What is VO2 max, and why should you care?

Vo2 max refers to the maximum amount of oxygen a person can use during intense/maximal exercise, and is considered the best indicator of measuring cardiovascular fitness and aerobic endurance. Technically, the more oxygen you can produce during a workout, the more energy (ATP) can be produced. ATP fuels your muscles during exercise, and the muscle cells need oxygen during aerobic exercise to produce ATP.

Oxygen consumption will rise in a linear relationship to exercise intensity, until it reaches a plateau – where exercise intensity can continue to rise, but the Vo2 will stop rising, and that is where we measure the Vo2 max. Now, this of course, requires a proper fitness test with the appropriate amount of equipment, but the Norwegian University of Science and Technology has made it possible to estimate your Vo2 max here. Mine turned out to be 53 (which is good, comparing that to Lance Armstrong at his peak though; 85!) and my estimated fitness age is below 20.


Vo2 max has a small genetic component, but can for sure be altered by exercise. Increasing your workout in both volume and intensity will help increasing the Vo2 max, in other words; training at an intensity increasing your heart rate with 65-85% of its maximum, for at least 3-5 times a week.

Exercising in this zone will not only improve and strengthen your cardiovascular system, and improve the transportation of oxygen to, and carbon dioxide from, your muscles, it may also help you burn fat. Yes, you can of course go running for hours and stay at the same heart rate, I do however prefer cardio brutal and quick. The most acknowledged way and effective approach to increasing the Vo2 max (and burning fat), is by doing High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).

Matt Fitzgerald has 3 suggested interval routines that you can follow to effectively increase your Vo2 max.

Step 1: 30/30 and 60/60 Intervals

Start with 30/30 intervals. After warming up with at least 10 minutes of easy jogging, run 30 seconds hard, at the fastest pace you could hold for about six minutes in a race. Then slow to an easy jog for 30 seconds. Continue alternating fast and slow 30-second segments until you have completed at least 12 and as many as 20 of each.

Increase the number of 30/30 intervals you complete each time you do this workout, and then switch to 60/60 intervals. Start with at least six of these and build up to as many as 10.

Step 2: Hill Intervals (we do these in bootcamp, it is a killer)

Shorter hill intervals of 20 to 90 seconds are great for developing power, strength and speed. Slightly longer intervals of two to three minutes are great for VO2max development. To do a hill intervals workout, warm up with at least 10 minutes of easy jogging. Then run hard uphill for two to three minutes (choose your duration before you start), jog back down to your starting point and repeat.

If your fitness level is modest, start with a set of 4 x 2:00 or 3 x 3:00. Very fit runners can do as much as 10 x 2:00 or 7 x 3:00. Pace yourself so that you neither slow down through the workout due to early fatigue nor finish the workout feeling you could do more.


Step 3: Lactate Intervals

Lactate intervals are the toughest kind of VO2max training. Build up a fairly high level of fitness with 30/30, 60/60 and hill intervals before you move on to lactate intervals.

It is best to do this type of workout on the track. Warm up with at least 10 minutes of easy jogging and then run hard for 800 (two laps on a full-size running track) to 1200 meters (three laps on a full-size running track) around the track. Now reduce your pace to an easy jog for 400 meters.

Run shorter intervals (800m) in your first lactate intervals workout of a given training cycle and then move upward. Do a total of about 5000m of fast running in these workouts (6-7 x 800m, 5 x 1000m, 4 x 1200m). Again, try to run the fastest pace that you can sustain through the last interval without slowing down.

Intervals are hell, breathing heavily and feeling as if you’re about to have a heart attack is hell, but for every interval session you try, I promise you’ll feel a little bit better (only a little bit), and if you leave the running forever kind of workout at the side for a while, and go back to it after you’ve been running intervals for a while, I can guarantee that you feel run your normal distance way faster and way better.



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