For a fitness enthusiast like me, I have always been looking for ways to improve and take it further. Pushing my limits is part of how I grow as an athlete and consistently doing so is the only way I know I will be able to level up. Running faster, working out harder, and lifting heavier weights are some of my own markers of progress that I always take a look at.
I truly believe that working hard and making the effort and time is the most critical element to start improving in athletics. I regularly train for cycling, swimming, and running to prepare me for more the Half-Ironman triathlon. This has always been my mantra: make time, put the effort in and you will surely get the results you yearn for. I was specifically focused on improving my running as for me, this was the ‘easiest’ to improve on out of all three.
Until recently, a new perspective shed light on how I viewed myself as an athlete and my training. I reached a slump in terms of my running speed and time, and I started doing some research about why I was stuck performing that way. That’s when I stumbled on the concept of VO2 Max.
I realized then that putting in the time and effort is only the beginning. When you fully understand your training and how your body works, it’ll make you reach your goals easier, push yourself further, and generally improve as an athlete. So in this article, I will share with you all about VO2 Max and running: a simple guide, where you can start to understand one fitness marker that will help you go a long way.
The Basics Covered: VO2 Max And Running
So, what is VO2 Max?
VO2 Max is basically a measurement of the amount of oxygen that you take in and put to you use when you run. It’s measuring your maximum oxygen intake by taking a look at how much oxygen-infused blood cells your heart can take and put out, all the while knowing how much of these oxygen-infused blood cells are being used by your muscles. It is considered the best indicator of your aerobic fitness.
This is measured before and after a training cycle and is measured in milliliters of oxygen consumed per minute for every kilogram of body weight. It’s how you will be able to measure your cardiovascular fitness and your maximum endurance capacity— both of which are very important in order to understand your body and performance better.
Oxygen is a critical need for living, and more so when you are performing physical activities. The whole idea of VO2 max is that the more you take in and use oxygen as you exercise, the more you will be able to generate ATP or Adenosine Triphosphate. ATP is the main energy currency of cells, it is the molecule that carries energy to and fro each cell of all living things.
Now, there are a lot of concepts out there that you may confuse VO2 max with, as I was confused with all of these things myself. For example, VO2 max is not the same as measuring your heart rate and lactate threshold. Both of these may be just as effective as VO2 max but yield and measure different things.
Now that you have a bit of idea what VO2 max is, let’s talk about your muscles.
Simply put, the amount of blood going to and fro your heart, as this is the main pushing force of your blood. Your heart’s ventricles act as the engine which helps power the distribution of blood throughout your body.
Essentially, VO2 max is determined and predicted through the following processes in your body:
- How fast your blood returns back to the heart
- Your heart’s capacity to pump and contract blood out
- Your heart’s capacity to load blood through the left ventricle and out to the aorta where blood is loaded out
- The size of your ventricles
These are the determinants of your VO2 max. Any changes in the function of these would directly impact its measurement. Besides this capacity, a few other factors can also contribute to your VO2 max results. These are also directly connected to your hearts performance as well as the distribution of blood throughout your body:
Like in many aspects of athletics, age plays a major part in how you perform. And the results of your VO2 max are no different. The typical peaking age of your VO2 max is when you’re about 20 years old and it would slowly decline bit by bit until it reaches 30% decline once you hit 65. Now, this doesn’t mean that you will get weaker as you age. Some age like fine wine, getting stronger and fitter as years pass.
They say males are generally the stronger species, but VO2 max tells a different story. Elite female athletes score higher values versus their male counterparts. But when you count in different factors like weight and blood volume, men score 20% higher than women. At the end of the day though, VO2 max is not me versus you thing.
Have you ever tried mountain climbing and as you are nearer to the top, it becomes quite difficult to breathe? That’s actually because it is true that air gets thinner as you climb up. VO2max account for a 5% drop as you go up every 5000 feet.
How do you test your VO2 max?
To get the most accurate measure of your VO2 max, you have to get it in a laboratory. You will be wearing a mask that is connected to a heart rate monitor. The mask will allow the machine to measure how much oxygen you’re taking in, and how much air you exhale. Here’s how you’ll exactly perform your running exercise to measure your VO2 max:
A 10-minute warm-up is essential as this conditions your body to the rigorous effort that it’s about to perform. As VO2 max testing is usually conducted in a laboratory, you would most probably be using a treadmill.
