A Vo2 max score, a number that represents how much oxygen someone takes in and uses while running fast, was once viewed as a badge of honor for distance runners—the higher the Vo2 max score, the better the runner.
However, Vo2 Max is one variable in a very long equation of running performance.
And further research has shown that in many cases, especially as race distances increase, someone with a lower Vo2 max score can outperform someone with a higher Vo2 max score because of other variables such as muscle fatigue resistance, stride length, or mental strength.
Still, a Vo2 max score can be a great indicator of fitness. Therefore, many people aim to try to improve Vo2 max scores. By doing so, they may find that their running performance improves.
In this article, I’m going to dive into what Vo2 max is and how to increase Vo2 max with one big caveat…My training suggestions aim to improve your overall running performance, not just increase your Vo2 max. Because what we care about most is our running performance, right? How we feel when running and how we feel about our running when done is more important than a single data point.
If you trained to just raise Vo2 Max with shorter intervals you may find that your running performance in your goal distances doesn’t improve. You must look at all variables in the equation—or taste all pieces in the running performance pie.
So, in this article, I’m going to address:
- What is Vo2 max
- Why Vo2 max is important for runners
- How to measure Vo2 max
- What limits are there to Vo2 max, and
- 5 steps to raise Vo2 max including Vo2 max workouts
What is Vo2 Max?
Vo2 max, also referred to as aerobic capacity or maximum oxygen intake, is a number that represents your body’s ability to consume oxygen while running fast. It’s the Volume in milliliters of Oxygen (02) your body can take in and use when running at max effort.
A person’s Vo2 max score typically falls between 30+ (poor) and 60+ (excellent).
The higher the number, the more oxygen your body takes in. And in theory, the more oxygen you can take in, the more energy your body can produce. If you are able to suck down air and extract a lot of oxygen then you can deliver it as fuel for energy to the muscles to work harder to propel you forward.
This number can also tell a lot about your body’s overall condition because things like heart strength, blood flow, red blood cell count, and how much oxygen your mitochondria consume all affect this number.
Is Vo2 max important for running?
Yes, Vo2 max is important for running because it signifies how much fuel we are giving our muscles to work. We need oxygen to run because it plays a starring role in creating fuel for our aerobic running. (Anaerobic running or sprints doesn’t use oxygen).
Oxygen helps burn carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to transform them into energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP)—the basic fuel for muscular contractions.
Related: What is RPE in Running?
What are the benefits of improving your VO2 Max?
Improving your VO2 max is directly tied to your cardiovascular health. The benefits of improved heart health are increased lifespan, and a reduced risk for stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer to name a few.
What does improving VO2 max mean for runners?
An improved Vo2 max generally means better running performance. Some studies show that Vo2 max can account for 70 percent of the variation in a runner’s performance. (However, this number dwindles in longer distance races beyond the 10k.)
When you increase Vo2 max you become stronger aerobically. The stronger you are aerobically, the greater oxygen supply to your muscles, which means more energy, which means stronger muscle contractions for longer, which means better speed and endurance.
Are there limits to someone’s VO2 Max?
Yes, there are limits to someone’s VO2 max. Vo2 max is determined by genetics (more than 50 percent) and conditioning. Eventually someone’s VO2 max plateaus. For example, Paula Radcliffe’s VO2 Max score of 70 measured at age 17 never got higher despite years of training, getting faster, and setting the marathon world record!
Therefore, a VO2 Max score isn’t the only indicator of fitness. So, while you may see an increase in your running performance, your watch VO2 max number may stay the same (or even decrease due to factors such as training load, stress, illness, and recovery periods).
How to calculate your VO2 Max?
VO2 max is the maximum milliliters of oxygen you can consume per kilogram of body weight per minute. To calculate this, you must know your weight, the percentage of oxygen in the air you are breathing, how many milliliters you are exhaling, and the percentage of oxygen in that too. Not realistic calculations for most runners.
However, there are several ways to calculate your VO2 Max:
- A lab test, costing about $100, performed by an exercise physiologist in which you run hard on a treadmill while wearing a mask that calculates how much oxygen you take in and put out.
- Running workouts (compiled here) that involve you inputting your time into an equation to get your VO2 Max score.
- Your GPS running watch uses your heart rate data, running paces, and population data to determine a VO2 Max score. Bear in mind, there is a degree of inaccuracy in fitness watches such as the Garmin running watch and Apple watch.
Related: How Accurate is Garmin’s VO2 Max?
Can a Vo2 Max score predict running performance?
