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The science of running: what is VO2 max?

science-of-running-vo2-max

What is VO2 max? VO2 max is the maximum rate at which your body can consume oxygen when you’re performing a specific sport. The higher your VO2 max, the more oxygen you can use, and the faster or longer you can run. VO2 max is one of the most accurate indicators of aerobic fitness.

A high VO2 max is linked with quality distance running performance. Improve your VO2 max and you may improve your race times. Specifically, VO2 max is the amount of oxygen consumed in milliliters per kilogram of body weight per minute.

What is my VO2 max? It’s tricky for everyday athletes to know their personal VO2 max. You can only learn your true VO2 max through a test in an exercise physiology lab. In the lab, the exercise physiologist will perform an incremental exercise test. During the test, you’ll breathe into a special machine that measures how much oxygen you use while you’re running on a treadmill. The speed and/or incline of the treadmill will be increased until you reach exhaustion and need to stop the test. The maximum rate of oxygen consumption recorded during the test is your VO2 max.

There are VO2 max calculators available on the web, but they are indirect measurements. They require you to perform athletic tests and make calculations. Unfortunately, there is a lot of room for error and they’re not highly accurate. The best of these calculators is the Bruce Protocol Treadmill Test.

If you’re really curious to know your VO2 max, schedule an appointment with an exercise physiologist. Your doctor, a personal trainer, or running coach may be able to recommend someone.

How can I increase my VO2 max? You don’t have to know what your exact VO2 max is in order to increase — knowing the actual number is not really important. Rather it’s more important to train properly so you can improve your  aerobic fitness.

Unfortunately, your VO2 max is not completely in your control. Experts say 50 percent of VO2 max comes from genetics. But that means the other 50 percent can be influenced through lifestyle. In fact, a moderately fit runner may be able to increase his or her VO2 max by about 25 percent.

All aerobic workouts — even slow, steady runs — improve your VO2 max. However, some workouts help it more than others. The key is interval training. You have to run intervals close to your maximum VO2 max to see the greatest benefits. Do this VO2 max workout once per week and skip it during race weeks:

  • VO2 max intervals should be run at a pace 10 to 30 seconds per mile faster than your 5k pace.
  • Start with an easy, 10-minute run to warm up.
  • Run 800m at your VO2 max pace, and jog slowly for 4 to 5 minutes to recover. This counts as one interval.
  • If you’re a beginner, aim for 3 to 4 intervals. Advanced runners can shoot for 6 to 8 repeats.

Keep in mind that VO2 max is only one piece of the athletic performance puzzle. Other factors like quality coaching and good nutrition will also play a role in your race times. Also, it’s possible to be a competitive athlete without having a stellar VO2 max. Just ask Olympic marathoner Frank Shorter or former U.S. 5k and 10k record holder Alberto Salazar — both had VO2 maxes that topped out in the low 70s, which is considered low for elite athletes.

Written by Jen Matz