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What Is VO2 Max And How Can It Help Your Training?

Photo: Sacred Heart University's Life and Sport Analysis Clinic

Photo: Sacred Heart University’s Life and Sport Analysis Clinic

VO2 max tests have become a great, accessible option for runners who wish to enhance their training. As runners, we use each benefit in our own way from various types of training and workouts. According to the head coach of the Fairfield Cross Country team and Clinical Exercise Physiologist, Brendan Rickert, says “having a better understanding of your VO2 max can be an essential key for taking your training to the next level.”

So what exactly is your VO2 max?

VO2 max is the measurement of oxygen that your body is able to take in and use as you run. (V=volume, O2= oxygen) It’s measured in milliliters of oxygen, per kilogram of your body weight each minute, or ml/kg/min. But enough of the scientific terms; your VO2 max, put simply, is how much oxygen your body is able to take in. So the greater amount of oxygen that is consumed, the better your overall performance is. Why? Because the faster oxygen is being delivered to your muscles, the faster you will be able to run at a much less given effort. However the following factors also affect your VO2 max:

  • Your red blood cell count
  • The amount of blood your heart can pump at a certain rate
  • Your muscles adaptation to running longer distances

So why does this matter?

A high VO2 max is closely correlated with distance-running performance. Research has shown that VO2 max accounts for roughly 70 percent of the variation in race performances among individual runners. As Matt Fitzgerald says, “If you are able to run a 5K one minute faster than I can, it is likely that your VO2 max is higher than mine by an amount that is sufficient to account for 42 seconds of that minute.”

As runners, we always want to improve. It’s in our nature to want to run the next race better than the last. Getting a VO2 max test done is a noninvasive, concrete way to aid your training and ultimately your performance. In Jack Daniels’ book Daniel’s Running Formula he claims, “It’s best to know and understand why you’re doing what you’re doing.” Having this basic knowledge about your body can help you to tailor your workout for maximum results. Rickert, who makes each of his athletes test for their VO2 max, says that it helps him to get a better sense of how to individualize their training and see what they are capable of. Since each runner responds to certain workouts in different ways, figuring out your VO2 max can help tailor their running schedules.

Related: 5 Tips For Proper Heart Rate Tracking

How does one take this test?

There are a couple of different ways to test your VO2 max. It can be approximated from field-based maximal tests. However, many runners, including myself, find the most accurate results from a lab. In this test, runners are put on a treadmill and are hooked up to a breathing mask. The runner then undergoes different tests, altering their heart rate. For example, a runner might set the treadmill at a speed that’s faster than 5K pace or put it on an incline. But this certainly isn’t easy! You’re essentially running at your hardest effort until you can’t anymore. After all of the energy is exerted, your heart rate will max out and the consumption of oxygen plateaus.

Physiologists and exercise science researchers will then look at the data and calculations for the VO2 max number. This number varies but on average is around 30-60. Women who run cross country ultimately vary from 45-60, whereas men can be anywhere between 50-75. Elite athletes can have VO2 maxes more than 80!

Related: Research Reveals Elite Women Are Better At Pacing

Is it worth a try?

As a cross-country runner myself, finding out my VO2 max definitely had a positive affect on my training. My training schedule went from shorter interval workouts to longer threshold ones, preparing me for longer distance races.

As a runner, I never considered that science could play a role in the way I train and perform. Although this test might not make you the next Olympic runner, it’s certainly a great gauge for your training capability.

Kathleen Woods

Hi, my name is Kathleen Woods! I'm from a small beach town in New York, known as Rockaway Beach. I ran cross country at Fairfield University, and I'll graduate May 2016 with a double major degree in English and Sociology. I've been running competitively for eight years now, and my goal is to complete a marathon in the next couple of years.