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March 28, 2024

Nutrition Strategies: Increase Cycling VO2 Max

So you want to take your training to the next level? Maybe you want to squeeze out a few more watts to put in the (ever popular) big attack on your next group ride, or perhaps you've just thrown a race on your calendar and suddenly realized just how competitive you are. You know that VO2 Max is something you should care about, but apart from riding, you want to squeeze out a little bit extra and and really stick it to your latest frenemy.

Our emphasis in this post is integrating targeted dietary strategies into your training routine specifically to optimize VO2 Max. By focusing on VO2 Max nutrition, incorporating VO2 Max supplements like beta alanine, and adhering to training principles of VO2 Max improvement, we hope to shed some light on how you may increase your measured oxygen uptake effectively. Combining high-intensity workouts with precise nutritional choices, not only promises improvements in cycling performance but can also help in overcoming plateaus in aerobic capacity. As with any change in your diet and exercise regimen, we encourage you to do your own research and consult your doctor if you have doubts about what's best for you.

Understanding VO2 Max and its Importance for Cyclists

VO2 Max is a crucial measure of an athlete's peak oxygen uptake and more oxygen to the muscles means more you could say it's critical to strong cycling performance. Put more scientifically, VO2 Max quantifies the maximum volume of oxygen that your body can utilize during intense exercise and is typically expressed in milliliters per kilogram of body weight per minute.

Understanding the significance of VO2 max for cyclists is akin to appreciating the engine's role in a high-performance vehicle. This parameter is not only a hallmark of endurance sports performance but can also act as a carrot as it is a highly trainable metric that can see substantial improvements with dedicated training and nutrition.

Let's face it, these metrics can be daunting, especially when you look at elite athletes in any sport. It's never confidence inspiring to read a story about the pro who tested untrained and scored higher than you after a lifetime of riding! But, beyond distinguishing elite cyclists from novices, VO2 Max can also serve as a benchmark for tailoring training regimes aimed at boosting aerobic power.

Commonly cited studies and general belief is that beginner cyclists can expect a potential 10 to 20% increase in VO2 Max through consistent, but moderate, training over four to twelve months. However, studies have also demonstrated much larger gains are possible when tested from an untrained state and with specific training adaptations [1]. So, we know putting attention into designing a training regimen to optimize your sweat equity sessions will pay off.

Key Aspects of VO2 Max for Cyclists:

  • Trainability and Improvement: VO2 max stands out as one of the most adaptable metrics in endurance sports. With structured training focusing on intervals and consistent efforts, cyclists can see a notable increase in their VO2 max. Beginner cyclists, in particular, can boost their VO2 max by approximately 10 to 20% over four to 12 months with minimal training.
  • Importance in Cycling Performance: A high VO2 max enables cyclists to sustain medium-hard power outputs for longer durations. This capability is crucial for cycling, where the ability to generate power efficiently determines performance success. Elite male and female cyclists typically exhibit VO2 max figures around 80-90ml/kg/min and 60-70ml/kg/min, respectively, whereas sedentary adults test at 35-40ml/kg/min and 27-30ml/kg/min, demonstrating the importance of this metric in distinguishing top performers.
  • Factors Influencing VO2 Max: Several elements play a role in determining a cyclist's VO2 max, including age, gender, elevation, and training history. While genetics play an important role, targeted training can significantly enhance oxygen uptake. Central adaptations, such as improved oxygen delivery via the lungs, heart, and blood, are best achieved through interval training that maximizes time spent near VO2 max. Peripheral adaptations, on the other hand, benefit from long, steady rides at lower intensity.

In summary, VO2 max is a critical determinant of a cyclist's aerobic capacity and overall performance. By understanding its importance and the factors that influence it, you can tailor your training to optimize VO2 max, and push your limits.

Role of Macronutrients in VO2 Max Improvement

When it comes to improving VO2 Max through nutrition, trying to find a direct link between the consumption of certain macronutrients and increases in VO2 Max is daunting. The landscape is fraught with conflicting reports, but we'll attempt to help you navigate it:

The Role of Macronutrients:

We all know that carbs are important to help sustain our endurance rides (we're sure many of you have partaken in the pre-big event pasta dinner as well) and we know we may need some protein after a big effort. But, what is the impact of macronutrient intake on VO2 Max improvement?

  • One comprehensive study titled "Does macronutrient consumption affect aerobic capacity?" revealed no significant differences in VO2 Max scores among individuals adhering to recommended macronutrient intake, those consuming above, and those consuming below the recommendations [2].
  • Interestingly, a lower consumption of carbohydrates was actually associated with a higher VO2 Max score, which suggests a complex relationship between carbohydrate intake and aerobic capacity, emphasizing the need for personalized nutrition strategies in and out of training.
  • Unsurprisingly, it's also noted that cardiac output and endurance performance are primarily increased through aerobic exercise rather than just macronutrient consumption.

Practical Macro Nutritional Strategies:

Our main goal with macronutrients is to ensure we get the most out of our workouts to maximize adaptations.

