What is VO2 Max Anyway?

If you’re a runner, you’ve heard the term VO2 Max being thrown around. If you’re like me…you aren’t 100% what it even means. Something about oxygen and how it makes you faster…or something…

What exactly is VO2 max and how can I improve it?

So what is VO2 Max? I decided to do some research and find out.

According to Breaking Muscle:

The short explanation is that VO2 represents the body’s ability to use oxygen. It is measured in units of oxygen used per kilogram of bodyweight per minute (ml O2 per kg per min).

That is still somewhat confusing to me, so let’s find another explanation. RunnersConnect explains it like this:

VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during exercise. It’s a combination of how much oxygen-rich blood your heart can pump, and the muscles efficiency in extracting and utilizing the oxygen.


Your VO2 max occurs when your oxygen consumption redlines—this usually happens at a bit faster than your 5k race pace.  At this point, your heart rate is also maxed out, and you’re working pretty hard.

So you can understand how a better VO2 max (point at which your basically maxed out) can lead to better running times. It allows you to use oxygen more efficiently, which leads to faster running feeling “easier.”

We know that elite runners have a crazy high VO2 max, and much of this can be genetic. But, us “normal people” as I like to say, can improve VO2 max simply by running more and/or doing specific workouts. 

Breaking Muscle says that you are able to improve your VO2 max by up to 15% with training! I’m in. Although you need to be in a lab to know your exact score, they did provide a table with a general idea of what yours might be. Let’s just say I’m towards the bottom of the chart.

What is VO2 max?Photo source

So how do you improve your VO2 max? Like I said above, run more. Build your base and once you’re ready, you can add in VO2 max specific workouts. Breaking Muscle suggests losing weight as well. That is one of my goals between now and when I start really getting into marathon training. I know I have at least an extra 10 lbs. on me that I need to shed. Side note: why is it so easy to gain 10 lbs. and so hard to lose???

Anyway, back to the workouts. Workouts are basically interval training, where you are running at or faster than 5K pace. It will be a struggle, but that’s the point. Over the winter, I was challenging myself by doing 400 meter repeats at faster than my 5K pace (and faster than I’ve ever done them), but it really is motivating to improve week by week and feel it getting somewhat easier.

Here’s an example of a workout taken from that same Breaking Muscle page I liked to above: 

  • Warm up – 10 minutes easy
  • 3:1 x 3
  • Recover for 5-10 minutes easy running or riding
  • 3:1 x 3
  • Cool down for 10 minutes

The 3:1 x 3 means that you’re running hard for 3 minutes, taking a 1 minute break, then running for 3 minutes hard again, for a total of 3 times before taking that 5-10 minute break. Once you’re ready to progress, start increasing the time you’re running hard. I’m tired even thinking of this workout.

I tried looking up other workouts and they are all basically the same. Run for a couple minutes at your VO2 max (or a bit faster than 5K pace), recover for anywhere from 4-10 minutes depending on your level. 

Apparently,VO2 max isn’t really that important for marathon runners, but it is key if you’re looking to improve your 5K time. I really want to work on getting faster between now and mid-June, so looks like I’ll have to throw these workouts into the mix. You can do anything for just 3 minutes right? ;)

If you have no clue when to schedule certain workouts, like Vo2 max, tempos, etc., I highly recommend working with a running coach. If you’re looking for one, definitely check out Coach Marc of TrainWithMarc

I actually have a 5K race this evening (if it’s not still raining) and know I will not be happy with my time…but it’s a starting point. Plus, it’s on a cross country course which will make it even more challenging, but I like it because it takes me back to those high school XC days!

Have you ever gone to a lab to get tested for VO2 max, or anything running related? I’d love to…and I’d like a professional gait analysis too!

What is your favorite running workout? I like anything on the track and hate tempo runs :)


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  1. I really need to test my VOX. I swear I am having problems with breathing.
    Margo recently posted…What Did We Learn This Month? @WomensHealthMag with Cobie Smulders on the Cover!My Profile

  2. AWESOME post. Thanks for sharing.I learned something new. According to my VO2 max (per my polar) I can (and should) run a faster marathon… perhaps I just need to dig deep and trust my body. :)
    Rachel recently posted…Returning to Trail RunningMy Profile

