Whether you are a beginner, novice, or pro; every endurance athlete has one thing in common. They all want to improve performance.
Performance for some may entail making their daily runs or rides feel easier while for others it may mean setting new PRs.
We all know that doing endurance exercise at an easy pace more frequently or for longer will lead to huge improvements in a relatively short amount of time, but at some point, a plateau will occur.
When this happens, going into the pain cave one to three times a week will be necessary to improve endurance performance further.
This is especially true as it relates to further improving VO2 Max; arguably one of the most important physiological variables that best predicts success for endurance athletes.
This article will discuss what VO2 Max is, how to test it, how to improve it, and sample workouts.
Almost every endurance athlete has heard the term VO2 Max, but very few know what it means beyond knowing that the higher you get it, the faster you will become.
By strict definition, VO2 Max (maximal oxygen uptake) is the greatest amount of oxygen that can be used at the cellular level for the entire body.
It has been found to correlate well with the degree of physical conditioning and is recognized as the most widely accepted measure of endurance fitness. The capacity to use oxygen is related primarily to the ability of the heart and circulatory system to transport oxygen and the ability of body tissues to use it.
Say what? In more basic terms VO2 Max is how efficiently oxygen you breath in gets to your working muscles to use it
VO2 Max values in normal, healthy individuals range from 25 to 80 ml/kg/min and depend on a variety of physiological parameters, including age and conditioning levels.
Values in elite endurance athletes can go even higher.
The highest VO2 max ever recorded is that of Bjorn Daehlie, a cross-country skier from Norway who won eight gold and four silver medals in three Olympic Games from 1992 to 1998.
His VO2 max when he was competing has been reported to be an astounding 93 to 95 ml/kg/min.
The chart below illustrates the VO2 norms and rank for men and women based on age. Please remember though these values can be significantly higher in trained endurance athletes.
MAXIMAL OXYGEN UPTAKE NORMS FOR MEN (ml/kg/min)
MAXIMAL OXYGEN UPTAKE NORMS FOR WOMEN (ml/kg/min)
Source: These norms have been derived from several and now unknown sources.
There are many ways to test or predict your VO2 Max. One requires going to the lab; the other has you doing specific workouts, while the last method predicts it off a current race time.
The absolute best way to get an accurate VO2 Max is to find a lab who tests it and hooks you up to this contraption:
That, my endurance friends, is called a metabolic cart. It can be used while running on a treadmill or while using a stationary trainer.
VO2 max is calculated from measures of ventilation and the oxygen and carbon dioxide in the expired air, and the maximal level is determined at or near test completion.
There are various protocols used to measure VO2 Max when using a metabolic cart but most go like this.
Expect to spend anywhere from $100 - $250 to have a VO2 Max test conducted in the lab. If there’s a University where you live check to see if they have an exercise science department. Chances are they are looking for guinea pigs to do some testing on at no cost to you.
What if you don’t have access to a lab?
Remember these next methods of testing will only provide predictions of VO2 Max. More than likely they will not be as accurate as a lab test, but they should give you a fairly good idea of where you stand.
How to Perform the Test:
VO2 Max = (35.97 * distance you covered in 12-minutes in miles) – 11.29
For example, if I covered 2 miles in 12 minutes the equation would look like this:
VO2 Max = (35.97 x 2) – 11.29
VO2 Max = 71.94 – 11.29
VO2 max = 60.65 ml/kg/min
How to Perform The Test:
This way of predicting VO2 is based on the chart below and only applies to runners.
It was developed by the running coach Jack Daniels and taken from his book Daniel’s Running Formula, which I highly recommend. In this chart VDOT and VO2 Max are one in the same:
Now that we know what VO2 Max is and how to test it; what is the best way to improve it?
The short answer is through interval training one to two times a week.
Interval training involves endurance exercise at an intensity close to VO2 Max or ~90-100% of maximum heart rate (220 – age will give you an estimate of your maximum heart rate) depending on the length of the interval.
Interval training permits the endurance athlete to train at intensities close to VO2 Max for a greater amount of time than would be possible in a single exercise session at a continuous high intensity.
Interval training should not be performed until a firm base of aerobic endurance training has been attained.
Interval training is very stressful on the endurance athlete and should be used sparingly (1-2 times a week).
The benefits derived from interval training include:
Below are sample workouts to improve VO2 Max. One for those who run and the other for individuals who cycle.
It is best to use a heart rate monitor for these workouts but if one is not available make sure the effort level is an 8-9 on a scale of 10.
Improving VO2 Max should be a top priority of every endurance athlete from beginner to pro and is one of the best predictors of success.
An increased VO2 can:
First and foremost, you should test your VO2 max to establish a baseline and retest every 4-6 weeks to measure improvements.
Intervals should be performed 1-2 times a week after sufficient base training and should last anywhere from 3-5 minutes at 90-100% maximum heart rate and use a 1:1 work to rest ratio.
While VO2 Max is very important as it relates to endurance training, there is one other thing endurance athletes should focus on improving for maximal performance. Part 2 of this article will discuss this.