  • Carb Loading: Prior to intense VO2 Max sessions, carb loading can help maintain maximal aerobic power for extended periods. Your instincts are right here - if you can maintain your output longer, over time you will achieve better adaptations, including to VO2 Max.
  • Protein Timing and Distribution: To optimize muscle protein synthesis, it's recommended to spread protein intake throughout the day, ideally across 3-4 meals [3]. In particular, studies have shown that consuming protein before sleep can significantly improve post-exercise overnight recovery, aiding in muscle repair and growth [4]. Will this increase your VO2 Max? Unlikely, but proper recovery will enhance your training sessions in subsequent days.
  • Protein Sources: While animal-based proteins have been the traditional go-to, plant-based protein alternatives like soy, peas, and rice have shown to be just as effective for muscle protein synthesis. This opens up a variety of dietary options for cyclists who prefer or require plant-based nutrition.
  • Pre-Workout Nutrition: Avoiding solid foods 3 hours before a high-intensity workout can help optimize performance and comfort during the session. You don't want to be trying to digest a large meal during your workout, as blood is shifted away from your brain and muscles to your stomach to aid digestion. That said, there is a fine balance between keeping your blood in your working muscles and feeling hungry and depleted. We recommend experimenting with lighter snacks on the lead up to your big sessions on the bike.
  • Weight Management: If necessary and possible, losing excess fat can conserve oxygen use, indirectly supporting VO2 Max improvement.

While there aren't significant gains in VO2 Max to be had just by swapping carbs for protein or reducing fat, being strategic about how you consume your macronutrients can impact the quality of your training and body composition with an indirect impact to VO2 Max.

Key Micronutrients for Enhancing VO2 Max

In our journey to enhance VO2 Max for cyclists, nutrition plays a pivotal role, and understanding the key micronutrients involved is crucial. Here's a breakdown of the essential nutrients and supplements that can significantly impact your VO2 Max and overall cycling performance:

Adaptogens and Supplements: The Performance Enhancers

  • Ashwagandha: A recent study of this medicinal herb, commonly used to manage stress, assessed the impact of supplementation on the aerobic ability of top Indian cyclists. Forty riders were randomly selected and divided equally into treatment and placebo groups. The treatment group, taking 0.5 g capsules of Ashwagandha roots twice daily for 8 weeks, showed significant improvement in all measures, including VO2max, METS, and time to fatigue, compared to the placebo group. The placebo group did not experience any changes. The study concluded that Ashwagandha enhances athletes' endurance capacity by improving their VO2max [5].
  • Rhodiola: Unlike Ashwagandha, Rhodiola hasn't proven to have a direct impact on VO2 Max, but chronic supplementation has demonstrated a significant effect on reducing lactate levels and parameters of skeletal muscle damage following exercise. As discussed above, recovery aigds have an indirect impact on VO2 Max, by providing greater ability to continue your training regimen [6].
  • Cordyceps: Cordyceps are believed to boost the body's production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a molecule that provides energy to the muscles. In one study, scientists tested the impact of a synthetic strain of Cordyceps (typically used in supplements) on the exercise capacity of 30 healthy older adults using a stationary bike over 6 weeks. The participants who had taken Cordyceps showed a 7% increase in their VO2 max, while those who had taken the placebo pill showed no change [7].
  • Beta-Alanine: Beta-alanine is a type of amino acid that our body makes naturally in the liver. We also get beta-alanine from eating foods like poultry and meat. Beta-alanine itself doesn't have many performance-enhancing properties, but it is important because it helps make carnosine, which is a powerful antioxidant with benefits for the brain, muscles, heart, and bones. More specific to VO2 Max, Beta-Alanine supplementation has been demonstrated to significantly increase tested results in a study of fit men (non-professional athletes). Time to exhaustion and lactate levels also showed significant improvements [8].
  • Oxygen Boosters and Iron: Incorporating foods high in nitrates into your diet can lead to more economical muscle movement and potentially enhance top-end speed. Vegetables like beetroot and leafy greens are high in iron, which is an essential mineral for cyclists due to its role in producing hemoglobin and myoglobin, which is crucial for delivering oxygen to the muscles. A study of beetroot supplementation to training over 15 days demonstrated a significant increase in VO2 Max improvement relative to a control group. The benefits were attributed to high iron and nitrate levels in beetroot [9].

Incorporating these key nutrients and supplements into your nutrition strategy can provide a solid foundation for improving VO2 Max. Remember, individual needs may vary, and it's essential to tailor your nutrition plan to fit your specific requirements and cycling goals.

Nutritional Strategies for VO2 Max Training

To optimize VO2 Max training through nutrition, cyclists can adopt several strategies before and during their workouts. The goal is to prime your body to be ready to go without starting your workout feeling fatigued or overly full from your last big meal. The time of day that you choose to conduct your training sessions will play a critical role in determining how you fuel.

