VO2 Max and You

By Ed McNeely, Peak Centre for Human Performance

As you look at on line forums, blogs and magazines it is common to see discussions of VO2max and the VO2 max levels obtained by top athletes. Have you ever wondered what it means to you as either a competitive or recreational runner?

VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can take in and use. VO2 max is most often reported as either the number of litres per minute (L/min) of oxygen that you can use or as the number of millilitres of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute (ml/kg/min). It is a function of both the body’s ability to deliver oxygen via the heart, lung and blood, and of the body’s ability to use oxygen in the working muscles and other tissues.

While VO2 max is one of the most commonly measured physiological variables in both athletic and fitness settings, its importance depends on the length of your race. In shorter races (1500-3000m) you are working at or near an intensity equal to VO2 max, making it a key performance variable for those races. But as the length of the race increases, VO2 max becomes less important. In 5K and 10K races, the anaerobic threshold (the highest level of work that can be accomplished for an extended period of time before anaerobic metabolites start to contribute to fatigue) becomes much more important. And as races continue to increase in distance to marathons and ultra-marathons, the aerobic threshold (the point below which all energy is produced by the aerobic system) becomes the most important physiological variable. We’ll talk about those thresholds in future articles.

VO2 max, and your ability to change it is strongly affected by genetics. Some estimates suggest that once adulthood is reached VO2 max can only increase 20-35%. This is a rather small change compared to other physiological and performance variables like strength and flexibility which can increase by 100% or more over the course of a training lifetime. Elite male runners typically have VO2 max scores in the 75-85 ml/kg/min range. While this is the norm it does not mean that you cannot be successful with a lower VO2 max value. Some measures of East African runners have found world class running performances, running 1500m in 3:35 or better, despite VO2 max values of only 63 ml/kg/min. This is roughly the same VO2 max score as a good age group runner and about 20% lower than would be expected for a runner with this type of performance.

These runners are able to perform at the highest levels despite a low VO2 max because of their efficiency or economy, the ratio of power output to power input. A higher economy allows a runner to work at lower percentages of the VO2 max to accomplish the same or more work as a less efficient runner. Improving economy can have a significant impact on your running performance. There are several ways to improve running economy:

  1. Focus on technique – running stride and technique are key to running economy. Get a coach who will work on improving your running mechanics and who can do a proper gait analysis and provide measures of changes in running economy.
  2. Strength training – strength and power training have been shown to increase running economy by as much as 7%. There is even some research that suggests replacing some of your run time with strength training can improve your performance more than the extra running. This of course depends on the amount of running you are doing.
  3. Altitude training – altitude training or intermittent hypoxic training improves oxygen use in the body allowing more energy to be produced by the aerobic energy systems, which are more efficient. The Peak Centre is set up for intermittent hypoxic training, you can learn more by call the Peak Centre or stopping by.

The key takeaway is that running economy is an area where many recreationally competitive runners can make a lot of progress when they think they have plateaued.

Measuring what matters

You can find lots of tests on line that will give you an estimate of your VO2 max. Unfortunately, because of the genetic limitations to VO2 max these tests don’t provide you much information. For most runners, an assessment of aerobic threshold, anaerobic threshold, and VO2 max provides the most information about your performance potential and how to structure your training program. In a lab setting, like that available at the Peak Centre in Kanata, it is possible to measure VO2 max, anerobic threshold, aerobic threshold and running efficiency all in one test.

Don’t worry if you have not been genetically blessed with a high VO2 max or the potential to have a high VO2 max, it is only one of many physiological variables that contribute to running performance, there are plenty of other things you can work on with the right help.


About the Peak Centre for Human Performance 

Over the past decade private sport science businesses have sprung up to provide services to any athlete that wants to excel at their sport. A leader in this area is the Peak Centre for Human Performance. The Peak Centre is a network of sport science centres across Canada that offer physiology, technology/biomechanics, nutrition, mental training and strength and conditioning services. The Peak Centres employ some of the top people in the industry. Peak Centre staff has worked with 17 different Canadian National Sport Organizations and have helped 38 teams and individuals reach the Olympic podium.