If you’re looking for the perfect medicine to peak your aerobic capacity right when you need it, the magic formula might be one designed by Veronique Billat, an exercise physiologist at the University of Evry-Val d’Essonne in France. But beware, this is not easy—and should be used sparingly, when you’re looking for an aerobic boost but your target race isn’t too soon.
A couple of decades ago, Billat made a name for herself by realizing that a key parameter for distance-running performance—whether it’s for the 1500 or the marathon—is your ability to train at vVO2max, basically the pace at which you first hit your aerobic capacity. (The first “v” in “vVO2max” means velocity or running speed.)
If you’re really serious about figuring out precisely what this pace is for you, you’re going to need to pop the bucks for a treadmill test in an exercise physiology lab. But if you’re looking for a rule of thumb, it’s about the pace you can hold for a race lasting 6 to 9 minutes: probably somewhere between 1500m and 3000m. Not your fastest possible speed, but aerobically, you’re maxed out.
Billat’s initial protocol, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, found that alternating 30-second bouts at vVO2max with 30-second easy recoveries could produce enormous improvements in beginning runners. This popular version of Billat’s 30-30s is also a good workout for getting back into shape after an off-season.
But there’s a more advanced version for those already in good shape.
I’m not sure it’s ever been published in the academic literature—I learned it directly from Billat. But I’ve been having my own group do it: cautiously at first, but with increasing confidence as it started producing results.
- Warm up. Thoroughly. Include 4 x 100 strides or, if you prefer, 2 x 200.
- Run 1 minute at vVO2max or your best estimate of what that might be (a pace you could hold for about 9 minutes in an all-out race). If you are doing this on the track, take a split at 200m because odds are you’ll start out too fast.
- Run 30 seconds at tempo (lactate threshold pace), which is probably about 40 to 60 seconds per mile slower than vVO2max. A pace that is brisk, but controlled. Maintaining this pace during the recovery is the key to this advanced version of the workout.
- Speed back up to vVO2max for another 30 sec.
- Keep alternating between vVO2max and tempo on a 30-second cycle until you need to call it quits.
The first time I tried this with my team, their hatred of it was almost universal. The idea of running to failure is inherently intimidating, not to mention that the first time you do this, you have no idea what to expect.
But it needn’t be that intimidating.
To start with, killing yourself to eke out one or two extra 30-30 cycles isn’t critical. Also, the end, when it comes, is obvious. Either you find yourself balking at the idea of speeding back up, or you find yourself trying to cheat the recovery by running slower than tempo. Either way, you’re done. Come back next week and try again. Once you have a benchmark, the workout is a lot easier.
That said, if you can’t make it at least 10 minutes, you’re probably going too fast. Take a break by jogging a minute or two, then run a few more cycles, more conservatively, trying for a total of at least 10 minutes. Or, if you have a heart-rate monitor, alter the protocol a bit, staying at the slower “tempo” pace until your heart rate drops 15 beats per minute, even if that takes longer than 30 seconds.
A good target distance, once you get used to the workout, is 2 to 2¼ miles or 12–14 minutes, whichever is less. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but this workout’s intensity makes it more efficient than conventional intervals. I’ve known a few people to make it to 5K, but they tend to be endurance beasts on the cusp of 5K PRs. They also tend to be fairly fast. This is simply not a workout most people can carry out for more than 16–18 minutes no matter how fit they are.
The first time you try this workout, plan to do it weekly, 3–4 weeks in succession. Whether you want 3 weeks or 4 weeks depends on how long it takes to “learn” the workout. You may then want to return to it occasionally, afterwards, but as long as you are hitting your prior benchmarks, there may be no reason to do it more than once or twice until next season.
Love to Hate It
But don’t expect it ever to feel easy. “I find Billats to be the closet simulation to a race of anything we do on the track, and probably the most mentally challenging workout, as well,” says one member of my group, Josie Johnson, who has done particularly well on it.
“I have a love-hate relationship with Billats,” adds Valerie Weilert, a shoe designer at Hoka One One in Santa Barbara, California. “There are no exact splits to hit, repeats or intervals to count, or even a known end to the slow lactic burn which is the [workout’s] only guarantee—other than improving performance.”
That, she says, makes it a workout designed to drive a “true track athlete” mad…which is also part of its magic. “Billats are all about finding a rhythm, then chopping it up: faster, slower, faster, and please don’t slow down! It’s a quick-and-dirty workout that makes you tough.”
Be Like Pre
It may also have a lot in common with a workout popularized nearly a half-century ago by Steve Prefontaine.
Pre’s version involved 200s, which he ran much like Billats by alternating between 30 seconds for the “fast” ones and 40 seconds for the “slow” ones.
It sounds like a totally devastating workout, but Pre was a 3:56.4 miler and a 7:42.6 3000m runner. That means that for him, a 30-second 200m came in slightly slower than mile pace, and not all that much faster than 3000m pace—making it not all that much faster than his likely vVO2max. And 40 seconds for a 200 was, for him, at least 20 sec/mile slower than his likely marathon pace (had he ever run a marathon), and therefore quite a bit slower than tempo. I.e., Pre’s famous workout sounds fast largely because Pre was fast. Scale it down to Billat’s formula, and maybe you can reap the same benefits.
Oiselle-sponsored 1:16 half-marathoner Theresa Hailey agrees. “What I love most about Billats is how they push me to run in a very uncomfortable zone, with no pressure,” she says.
“I love that it’s up to me to choose when to stop, that how fast and hard I push is up to me. Once I find the rhythm, I can’t break it. I feel much more confident and completive when approaching a race of any distance after going through a Billats cycle.”
Johnson concurs. “It’s doubly good because besides building my endurance in a practical way, it pushes mentally, so when I fall behind or hit a hard spot in a race I’m practicing how I would show up, mentally as well as physically.”