can improve both parameters in a short period of time is a program that should be put in place during an athlete's base training.

Since you need a mad max and it's critical to have critical power, the question becomes "how do I get some?" Well that's what I'm here for. Recent research has revealed several effective protocols (1,2,3,4) and I'm about to present one I use with my athletes. I call it, not surprisingly, the Mad Max program.

Endurance training of the past consisted of training at sub maximal work rates (significantly below VO2 max) for long periods of time. When training like this, VO2 max does improve however critical power does not reap the same rewards.

New evidence points to high intensity interval training (at VO2 max) for increases in both max and critical power.

In order to determine the appropriate intensity for Mad Max training, I recommend the following:

  1. Using an incremental exercise test, find your Vmax (maximum velocity). This can be accomplished by getting on a treadmill, setting it for anywhere between 7 and 9 mph and beginning at 0% elevation. Then, with each subsequent minute, you will increase the grade by 1% until you're exhausted (i.e. you fall over). The last work rate that you can hold for at least 30 seconds before zooming off the back of the treadmill (most people zoom off between 8 and 12 percent elevation) is your Vmax.
  2. Once Vmax is determined and the belt burns are healed, you'll return, well rested, to your nemesis (that treadmill) and perform a Tmax (maximum time) test. Basically you'll set that treadmill for Vmax (same speed and grade), and exercise to complete exhaustion (yep, more belt burn). Most athletes can stay on the treadmill at this intensity for 200-300 seconds (1,2,3).
  3. *Now that you have Vmax and Tmax, you design your workout intervals by performing your exercise at Vmax for 70-75% of Tmax (1,2). For example, if your Vmax is 8 mph and 10% grade and your Tmax is 200 seconds, you will perform intervals at 8 mph and 10% grade for 140-150 seconds at a time (2,3).
  4. Using a 1:1 or a 1:2 ratio is optimal work to rest ratio for aerobic training (4). When beginning this program, your rest periods should be 2x your work periods. Therefore if Tmax is 140-150 seconds (2+ minutes), your rest time would be 280-300 seconds (4+ minutes). If you can use a 1:1 ratio, go for it. However, repeated efforts of this magnitude will lead to performance decrements rapidly.

    *Since this program rapidly improves VO2 max and critical power, reevaluate your Vmax and Tmax every 4 weeks to determine your new work and interval duration.

  5. So now that you have your intensity and rest-to-work ratio prescriptions, what about volume? Typically I recommend between 6-8 repetitions. This makes for a super intense workout lasting approximately 45 - 60 minutes.
  6. Finally, let's talk frequency. Since this workout is so intense, it's important not to over do it. Therefore performing 2-3 workouts of this type per week is the upper limit.

In Summary ...

  • Intensity and Interval Duration: Vmax performed at 70-75% of Tmax
  • Work to Rest Ratio: 1:2
  • Volume: 6-8 repetitions
  • Frequency: 2-3 times per week

So, how well does this program work? In one study by Smith and colleagues at the University of Tazmania (Australia), in just 4 short weeks, this type of training increased Vmax by 1km/hr, Tmax by 75 seconds, VO2 max by 3ml/kg*min (from an already respectable 61.3 up to 64.3ml/kg*min), and improved performance in the 3,000-meter run time trial by a whopping 17 seconds! These types of improvements are simply awesome.

If you're an athlete looking for a way to improve your aerobic capacity while training at a high level of quality, Mad Max is the way to go.


  • Smith et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1999 Jun;31(6):892-6
  • Hill et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1997 Jan;29(1):113-6
  • Hill et al. Int J Sports Med 1997 Jul;18(5):325-9
  • Vuroimaa et al. Int J Sports Med 2000 Feb;21(2):96-101