Vo2 Max - What it is and isn't

High vo2 max levels are important and accurate indicators of your running fitness IF your focus is running well at shorter distances.

The term Vo2 max is an acronym that represents a few fairly common running terms including maximal oxygen uptake or aerobic capacity. In short, during exercise it’s the maximum amount of oxygen that your heart is capable of pumping and that your body is capable of extracting into your working muscles. Unlike your maximum heart rate , your Vo2 can be a good determinant of your fitness level and potential, particularly if you are looking to increase your running speed and race well in general at shorter distances such as 5ks.

Vo2 measurements are typically expressed in terms of volume of oxygen carrying blood pumped per unit of body weight over time. For example, 72 millilitres per kilogram per minute (72 ml/kg/min). Your Vo2 measurements are indicators of the current size of your motor. With the right training you can increase your Vo2 number which means that you will gain cardio and respiratory efficiency. If your heart was a water pump, it would be like increasing your pump from 1.0 hp to 2.0 hp. Greater efficiency means your heart does not have to work as hard to get what your working muscles need during running. It also means that you are more capable of getting the blood and oxygen to your working muscles at high running intensities such as the pace of a 5k race.

Ultimately then of course improved Vo2 capabilities translate to faster race times; at least for shorter distances such as 5k and 10ks. It’s not that Vo2 is not important to aid in the performance of longer distances such as half and full marathons, but rather other physiological factors such as lactate buffering capabilities (sharpened by regular tempo runs ) take higher priority due to the specific demands of these slower paces but longer running duration.

Your Vo2 max ‘zone’ is that intensity which lies around 95% of your maximum heart rate . This typically co-relates for most runners to the majority of time spent during a 5 k race. So, it is important then, to stimulate and raise your Vo2max level in order to maximize your capabilities to race in this zone.

Good Vo2 max workouts are those that require you to spend time at 95% of your max heart rate for anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes. Much more is described about these workouts on my intervals page. One of my favourite, heart ripping yet immensely effective Vo2 workouts is long hill repeats (600 m or more). This length of hill typically takes me just over 3 minutes to climb. The only trick with using hill repeats as your Vo2 workouts is care has to be given to the intensity by which you attack the hill. Depending on the grade of the hill, you can easily exceed your ideal training zone and go to max. heart rate if you don’t watch your pace early on. You'll then be working more on raw speed than vo2 max, and not to mention will have mucho trouble hanging on for the duration of your repeat!

You may or may not have access to a hill of such length in the outdoors, but you can always simulate this on a treadmill with an incline. Or, of course at the track by performing longer repeats such as 400, 800 and full km repeats.

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