Studies show that a Vo2 max score can better predict running performance in shorter races such as a 5k to a 10k but does not have a strong predictive quality in longer races such as a marathon.
This is because Vo2 max is not the only metric that determines a runner’s fitness and performance level. Other metrics such as mental strength and motivation, fatigue resistance, leg strength, lactate threshold, muscle fiber typology, cadence, stride length, and running economy.
With this in mind, it’s important to train to optimize all pieces of the running performance puzzle—not just the Vo2 max piece.
Can supplements improve Vo2 max?
There is some data that some supplements that include quality ingredients and optimal amounts of key nutrients like branch chain amino acids such as glutamine, magnesium, L-arginine, and ashwaghanda can improve Vo2 Max.
Specifically, I had supplement company Previnex founder and CEO David Block weigh in on the topic. “A good multi alone will help improve oxygen intake, but the right forms of some other key nutrients will help as well,” he shared.
I had David give me his take on Optygen which has clinical data suggesting efficacy in improving Vo2 Max. Before founding Previnex, David’s career centered around researching scientific data related to supplements. His take? The supplement amounts, forms, and research are not quality or sound enough to confidently recommend Optygen as an ergogenic aid.
Full disclosure: I am a big fan of Previnex supplements. Their multivitamin in particular has finally leveled out key nutrients in my body when training. Save 15 percent with code TMR15.
What is the fastest way to increase VO2 max?
Obviously, we want to train to improve our running performance, not just improve Vo2 max scores. However, training to increase Vo2 max scores may have the fringe benefit of improving running performance. Below is a 5-step plan to improve Vo2 max scores AND overall running performance.
Here is a 5-step plan to increase your VO2 Max score:
Increase your mileage.
The more you run, the better your body becomes at taking in oxygen and processing it by growing its mitochondria and capillary density.
I suggest growing your training volume by first ensuring you are running at least 30 minutes per session. Then, add another day of running a week. Then increase the mileage of one of those run days by a mile, and so on.
Be careful to increase overall weekly volume by no more than 10 percent, alternate run and rest days, and take a down week (a slight reduction in mileage) every week to protect against injury and absorb training adaptations.
Once you’re running consistently for a couple of months with mileage at or near 20 miles per week, it’s time to add intensity.
Related: How Many Miles Should You Run in a Day?
Perform long runs.
Long runs are the bread and butter of any long-distance runner’s training plan (aka anyone not training for a mile or below). These runs are performed at an easy pace and also work to grow the physiological systems your body needs to intake and process oxygen.
Aim to have one of your runs per week be longer than 90 minutes (or about 30 percent of your overall weekly training volume). Be sure to keep the pace comfortable to ensure you don’t get hurt or are recovered for your next running day.
Related: The Scientific Benefits of a Long Run
To increase your Vo2 max, you need to run faster. Intervals run at or close to your maximum effort should be 2 to 5 minutes long with an interval rest that is equal to or less than the running interval. This type of interval will directly improve your VO2 Max score.
Some examples of Vo2 max-specific workouts include:
- 8 x 2 min hard/2 min easy
- 4-5 x 3 min hard/2-3 min easy
- 2/3/4/3/2 min hard with 2 min easy
- 5/4/3/2/1 min hard with either halftime recovery or 2 min easy
You also want to perform other types of intervals run at various lengths, intensities, and interval rest lengths to improve the other pieces of your running performance puzzle.
This includes a mixture of running really fast for short intervals with short interval rests (HIIT or interval training), running really hard with longer interval rests (repetitions), and moderately hard for longer intervals with longer recoveries (threshold or tempo runs). Hill work should also be included.
Faster running should not consume more than 20 percent of your overall weekly training volume. A running coach or training plan can help you with programming these types of runs.
Related: What is a Tempo Run?
Running races can be a game-changer for many runners. Races can move you outside your comfort zone and increase motivation and camaraderie. If you have run a race, you know that these events give you the ability to really push yourself beyond what you thought you were capable of.
Most of my training plans involve mid-way races or time trials to access where you are and give you new goals moving forward. These harder efforts help increase your VO2 max.
Related: Race Strategies from a Pro
Staying consistent in your running is the most important aspect of your training to increase your Vo2 max, running performance, and overall success. Therefore, you need to ensure you set yourself up for success by pushing yourself but not overdoing it. (Read tips on how to do that here).
Working with a running coach is one of the best ways to improve your running performance (and improve Vo2 max scores as a fringe benefit) in a safe and sustainable way.
If you want guidance with your running goals, check out my run coaching services. Also, be sure to check out my free training plans:
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