How to increase VO2 max: Tips from a training expert
In running and fitness, VO2 max is a measure of how much oxygen your body can carry. Get tips from a training expert on how to improve your VO2 max.
What is VO2 Max?
How fast and far can you run before you’re completely out of breath? In the simplest terms, that’s what runners and athletes are talking about when they refer to “VO2 max.” Many fitness watches and other devices have formulas to measure VO2 max, and runners are taking notice.
Tristan Rice is a performance specialist with EXOS Training. Here’s how he describes VO2 max:
“VO2 max is your maximal oxygen-carrying capacity: How much oxygen you can bring into your lungs, load on to red blood cells, and then offload into working tissue.”
So how do you calculate VO2 max, and how do you know what’s a good VO2 max for you? Rice has helped athletes at every level reach new personal bests, and he urges runners to consider VO2 max as a part of a larger picture of overall fitness.
Increasing VO2 Max: Listen to Your Body’s Cues
Many fitness watches and other smart devices track VO2 max, but Rice advises paying closer attention to how you feel than what your device says. These devices calculate an estimate of VO2 max based on a formula, rather than recording the kind of in-depth information that can be collected in a laboratory.
Beginning runners will often see significant improvements in how long and how fast they can run before they hit total exhaustion. More advanced athletes may see those gains taper off in time, as they approach the ceiling of their own VO2 max. However, training to improve your VO2 max can also yield other important gains, like more elasticity in your soft tissue, and better metabolic efficiency.
How to Improve Your VO2 Max
For runners looking to increase VO2 max, Rice recommends a combination of three types of workouts: “We all need a balanced exposure to three different types of training sessions: yellow, green and red.”
• YELLOW: Runs in the “yellow zone” are low intensity and long duration. Run at a steady, sustainable pace for at least 30 minutes.
• GREEN: “Green” runs are moderate-to-high in intensity for moderate duration, similar to what some runners call tempo runs. Run for 30-60 minutes. Bring the intensity up closer to your maximum by running at a faster pace for some portion of the run, slowing down to rest periodically. A run in the green zone might be 35 minutes, for example, alternating between running at a medium or fast pace for 5 minutes and running at a slower pace for 5 minutes.
• RED: The “red” zone is high intensity for low or moderate duration. “The red zone is your peak intensity,” says Rice, alternated with intervals of rest. For your red zone run, work for 20-30 minutes from start to finish, sprinting for short intervals and resting for longer than you sprint. For example, you can alternate 2-minute sprints with 4 minutes of walking.
A balanced routine of workouts in the yellow, green and red zones can help maximize your VO2 max, as well as other key indicators of fitness. As Rice explains,
“Things like improving the elasticity of your soft tissue, your ability to coordinate and stabilize your body as you land on each foot, and other ancillary things that have downstream effects which can improve your ability to run for longer durations.”
VO2 Max: One Element of Overall Fitness
Before you lace up and hit the road, remember that VO2 max is only one variable in your overall fitness level. “Single variables end up being more like single stars in a constellation,” says Rice, “What’s important is the constellation, not the individual star.”
While training to increase your VO2 max, he recommends looking at the big picture:
“Just because we can measure something doesn’t mean that it’s the only thing. Just because we can measure VO2 max, doesn’t mean that VO2 max is the only thing that improves.”
With a balanced routine of high-intensity short runs, moderate-intensity tempo runs, and longer low-impact runs, you’ll see overall improvements in your level of fitness.
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