Pre-Workout Nutrition Strategies

  • Carb Loading: We mentioned carb loading above, but it's critical for optimal performance during most of your training sessions so we raise it again. Your goal is to ensure your glycogen stores are topped up for the intense effort ahead - this isn't the time to starve yourself down to race weight. There is a place for depleted workouts, but your VO2 Max sessions aren't good examples.
  • Focus on Slow Releasing Energy: In meals further out from your training session (think the night before), try to include a balance of complex carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. These slow releasing sources of energy can help set you up for success.
  • Stay Light on the Leadup to your Workout: It's okay to have a light meal or snack about 30 minutes before your workout, particularly if your training session is in the morning. For an extra boost, an espresso or black coffee can help on days when you're feeling sluggish.
  • During the Warm-Up: If you're a little time strapped and your calorie intake is happening during your warmup, stick to easily digested carbohydrates like those provided by energy gels or chews.

During the Workout Nutrition

  • Maintaining Energy Levels: Intense training sessions burn glycogen at a high rate, so maintaining a stream of carbohydrates becomes crucial, particularly for sessions lasting longer than an hour to an hour and a half. Energy gels work well for this, but make sure you consume them with water.
  • Protein, Fat, and Fiber: These nutrients can slow down digestion and may cause gastrointestinal discomfort during intense training sessions. You should forgo these sources of energy during training, particularly for your shorter, but hard efforts.

Post-Workout Recovery

  • Immediate Recovery: After the workout, it's important to consume a blend of carbohydrates and protein to kickstart the recovery process. Studies have demonstrated that a 3:1 to 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein is effective in promoting recovery. A banana or a protein shake can serve as an excellent post-workout snack. Chocolate milk is also a good fit, if you need to pick something up from the convenience store post-group ride [10]. Consuming this mix as quickly as possible after your workout is important as a bridge to a more fulsome meal.
  • Long-Term Recovery: Ensure to have a balanced meal within 2 hours of your workout. This meal should include a good mix of carbohydrates, protein, and fats to aid in recovery and prepare you for the next training session.

As mentioned above, adhering to these macro nutritional strategies won't directly impact your VO2 Max, but will help ensure you are set up for you success in all of your various training sessions.


Throughout this post, we've attempted to navigate the intricate relationship between nutrition, training, and VO2 Max improvement for cyclists. If you're looking to get faster on the bike, understanding the significance of VO2 Max, the role of strategic nutritional choices, and the importance of key micro and macro nutrients can help you lay a foundation for enhancing aerobic capacity and overall performance. Embracing the key principles discussed can significantly impact your performance, pushing you closer to your cycling goals.

For those of you looking to further your journey in VO2 Max improvement, consider exploring 1st Endurance for premium nutritional support tailored to cyclists. Such supplements can be an enabler in jumpstarting VO2 Max adaptations and time saver in the kitchen, but we're also advocates of seeking gains merely through old fashioned hard work and attention to detail, so figure out what works best for you and let us know. Happy riding!


How can cyclists enhance their VO2 max through cycling training?

Stay tuned for a post coming soon on VO2 Max specific workout sessions.

What dietary changes can help improve VO2 max?

Incorporating foods that are rich in iron and nitrates can lead to more efficient muscle movement and enhance your speed. Consuming foods such as roasted beetroot, spinach, rocket (arugula), celery, cress, and chervil can increase the nitrate levels in your blood, which can help in improving your VO2 max.

What is the most effective method to rapidly boost VO2 max?

The most effective way to quickly increase your VO2 max is by engaging in high-intensity training. Short(ish) intervals of intensity at 110 to 120% of your functional threshold power (FTP) will help improve VO2 Max over time. Such intense efforts are key to strengthening your heart muscles and expanding the volume of blood your heart can pump with each contraction.

Which supplements should be taken to raise VO2 max?

When preparing to train with the goal of increasing your VO2 max, the primary nutritional sources to consider are adaptogens, iron, and carbohydrates. These supplements are pivotal for:

  • Providing the necessary energy for your workouts.
  • Enhancing your overall athletic performance.

Supplements aren't absolutely necessary, but provide much easier access to the quantities of adaptogens which aide performance improvement.


[1] VO 2 Max Improvement of 96% in a Non-Elite Recreational Athlete over 24 Months

[2] Does macronutrient consumption affect aerobic capacity?

[3] Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis

[4] Protein Ingestion before Sleep Improves Postexercise Overnight Recovery

[5] Effects of eight-week supplementation of Ashwagandha on cardiorespiratory endurance in elite Indian cyclists

[6] Effects of chronic Rhodiola Rosea supplementation on sport performance and antioxidant capacity in trained male: Preliminary results

[7] 6 Benefits of Cordyceps, All Backed by Science

[8] Effects of Six Weeks of β-alanine Administration on VO2 max, Time to Exhaustion and Lactate Concentrations in Physical Education Students

[9] The Effects of Beetroot Juice on VO2max and Blood Pressure during Submaximal Exercise

[10] International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Nutrient timing

[11] Adaptogenic herbs: A natural way to improve athletic performance

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