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,

Brian

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