Understanding V02 Max

I’m 8 weeks in to some more structured training and I’m pleased to report some highly satifying increases in my VO2 Max!

It made me think.

How many people really understand what VO2 Max is, what it measures and how to improve it?

Thus this blog…but strap yourselves in because it does get a little technical.

I will do my best to cover;

  • What is VO2 Max referring to?
  • The science bit – your aerobic, lactate and alactic energy systems
  • How can find out what your VO2 Max is?
  • How can you improve your VO2 Max?
  • Sessions to help you improve your VO2 Max

What is VO2 Max referring to?

Vo2 Max refers to the maximum or optimal amount of oxygen your body (heart, lungs and muscles) can process whilst exercising at a high intensity. It is therefore used as an indicator of your aerobic fitness and in particular your ability to run at pace for sustained periods.

The science bit – your aerobic, lactacte and alactic energy systems

Our bodies have three energy systems which we are using all the time to varying degrees depending on what we are doing.

Aerobic system – this system requires oxygen, we use it when we run at low/moderate intensities for 30 minutes or longer.

Lactate system – this is the ‘linking’ system which is capable of working with or without oxygen, produces lactate and acid and is accessed during high intensity exercise.

You’ve probably heard of the pain experienced when ‘lactic acid’ takes hold. But don’t be afraid however! I’m here to dispell the myth.

Believe it or not ‘Lactic acid’ actually helps us when we run – the ‘lactate bit’ produces something called adenosine triphosphate (all the cool kids call it ATP). Our body uses the ATP produced as fuel. It’s the ‘acidic bit’ that’s the bad guy, and the waste product responsible for the burning sensation we all know and love.

Alactic system – this is a stored, start up energy system that operates without oxygen, doesn’t produce lactate and can only be accessed for up to 2-8 seconds. In order to really work this system you need to ensure you take large amounts of rest between efforts to enable your body to full recover.

It is unlikely you need to work on improving this energy system unless you are a sprinter.

How can we find out what our VO2 Max is?

If you have a fancy running watch it is highly likely it can tell you what it thinks your VO2 Max is by taking into account;

  • pace
  • heart rate
  • gender
  • age

You can also have a go at testing yourself. A really simple benchmarking test I use to track improvements with my clients is the Cooper test.

After a warm up (10 mins of easy running), find a section of road that is as flat as possible and run as fast as you can in 12 minutes. Note down the distance you have been able to cover in that time and don’t forget to cool down.

When you know your distance you can then plug it into this handy online calculator which again gives you a prediction of your current Vo2 Max.

If you have a little bit of extra cash and you want more of a rigorous assessment there are clinics that can help.

All you need to do is get on a treadmill with lots of lovely wires and things attached to you, pop on an oxygen mask and run on an incline at max effort until you cannot take any more / vomit…whichever comes first!

Sounds delightful doesn’t it? The readings gained from this exercise will provide a much more accurate view of your VO2 max, but certainly not for the faint hearted!

How can you improve your VO2 Max?

Just a smidge more science before I give you a couple of sessions to try.

We talked about the lactate energy system which can work with or without oxygen and produces lactate (ATP which the body uses for fuel) and acid (that burning feeling) above.

You are using this system and producing lactate and acid whilst you are reading this! Your body is processing it and moving it around your body without any build up and therefore you remain happily unaware of the ongoing process that’s taking place.

However, when you are running at a high intensity, your body is having to work at a higher rate and it’s ability to take on and process the amount of oxygen you need, is challenged. When we start to take on insufficent levels of oxygen the lactate and acidic bits build up because the body is unable to process it effectively. This results in the feeling of fatigue that eventually slows you down.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce to you, your lactate threshold!!

Our bodies can only sustain this build up of lactate for around 30-60 minutes before the acid takes over and results in us feeling massively fatigued and done in! So to improve your VO2 Max (the max amount of oxygen our bodies can process at a high intensity) you need to work on improving the point at which you hit your lactate threshold.

The cooper test will hold some really useful information in regards to your threshold pace and heart rate (slightly less than your max) so go back and have a look and get a good idea of where your lactate threshold is and then have a go at some of the sessions below!

Sessions to help you improve your VO2 Max

Now for the fun bit!

I personally love a bit of variety when I’m training for something. And you’ve guessed it…mixing up the intensities you run at is key if you want to improve your VO2 Max.

Interval sessions – put simply, interval sessions are short burst of high intensity alongside periods of rest and recovery.

To best access the lactate energy system the length of intervals should be between 30 seconds and 3 minutes and run at your threshold pace/HR. It is really important that you take the adequate rest in between intervals to bring your heart rate back down in order keep the hard effort in the lactate zone and not let it creep into the aerobic zone.

Tempo sessions – tempo sessions are great for both working the aerobic and lactate energy systems and practice continuous running at pace!

A nice and simple tempo session involves warming up for a mile at an easy pace, then for 10 mins (this can increase up to 20 as training progresses) run at your threshold pace/hr, then cool down.

So there you have it – I hope I have managed to explain it all in simple terms and it is starting to make a bit of sense for you.

Wishing you all the best with your quest to improve your VO2 Max!

If you want any help with it and want to leave all the thinking and working out to me then get in touch, I would love to hear from you!