Posted by: Dean Hebert | January 30, 2008

Training: How can I improve my VO2 Max? (part I)

We received the following question from a reader over on MySpace. The question didn’t provide a lot of detail, but Coach Dean tackles it in a two-part post.

First the question:
I’m currently a HS student that specializes in running the 800 and mile. I was wondering if you know any workouts that I can do to improve my Vo2Max. My current Pr’s are: 51.2-400M, 1.58-800M, 4.30-mile, 15.50-3mile, 16.20-5k.

You have very respectable PRs: Nice job!

Your question brings up two separate issues so I’m going to give you two answers: First, how do you improve VO2max, and second, how best do you improve at the distances listed?

First let’s discuss VO2max. VO2max is the measurement of your ability to process oxygen.

There are three primary ways to improve VO2max:
1) Since VO2max is based on weight, you could just simply lose weight. Your VO2max will instantly go up. Of course, this isn’t advised as a method of improving VO2 max for most runners since losing weight for the sake of losing weight could compromise your health. From your times, I can only assume your body weight is appropriate for your height.

2) Second, you can improve VO2max through running more miles. Depending on the research going from being sedentary to running 25 miles per week can improve VO2max by up to 16%. Moving from 25 to the 50 miles per week range can jump it up to another 16%. And moving from 50ish to 70ish improves it up to 3% more. Beyond 70 miles per week there is minimal to no effect at all on VO2max. Keep in mind, with each increase in miles there is a huge increase in the incidence of injuries.

3) Finally, you can use quality workouts (i.e. lactate threshold, speed work) to improve not only VO2max but your lactate threshold, racing pace and your top end speed. Quality work means running faster, but running fewer miles. You’ll get the benefits of increasing your speed on fewer miles per week instead of more. These high quality workouts will be the focus on the next post on this topic.

The downside to this whole VO2max discussion is that as far as measurements go, it is not a very good predictor of performance. In other words, the runner with the higher VO2max does not predict him/her as the winner. Lactate threshold and vVO2max (the minimum speed at which you reach VO2max) as well as some sprint times (300 meters for instance) have been shown to have far better predictive ability than VO2max. If we lined up runners according to their lactate thresholds (high to low) it would also be representative of the finishing line up in most distance races — the same is not true of VO2 Max.

Perhaps this analogy will help. Liken VO2max to how big the gas tank is in your car. You could have a 15 gallon tank and I could have a 12 gallon tank. But if you get 10 miles to the gallon, and I get 30 miles per gallon; you will only go 150 miles on your tank and I will go 360 miles on mine. The issue is efficiency. As a measurement VO2max does not incorporate any efficiency measures, whereas vVO2max does. An efficient runner will race faster than an inefficient runner given similar VO2maxes (or even less as you see in my example).

Finally, VO2max also is not pace specific, whereas lactate threshold is.

In tomorrow’s post, Coach Dean will go into more detail about quality workouts — what they are and how to do them.

Coach Dean Hebert, Tempe Arizona, USA
For Running Advice and News



  1. Regarding the first tip to lose weight to improve VO2max:
    I am overweight (BMI: 27.5) and I have been running for less than a year. I have not lost any weight yet, but my shape has changed a lot. I’m sure I’ve lost fat weight, but the scale hasn’t moved. Does this improve my VO2max as well, or is it actual scale weight loss that would help it? And yes, I am working on changing my eating habits to move that scale number 🙂


  2. Sam,

    Here’s an article about weight loss that you might want to read:

    I’ll let Dean answer the question regarding weight loss and impact on VO2 Max. My interpretation is that his comments are aimed at your weight and your ability to move yourself quickly from place to place. So in this case, losing weight would mean losing actual pounds (not fat).

    Coach Joe

  3. Sam,
    VO2max itself will rise as actual weight in kilograms decrease. It’s just a mathematical equation. So, loss of fat and increase in muscle such that absolute weight is the same – VO2max would remain the same. But, of course it is much more complex than that since conditioning of course improves VO2max – separate from weight as a factor. Your improved condition will yield increased VO2max. Keep up the good work. You’re doing the right things.
    coach dean

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  5. I’ve done a VO2Max test today. I am 39, 5’7 and 74kg, I could lose 5kg of fat. I havent done any regular exercise between 18 and 36. I started doing jiu jitsu/grappling 3 years ago 1 to 3 times a week.
    Starting the test warm up my heart rate was already around 100 ! During the test it went up to 190. Result is my Vo2Max is 25.5 ! Obviously thats terrible, Idont feel that I am that out of shape, I do up to 5 sparring sessions of 5 minutes during training that are pretty intense.
    Is my case desperate ? How much will I be able to improve with aerobic training ? I like climbing, I have been climbing up to 5000m peaks, it’s tough but I did it. Will I ever be able to climb higher, 6 to 8000m ?

  6. Frank,
    You have targeted one important point – 5kg of fat will certainly make a difference. Think of it like wearing a 5kg weight vest in everything you do… and it is dead weight since unlike muscle, it can’t even help you move your body.

    There are many different “tests” to determine your vo2max. From step tests to time trials – the results are then compared to a table of data. Almost ALL are ESTIMATES derived from formulas and are not direct measures. That means any inaccuracy in the process skews the results. Your pulse rate is very high. I question the 190 accuracy though it’s possible.

    But, let’s get real. Is your goal to have a number to brag about to friends or to be able to perform you chosen sport better?If you just want a number – drop weight – become an endurance athlete (runner or cyclist preferably) and your vo2max will greatly improve.

    If it’s about performance then high intensity grappling bouts such as you have mentioned (5 minutes) but more frequently and with progressively less rest between them will improve your conditioning specific to your sport. As for the elevation of those peaks… conditioning will get you there. Your grappling is making little impact on your ability to climb. Climb to become a better climber. I would recommend climbing with a weighted back pack. This is something I have done for runners training for the rim-to-rim-to-rim Grand Canyon run with great results. Use the same approach in part of your training – climb hard intervals – no strolling allowed. You can adapt this easily to stair steppers in a gym in fact.

    I can’t get too specific without knowing all the details of your workout schedule. But, I hope this will help.

    Good luck. You’re heading in the right direction.

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