You begin to pick up speed at the 9th minute of your warm-up. The adjustment on the treadmill will be done by the facilitator and you will be giving the signal as to which speed you can continuously run at for 6 minutes straight. The key here is being able to sustain that speed and effort for the duration of 6 minutes. Some go super fast at the beginning and strain out before even reaching the 6-minute mark. So make sure that you know it’s not a race but to keep your heart going at a steady rate with the effort required.
Pretty self-explanatory, so as not to shock your system, a 10-minute cooldown is also required. Where the speed of the treadmill is on a more comfortable level, allowing you a more relaxed run.
Most new smartwatches have a feature to measure your Vo2 Max, such as the Garmin range as well as the Apple Watch, although these are based of measurements such as your heart rate and your pace which isn’t going to be as accurate as the lab test mentioned above.
How does VO2 max help you as a runner?
Incorporating VO2 max targetted training into your running program will help you go faster, help how you sustain your energy during marathons, and improve your overall form. Mostly VO2 max workouts are interval training, forcing you to run more at certain periods. Inevitably, this strengthens your lower body which will also improve your overall energy consumption.
- 5K run
VO2 max is probably the most important for 5k runs. This is the starting point of all runners. Initially, your training program will look at improving your endurance. The latter part of your training as you mature as a 5k runner should be emphasizing on how to improve your VO2 max in order to help you run farther distances. A good program to incorporate for VO2 max training is to run at 12 sets of 400 meters at 1 mile to three-kilometer pacing. You should be able to rest for 1 to 2 minutes.
- 10k run and, half-marathons
While not that reliant on VO2 max, 10k runs and half-marathons have different demands versus 5k runs. However, incorporating VO2 max workouts is still critical to your overall aerobic performance at this stage. You can start by doing the same workout plan as mentioned for 5k in the first week. Then gradually decrease the sets but increase the distance week on week. So your second week should look like: 7-8 sets x 600 meters at 10k pacing goal with 1-minute rest.
- Full Marathon
While VO2 max training is not that critical at this stage, it is still useful to help you build efficiency, strength, and improve your form. I would recommend doing speed and VO2 max training every 3 or 4 weeks when you start training for your full marathon.
Whilst doing a VO2 Max test sounds great, I don’t think it’s completely necessary early on. Using a smartwatch for running such as a Garmin can give you a basic VO2 Max reading. Whilst it isn’t 100% accurate, you can see when there has been a change which is a good indication that your pace and heart rate are progressing. Once you start to get more serious, you can get the actual test done and be more pleased with the results!
While scoring a high VO2 max is a great indication of your running fitness, it won’t be enough to give you that level of an elite that you may be looking for. Training, dedication, and commitment are still what make a great runner. However, without understanding VO2 max, you’ll never be able to reach your optimum level of performance.
VO2 max is essential especially for mid-distance races like 5k up to 10k. Incorporating interval exercises that target to increase your VO2 max will surely increase your endurance and in turn your performance. At the end of the day, you still have to consider other factors like how hard you trained, your mental preparedness, nutrition, and overall physical state.
If you’re getting more serious about running, there might be other nuances you haven’t considered yet such as the runners wall. I wrote a post on hitting the runners wall and its symptoms. You’ll be surprised that if you haven’t heard of it before that you’ve likely felt the runners wall before. Find out how you can get past it and become a better runner with my post. If you’re testing your VO2 Max over long runs, check out my post on the best electrolyte tablets for runners. You may need the extra nutrients to complete the full run and having the right ones help. The post contains a complete guide and use case scenarios as well.
Who knows, you might get into running even more and start entering crazy events like one of these 74 ultramarathons based all around the world.
I’d like to hear your thoughts on VO2 max and running at the comment box below. Do you agree that this concept is critical to your running career? Let’s discuss it!
Marko Rakic is a trail runner and fitness enthusiast from Sydney, Australia. He is the lead writer for The Ultimate Primate and believes the best way to live a happy life is to take a holistic approach to fitness and health.