Triathlete? Marathoner? Weekend Warrior?

If you want to improve – or avoid age-related performance decline, you’ve got to know your Training Zones.

How do you do that?

You measure your V02 Max. When you know your V02 Max, the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during dynamic exercise, you understand your fitness – how to train and recover. It’s that simple. To properly measure your VO2 Max, you must go to an exercise physiology lab with a metabolic cart. That’s what we offer. Let’s get you seen! 949.460.9111

The VO2 max is considered the gold standard for assessing an individual’s aerobic or endurance fitness, and you’ve likely heard the term come up in conversation with your running friends more than once. But what is it, exactly, and is it as important as we think? We spoke with Alexandra Coates, a runner, professional triathlete, and exercise physiology Ph.D. candidate, who told us everything you need to know about your VO2 Max.

What is the VO2 max?

Coates explains that your VO2 Max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during dynamic exercise. Also referred to as your maximal aerobic power, it measures your body’s ability to transport and use oxygen while doing aerobic activity like running. How big and strong your heart is, how much blood and red blood cells you have, how good your blood flow is to the working muscles, and how much oxygen your mitochondria (the powerhouses of your cells) consume are all reflected in your VO2 Max.

How can you determine your VO2 Max?

To correctly measure your VO2 Max, Coates says you need to go to an exercise physiology lab with a metabolic cart. A metabolic cart measures the volume of oxygen your body uses and the volume of carbon dioxide you produce during exercise through the gas concentrations and rates of your inspired and expired breaths. In the lab, you would take a VO2 max test, which will always be some version of an incremental (or ramp) exercise test, where you are either running, cycling, or even rowing while wearing a mask connected to the metabolic cart.

The beginning of the test would start reasonably easy and should get gradually harder and harder so that by the time you’ve been running for around eight to 12 minutes, you are going as hard as you possibly can. An exercise physiologist can tell when you’ve reached your VO2 Max because your oxygen consumption will plateau or perhaps even decrease, even though your exercise intensity is increasing.

Of course, very few of us will ever find ourselves in an exercise physiology lab, but that doesn’t mean you can’t at least get a rough idea of where your VO2 Max is. There are equations and calculators that you can use to determine your VO2 Max simply by inputting recent race or workout results. If you’d like to determine roughly what your VO2 Max is, Coates suggests using the Daniels Running Formula.

How important is VO2 Max?

“VO2 max certainly plays a big part in running performance for any endurance event,” says Coates, “as it represents the maximal work rate you can perform. VO2max is directly proportional to how fast you will run at the end of the ramp test and how fast you can run a 5K, 10K, half-marathon or marathon.”

She adds that VO2 max isn’t everything, and an individual can have a very high VO2 max genetically but be relatively untrained and have poor running economy. She also notes that a high VO2 max doesn’t protect you from injuries. The other important piece of the puzzle is how close to your VO2 Max you can work without hitting your anaerobic threshold, the highest exercise intensity you can sustain for a prolonged period without lactate building up in your blood.

“Being able to work at a very high percentage of your VO2 Max seems to be what separates the good athletes from the best,” explains Coates, “not VO2 max itself.”

She gave us the following example: say you have two athletes, athlete A and athlete B, with the same running economy. Athlete A’s VO2 max is 60 ml/kg/min, and athlete B’s VO2 max is 65 ml/kg/min. In a 5km race, athlete A can work at 95 percent of their VO2 max for the duration of the race, meaning that they consume 57 ml/kg/min of oxygen throughout the race. Athlete B, on the other hand, can only work at 85 percent of their VO2max for a 5K, resulting in a VO2 of 55 ml/kg/min during the race, which ultimately means they will not be able to sustain the same running velocity as Athlete A, even though they have a higher VO2 max.

Can you improve your VO2 Max?

The good news is, you can — at least partly. Coates tells us most of the research has determined that 50 percent of your VO2 Max is genetic, and the other 50 percent is trainable. Some people can improve their VO2 max dramatically simply by doing long endurance sessions, while others will require high-intensity intervals, tempo-threshold runs, and 1K to 2K repeats. Interestingly enough, recent research has shown that people with higher VO2 maxes tend to live longer, so training your aerobic threshold will make you a better runner and a healthier person overall.

The bottom line

Your VO2 Max is an essential predictor of your running abilities but isn’t the only noteworthy performance metric. VO2max, running economy, and percentage of sustainable VO2max are the main factors that dictate performance, and to see significant improvements, you need to work on all three of these areas. Luckily, Coates says the running economy is vastly improved simply by running more, so with time, your running economy will likely improve on its own. Finally, while we all love to get faster, the most important reason we run is to stay healthy, and training your VO2 Max can help you do that.

“Aerobic fitness is good for you,” Coates says, “so work with the 50 percent VO2 max trainability that you have to try to be fit across your lifespan.”

Let’s measure your V02 Max! It’s priceless information that will give you insights that will blow your mind.
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