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How VO2 Max Works

Increasing VO2 Max
Check your heart rate and running time when you train to use in calculating and tracking your VO2 max.
Check your heart rate and running time when you train to use in calculating and tracking your VO2 max.

Your VO2 max indicates how much oxygen your body can use in your current physical shape. Historically, distance runners with a higher VO2 max have been considered to have the most potential for winning races and setting records. Studies over the years have rated different VO2 max values for different age groups, and athletes are consistently within those highest ratings.

In the resources cited for this article, the top-rated VO2 max categories for people in their 20s were 51 and higher for men and 44 or higher for women. As the athletes' age goes up, their VO2 max ranges at each level go down. For example, women in their 50s with VO2 max numbers of 31 and higher are rated excellent, but for women in their 20s, anything under 35 is considered poor. Different VO2 max studies often report different data in different ways, so be sure to look up your VO2 max in multiple resources to compare them and determine a reasonable number for yourself.

Exercise experts have found ways to make the most of the VO2 max number during your training, including ways to push that number higher. The most prominent of these approaches is high intensity interval training, or HIIT. Look for resources on how to develop the HIIT program that's right for you. The following are some HIIT workout formats you might try:

  • 30/30 and 60/60 intervals -- alternating jogging and your fastest-paced runs
  • Hill intervals -- alternating runs uphill and jogging back down
  • Lactate intervals -- pushing muscles to their limits at your fastest pace [source: Fitzgerald]

Though VO2 max training can boost your running performance and your fitness level, exercise experts across the board say not to make it the only priority in your training. One reason to keep VO2 max in perspective is that there are many factors that you don't have control over, such as your genetics, age and even your altitude [sources: Daley, Mascarell]. In addition, note that some of the top distance runners in the world have had lower VO2 max numbers than some of their less-accomplished competitors, indicating that the VO2 max alone is not a clear predictor of success [source: Morris].

Sprint over to the next page for lots more information about VO2 max and related running topics.

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