  3. When I was in university I had my VO2 Max tested as part of my athlete program and while I don’t remember the number, it was excellent. My Garmin FR620 also does a VO2 estimate and according to it, I should be able to run faster. Running efficiency is also an important factor.
    Ange @ Cowgirl Runs recently posted…A (Crazy) Runner’s Race ScheduleMy Profile

  4. I actually wrote a blog post on this about a month ago after attending a sports medicine lecture at work. You can’t do a whole lot about your VO2 max but you can increase your lactate threshold, which can make you run faster and longer.
    Wendy@Taking the Long Way Home recently posted…DreamsMy Profile

  5. So awesome that you can increase your VO2 max with training!! I totally believe that you can train this way but it’s exhausting to push like this!!
    Sam @ PancakeWarriors recently posted…Mother’s Day Brunch IdeasMy Profile

  6. I got mine tested a few years back and it was a really interesting process. I’d love to do it again to compare.
    Deborah @ Confessions of a Mother Runner recently posted…How To Pack For A Ragnar & How NOT To Train For OneMy Profile

  7. This is so interesting! I’d love to see what my max is. Though I suspect I would be a bit discouraged at how low it is lol! Gotta start somewhere though right?!
    Stephanie (@FitMomTraining) recently posted…Things I’m loving latelyMy Profile

  8. I have had VO2 max tested both on the bike and on the treadmill in a lab. The two values should be similar within test repeatability, although cycling gives you a power output versus running gives you a pace. Those tables you show are very rough estimates. I must have poor running economy because the table gives me low 40s versus my lab testing has me in the 48-50 range. VO2 max improvements are helpful, although running economy improvements (form and muscle recruitment patterns) will help your pace at VO2 max and also for aerobic efforts. So hard efforts that help form are important for short and long distance runners alike!
    Kelli @ Destination Awesome recently posted…Ironman Mont Tremblant 70.3 – Training UpdateMy Profile

    • Very interesting thanks for the comment! I think at my college they had the testing on the bike but I never got to try it :(

  9. As soon as I incorporated speedwork into my training I got SO much faster and qualified for Boston. Doing those tough workouts really does make a difference. I enjoy a track ladder: 400m, 600m, 800m, 1000m, 1200m, 1000m, 800m, 600m, 400m. Killer but good.
    Marcia recently posted…In Praise of a 7 Minute WorkoutMy Profile

    • I remember doing that working in high school track and people puking afterwards! I haven’t done it since then lol but I do plan on incorporating it into my training as I try to get faster.

  10. Great post. I’ve never had mine professionally tested, but I use the HRM for my Garmin, and the 620 can give you your VO2 max which is a pretty cool feature. Would love to see how it compared to a professional reading!

  11. I hate speed workouts on the treadmill. Even though I’m able to control my speed, and I’ve come up with ways to help entertain myself, I just feel like I’m not running anywhere, especially when I’m trying to run quickly.
    Kathryn @ Dancing to Running recently posted…Who Wants to Be a Bad Ass Runner?My Profile

    • The worst is when you feel like you’re sprinting, then you look in the mirror and it looks like a normal jog lol

  12. Super comprehensive post! V02 Max does matter to some extent for marathon runners, especially if you’re going for a PR. A better V02 = more efficient at O2 consumption = faster turnover! I’ve always wanted to get mine tested, and thought about it during marathon training last year. Those speed workouts are key for faster times!
    Bri recently posted…Looking for a challenge? Enter to win one FREE entry into any Western Canadian Reebok Spartan Race!My Profile

  13. Thanks for the informative post! I’ve never had mine tested but it’s tempting to do so because I would like to know exactly what paces to do speedwork at.
    Laura @ This Runner’s Recipes recently posted…Charlie our PuggleMy Profile

  14. Never even knew this was a thing until this post. So thanks for all the info :D
    GiselleR @ Diary of an ExSloth recently posted…Almost Cinco de Mayo EatsMy Profile

  15. Ooh I am a VO2max nerd. I teach a lab portion of an exercise physiology class and we get to test VO2max on volunteers. After reading these comments, you’d be surprised at how hard it is to get somebody to volunteer for this kind of test! Haha.
    Amanda | Chasing My Sunshine recently posted…Broad Street Run Recap 2015My Profile

  16. ahhhh this is super interesting but i can’t think about adding something else to my running right now. i’ll just let you test it out and then read your posts about it :) thanks, patty!!
    Courtney @ Eat Pray Run DC recently posted…20+ Five Ingredient or Less DinnersMy Profile

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