Embrace the pain with high intensity intervals: VO2 Max - Tabata Style

Coach Deena Blacking talks us through one of Zwifts tough but beneficial high intensity workouts

This article has been produced in association with Zwift

It’s January, which means that motivation to train is at an all-time high. After a few weeks off, the legs are also fresh and ready to go. It’s the perfect moment to kick-start your training and dig into some of the more difficult structured workouts available on Zwift. 

In the second of this series of articles examining some of the best structured workouts on Zwift, we turn our attention to performance improvement with high intensity intervals. This week, coach Deena Blacking of Drivetrain.cc put Rouleur staffer Ben Bathurst to task on a 40-minute high intensity interval workout, ‘VO2 Max – 3 x 4 Tabata Style’. The workout is from week two of Pebble Pounder but it’s also an excellent standalone session for anyone who wants to get the most out of their training.

Read more: Introductory intervals - how to get started on boosting your endurance with indoor training

Before we take a closer look at the workout, here’s a quick reminder for your own workout selection process – every time you are searching for a training session, ask yourself four key questions:

(1) What is the fitness goal? 

(2) How much time do you have? 

(3) How much variety do you need in a workout to stay motivated? 

(4) How difficult do you want it to be?

What is the workout? In detail

The ‘VO2 Max – 3 x 4 Tabata Style’ session is a 40-minute long high intensity interval session. This is an advanced workout for endurance athletes who want to improve their VO2 max and win races. It’s not for the faint-hearted - it will push your heart and lungs to the maximum, so don’t choose to do this unless you are ready for the challenge.  

After a 15-minute warm up, the meat of the workout consists of three four-minute blocks of very hard micro-interval work. In each four-minute block of work, you perform eight repetitions of 20 seconds on (at 119% of functional threshold power (FTP)) and 10 off. After each four-minute block of hard work, you get four to five minutes of recovery. 

In total, there are only eight minutes of hard work. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it might be the hardest eight minutes that you do all week!

If you choose to take it on this challenge, you can be guaranteed these three benefits:

  1. Train both your aerobic and anaerobic systems 
  2. Highly focused hard work - micro intervals keep you engaged
  3. Improve your ability to suffer
  • Train both your aerobic and anaerobic systems 

  • As endurance athletes, we rely mainly on two energy systems - the slower burn aerobic system which uses oxygen, and the higher intensity anaerobic system, which doesn’t. Think of it as the steady diesel engine and the rocket turbo booster. The diesel aerobic system won’t propel you across the sprint finish line first, but it gets you there. The turbo anaerobic energy system gives you the boost to tolerate the surges, to make an attack or to win the sprint finish; but it’s short-lived. Your endurance performance is therefore reliant on both systems.  

    When we train below FTP, we mainly train the aerobic system. In this Zwift session, you spend three blocks of four minutes working well above your FTP. You’re not quite at your VO2 max, but you're close to it. The workout is therefore making demands on both systems, giving you an excellent bang for your buck when it comes to improving your endurance fitness for performance. 

    “It’s really motivating to see the performance improving,” says Ben.I really enjoy hitting the numbers set by the coach or the Zwift workout. For amateur riders like myself, hitting these power zones outside can be really hard.”

  • Highly focused hard work

  • Hard work is, well, hard. Even the best athletes can dread an intense interval workout. This Zwift workout remediates that problem by breaking down the challenge into more tolerable 20-second chunks. 

    “The short burst was really easy to focus, get 20 seconds done and then spend the 10-second cool down turning the fan up and getting some water in,” says Ben. I sometimes find that, on the longer intervals, I zone out a little and don’t really focus on the session in the same way.” 

    In workouts like this, you can also help yourself to manage the challenge by counting down to the end of every interval.

  • Improve your ability to suffer

  • It’s possible to get very fit by doing a lot of work below FTP. However, if you want to race and compete, training is not only about making fitness gains. It’s also about making mental gains. Some of the world’s best bike racers are not purely physiologically strong – they also know how to suffer better than the rest. The best athletes are comfortable with being uncomfortable. 

    ‘You won’t grow in a comfort zone’ is a phrase that is often said in performance sport - for good reason. Working well above your functional threshold power is not easy. Doing so will make you a mentally tougher athlete. If you make a consistent habit of structured workouts which push you out of your comfort zone, you’re almost guaranteed to see performance improvements.

    A final pro tip – fuelling!

    As a coach, one of the most common mistakes that I see athletes make is under-fuelling their indoor workouts. Do you try to drive your car with an empty tank? The same logic applies to exercise, especially challenging high intensity workouts like this one. 

    Even though it was just an hour, a banana or energy bar was definitely needed before the ride,” says Ben. “And I had a cookie to hand for an immediate post-ride snack!”

    It’s true that your body can store carbohydrates for up to around 90 minutes of work, but it may not always be the case – for example, the day’s activities or a chronic insufficiency of carbohydrates in your diet may mean that you don’t have enough fuel on board. When in doubt, consume some carbohydrates in the hours prior to your workout.

    If you want to make performance improvements, fuelling needs to be a key part of your plan.

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