What once was restricted to science laboratories and academic research, VO2 levels have now come to be an essential requisite for elite as well as average runners. Private companies and academic labs all over the world are offering to do VO2 max tests on runners and cyclists of any ability level to aid their training. Even many fitness trackers and running apps try to provide a VO2 max number, who’s accuracy we seriously doubt. So, what exactly is VO2 max and why is it so important to runners?

Know your VO2 max

VO2 max is the measure of aerobic fitness which refers to the maximum rate at which oxygen is delivered to your muscles when you undergo an aerobic activity. VO2 max is the highest when you can transport oxygen via blood to your muscles, which is then used up as energy aerobically. VO2 max is measured in terms of milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body mass per minute. For example the standard VO2 max levels for a 35-year old man who follows a sedentary lifestyle will be 45 ml/kg/min. Depending on how much training your body undergoes, your VO2 max levels can fluctuate. According to Runner’s World the VO2 max levels for an average 35-year-old male runner are 55 ml/kg/min, for a locally competitive male runner it is 65 ml/kg/min, and 70 to 85 ml/kg/min for an elite runner. The VO2 max levels for women are about 10 percent lower than those of men because women have higher essential fat reserves and lower hemoglobin levels.

Top athletes like Nike’s Kipchoge had to undergo VO2 max tests to measure how much oxygen and carbon dioxide he’s inhaling and exhaling, enabling them to calculate his maximal aerobic capacity or VO2 max levels (Photograph Courtesy: Clayton Cotterell | Nike)

It can aptly be described as your body’s plumbing system for  aerobic activity. If your VO2 max levels are high then your heart has a better ability to pump large amounts of blood with each beat. This means that your circulatory system can then efficiently deliver the oxygen rich blood to your working muscles. When you train consistently, it improves your ability to sustain a higher percentage of your maximal heart rate a longer period, your heart’s stroke volume, the size and number of mitochondria in your muscles, the density of your capillaries, and the proportion of your blood sent to working muscles.

Importance to Runners

While many runners and athletes are in the quest to increase their VO2 max levels, they might be an important aspect of running but, are not everything. Your running speed is dependent on several other factors such as your target race distance, running economy and lactate threshold, which all play a big role in how fast you can run. Another fact that many of athletes tend to forget is that VO2 max is a measure of your current maximal aerobic capacity and not a clear indicator of what might or might not make you a better runner; unless you’ve been training at an elite level for several years which will definitely lead you to determine the extent of your improvement.

It is also noted that elite marathoners tend to have a lower VO2 max than elite middle-distance runners. That’s because, as race distance increases, the maximal amount of oxygen you can deliver to your muscles starts to be less important, and efficiency becomes more of a limiting factor. VO2 max levels are also determined by your genes.  So if you have a dream of becoming an elite runner , then no amount of training can help you if you have or you have relatively low VO2 max levels because of your genetic structure.

If you are a beginner, then don’t think too hard about increasing your VO2 max levels. Relatively inexperienced runners can improve their VO2 max by simply logging more miles.The most standard and efficient way to measure your VO2 max levels is a treadmill test in an exercise laboratory. A higher VO2 max has been linked to lower incidence of conditions such as heart disease, certain types of cancer, dementia, depression, and Type 2 diabetes.

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