VO2max: What Is It, Why Is It Important to Your Running Performance, and How Do You Improve It

Hello Runners,

There are three factors that are most important to your running performance and can affect whether you finish an event pumping your fists in celebration, or hanging your head in disappointment.

These factors are your running economy (basically how efficient you are when you run), your lactate threshold (maximum pace you can sustain for a prolonged period of time), and your VO2max or maximal oxygen consumption.

One of my workouts last week specifically focused on VO2max. For this particular workout, I performed a dynamic warmup and then ran at an easy pace for 20 minutes. Then the real fun began! I performed 40 second work bouts in a flat area (a track for example) at a hard pace. I focused on form during these work bouts to maximize my speed and effort. After each of these work bouts, I did a slow jog recovery interval for two minutes and then repeated for a total of six work bouts. I finished my run at an easy pace for approximately 10 minutes. Then I finished up by performing stability, mobility, and strengthening exercises and foam rolling. This was a challenging workout!

What Is VO2max?

VO2max is the maximal amount of oxygen our body can use to produce energy by aerobic energy systems when we are running at maximal effort, and is considered the “gold standard” for assessing aerobic fitness. VO2max is affected by our body’s ability to take oxygen into the body and deliver it to our running muscles, which incorporates our cardiovascular system, including the heart, blood, and blood vessels. Another important determinant of VO2max is the muscles’ ability to extract oxygen from the blood and use it to produce energy. This involves our “mighty” mitochondria in our muscle cells. The mitochondria are the powerhouses that will extract oxygen and use it along with carbohydrates, fats, and proteins in our body to the produce energy for us to run.

How Is VO2max Measured?

There are labs that will assess your VO2max by measuring the volume and composition of the gases you inhale and exhale while running. This test is usually performed on a treadmill in which the speed and/or incline is increased every 2-3 minutes. Basically, run until you feel you can run no more, or it is deemed that the test needs to be stopped for safety purposes. The test typically lasts ~12-15 minutes. As you might guess, it’s a hard test! In addition, you need to wear apparatus that will allow the volume and composition of gases to be measured. Here is an image of a typical VO2max testing setup:

vo2max testing

It is also possible to have VO2max measured outside while running on a track, although this requires sophisticated equipment.

VO2max can also be estimated based on time to run a mile. The advantage of this is that it doesn’t require sophisticated equipment and having to wear potentially uncomfortable apparatus. I offer this estimate as part of my running evaluation I do with runners. I can also offer this to runners who may not be able to do an in-person running evaluation with me.

It’s most helpful to repeat the measure of your VO2max after at least three months, to see if it has improved with your training.

What Factors Affect My VO2max?

There are several factors that affect VO2max including genetics, gender, age, fitness level, and training.

How Do I Improve My VO2max and Thus, My Running Performance?

There are several ways to improve VO2max depending on your fitness level. For beginner runners just running frequently and increasing the duration of your runs can significantly improve your VO2max, especially over three months.

For intermediate and advanced runners, it is more difficult to improve VO2max. However, hard work bouts in which you are running several minutes at ~95-100% of your current VO2max can help improve it. I recommend starting with hard work bouts for 30-40 seconds. Recover with a slow jog for 2-3 minutes between these bouts. Repeat for a total of 4-6 work bouts. Over the next 2-3 weeks, I recommend a progression in which you increase the time of your work bouts. This will depend on what’s appropriate for you. For runners I coach, we discuss how these work bouts went each week, as well as their fitness level to determine the appropriate progression. In addition, you should have been recently cleared by your physician to participate in vigorous physical activity. Also, you should have performed some previous speedwork, such as Fartlek runs, before engaging in VO2max work bouts.   

Please let me know if you have any questions, or if I can be of help in any way.

Also, if you feel anyone can benefit from this email, please share it.

Your friend and coach,


Marathon Training 2019 Day 62: Embrace Hill Running, Benefits and Techniques

March 20 Moonset on Equinox

March 21 moonset small version







“Hills. We love them. We hate them. They make us strong. They make us weak. Today I chose to embrace hills.” – Hal Higdon

Belated Happy Equinox and welcome to Spring! I’m so happy that spring, my favorite season, is here.  On the equinox and the day after the equinox, there were some beautiful moonsets over the mountains. I tried to capture these during my morning runs.

In this post I want to discuss hill running a bit. As I near the end of my fitness training portion of my marathon training, I incorporated some hills on my ~8.5 mile long run today. I also performed 4 x 8-second hill sprints towards the end of this run.

Immediately after my run I did the following exercises:

  • Leg swings forward and back with both straight and bent leg (10 repetitions of each for each leg)
  • Leg swings side-to-side with both straight and bent leg (10 repetitions of each for each leg)
  • Single-leg stand (~60 seconds for each leg)
  • Pushups on a stability ball (10 repetitions)
  • Monster walks side-to-side and forward and backward (15 repetitions on each side and in each direction)
  • Y, T, I, and W (10 repetitions for each position)
  • Clamshells (20 repetitions on each side)
  • Prone planks (~45 seconds)
  • Side planks (~40 seconds)
  • Supine planks (~30 seconds)
  • Double leg hip bridges (10 repetitions + hold for 30 seconds after last repetition)
  • Quadrupeds (15 repetitions on each side)
  • Toe yoga (10 repetitions times for each foot)
  • Fire hydrants (10 repetitions on each side)
  • Knee circles forward (10 repetitions for each leg)
  • Knee circles backward (10 repetitions for each leg)
  • Single-leg balance (~30 seconds for each leg)

After performing these exercises, I did one-minute static stretches for the calf muscles and lots of softball rolling for the calf muscles and plantar fascia!


It is helpful to incorporate hills on some of your long runs. This will help you build strength in your legs to improve your strength and speed, as well as help you improve your running economy (efficiency) and help you minimize the risk of injury.

Tip of the Day:

Running on hills can be beneficial for building strength and power in the legs, as well as improving running economy (efficiency), which can be transferred into improving running speed. This leg strengthening can also be beneficial for minimizing risk of injury.

When running uphill, lean slightly forward from the ankles, shorten your stride, and increase your arm swing speed. Keep your back straight, so that you’re not bending from waist. Also, keep your head and neck in alignment with your back. Look at least a few feet in front of you, instead of looking straight down at the ground, even if you are running on trails. Don’t dip you chin down. These will all help you keep your airways open, so you can maintain normal breathing.

Unless you are performing hill sprints (previous post), hill repeats (future post), Fartlek or a paced run, such as a threshold pace run, you should not push too hard when climbing hills, and try to stay as relaxed as possible. Keep steady rhythmic breathing, as best as possible. When you reach the top of the hill don’t push the pace and effort too hard on the other side, whether it is flat or downhill.

When descending, think of running downhill like downhill skiing, if you downhill ski. That is leaning slightly forward, instead of leaning back, like you might do if you were descending a hill on a road or mountain bike. You should land on your midfoot or lightly on your heel. You should take smaller steps, so that you have better control

When running downhill try not to push the pace too hard during training, unless you are performing downhill repeats. During training, you should never push the pace on downhill portions when running on the road or other hard surfaces, because this puts significant stress on your joints, particularly the knee. If you are performing downhill repeats, I recommend performing them on a trail or on grass. If you are performing a Fartlek run or threshold paced run, I recommend performing these runs on trails, grass, or shallow (not steep) downhill.

Please let me know if you have any questions, or if I can be of help in any way.

Embrace hill running. It will help make you a stronger and faster runner.

Your friend and coach,