What is V02 Max for Running and How do You Improve It?

If you've ever opened a book about running or gone to a forum about running, you almost have surely seen the term VO2 Max. But what the heck does VO2 Max mean, how can it help you, and how do you change it? Well, I'm Jesse Funk, and today on this episode of Runner’s High, I'm going to answer just that.

If you've ever opened a book about running or gone to a forum about running, you almost have surely seen the term VO2 Max. But what the heck does VO2 Max mean, how can it help you, and how do you change it? Well, I'm Jesse Funk, and today on this episode of Runner’s High, I'm going to answer just that.

VO2 Max is actually a term meaning that maximum volume of oxygen that our bodies can utilize at one point in time during running or activity. It's something that we use as one measure as a measure of fitness for running because we have to use oxygen for anaerobic activity. In some ways, VO2 Max is actually a fixed product. It's determined in part by your genetics, the mitochondrial density in your body, as well as your fitness level. So, there is a component that can be trained. But there is an upper level because of your genetics you'll never get past.

So, you can train if you have no fitness, you can train to improve it, but there is a ceiling that eventually you get to. And that's kind of the difference about work versus talent. Some people have the ability to have a much higher VO2 Max and process oxygen more efficiently than the rest of us. That's just kind of the genetic lottery. But what can we do to improve our VO2 Max and maximize our own self-performance?

Anytime we talk about VO2 Max, for me, we have to talk about Jack Daniels. And no, I don't mean the charcoal imbued Tennessee's made whiskey. If you love terrible jokes, subscribe to the channel. I got plenty of them always keep cutting them. Okay. So, Jack Daniels is actually if you don't already know a renowned running coach. And he studied a variety of athletes, a fair number of elite athletes at various distances and their performances.

He used all of their times and performances to kind of make this data, this chart and made a measure called VDot, which is loosely correlated to VO2 Max. He made a correlation between all of these performances, and a rough estimation of VO2 Max to say, if you can perform X, you know time at, say, a 5K, then we expect you to produce Y time and a half marathon.

Typically, if you want to measure VO2 Max directly, you need to go to a lab with special equipment that it can actually test that kind of thing. So, the Jack Daniels table and that VDot measure is actually a super handy tool for anybody who doesn't have access to that kind of expensive equipment or doesn't want to go pay to have it done.

Because you can always find a lab to go do it if you want to measure it directly. But we can use the VDot Table, this nice handy chart next to me, and it'll tell you a lot about what your VO2 Max is. And then we can use that to help us figure out how to improve our VO2 Max and our fitness and structure our training around what that table is telling us.

So, how do you actually improve your VO2 Max? Well, the short version is you have to place a higher demand on your body than is currently being asked of it. Basically, if you want to run faster, you have to run faster. A little bit axiomatic I know, but there is an actual lesson I'm going to get to here.

The big thing is, let's take a look at the chart, and I'm going to give you an example of say a high school runner that can run 18 minutes. Let's take a look at the chart and see what it says. So, you're a high schooler, you’re running an 18-minute 5K, you're doing a good job so far but you know you want to get faster. You want to be better. How are we going to do that?

Well, considering you're running an 18 minute 5K, you're probably already in pretty shape. You're also already probably at the point you're running enough miles that you're doing interval work. Personally, my suggestion for you is going to be that the max gains you're going to get in terms of improvement of VO2 Max is going to come with interval work, probably near the 800 to 1,000 meter rep, and then the workout should last 5,000 to 8,000 meters. Again, this depends a little bit on your fitness level. I can't make a specific recommendation for you without knowing your history, but we can get pretty close.

So, checking out that VDot table, if you're running an 18 minute 5K, your VDot value is roughly 56. That means that we can look at the intervals from the table and it'll tell us so for 800 or our 1,000 meter example, you're gonna be running roughly 2:52 or 3:32, for your 800 and thousand meter respectively. Now, the big question is how much rest you get between those intervals?

Well, without knowing you being able to make a more specific example, depending on your fitness, in general, you're going to start at one to one rest. So, if you ran 2:52 for an 800, you're going to rest 2:52 in between, and make that standing, walking rest, something like that. You can work up to doing jogging rest later on. But to start out, you want to do standing rest.

And then something I like personally, and this is where I veer away from the Jack Daniels table is I'm a big fan of negative splits within a workout set. So, say we're doing a roughly 5,000 meter workout, you're going to have six 800 meter repeats. So, if 2:52 is your target time, the first interval, you're going to want to sit slightly slower or right on that interval.

So, maybe you come in 2:54, 2:53, perfect. Now, this is partially a skill in pacing and partially a skill in fitness. But would suggest if you can try this lower that time every single rep, but don't exceed more than five seconds faster than your target time, meaning five seconds faster than 2:52 or 2:47 would be your absolute limit.

A perfect workout in my opinion here would be like 2:53, 2:52, 251, 50, 49, 48, something like that. It shows controlling your pacing and your slowly turning up the dial on the demands from your body. You don't want to get into too fast a pace where you're producing lactic acid and you're pushing past the point where you are no longer really utilizing oxygen for you know, energy production. If you want access to these tables and a little bit of more of Daniels’ philosophy, you can actually grab a copy of Jack Daniels running book clicking the link in the description below the video.

But the idea of this training to increase your VO2 Max is to sit right near that, you know, top-line where your capacity of oxygen is about to switch over into an anaerobic environment. So, normally, you are aerobic and produce energy through the Krebs cycle, where oxygen is utilized to create ATP, which is the energy that we use to power our muscles. And then there's a certain point when energy demands are high enough that we start using the lactic acid cycle and that's where lactic acid is produced, and it's no longer aerobic.

The idea of this interval, this interval work is that you moved up just writing to the edge, and then sitting there and then slightly over it. And that's the point of those negative split intervals, increases the demand that your body is being asked to produce in that aerobic environment, so that during your rest, after you've done that workout and you're resting and you can recover, then your body can adapt and help bring that VO2 Max up slightly.

That's why I say that there is an absolute limit. You use that table as a suggestion, the 2:52 pace, but you can dial it up just slightly, at least in my experience, without negative detriment. But there is that limit in-- a speed limit, don't go past that certain point. Or you're not actually benefiting yourself in what you're trying to achieve.

This area that I'm talking about this line, right between the regular ATP, oxygen, aerobic environment production and the lactic acid is often referred to as threshold. Which makes sense because it's the threshold with which you switch over from oxygen aerobic capacity into anaerobic. Now, you don't entirely go entirely one way or the other at that line. It's not a hard line. It's really a gradation but as far as illustrated examples, it's easier to think of it that way.

Another style of training, another workout that is around this same type of area of effort called lactate threshold training. It shouldn't be confused with VO2 Max improvement training, even though it happens at a similar intensity. It's a different workout, it's a different kind of setup, and it has an entirely different goal. Both of them help you go faster and improve your running economy, well I guess, running efficiency, but it is something entirely different and I will cover it in another video.

So, I want to know about you. Do you know what your VO2 Max is? Have you used the Jack Daniels table? Have you tried to improve your VO2 Max before? Leave me a comment below. Let me know what's going on with you, I always love to hear from you. So, as always, I'll see you next time on the next episode of Runner's High.

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