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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