You've heard it before, maybe from your coach or out of a physiology textbook. You're not sure what it is, and nobody really talks about it. But, if you're serious about running, then you should know your VO2max.


VO2max: What is it?

By Edmund Arellano


When runners are training for a race, they typically pay attention to certain elements of improvement, like their speed, time on their feet, and average pace. Understanding how to control your pace throughout a race is an important strategy to finishing strong. But, there is one other element often overlooked by most runners. Your VO2max.

NEO VO2max Image2

What’s VO2max?

VO2max, or otherwise known as maximal oxygen consumption, is considered the uppermost ability of the body to consume, distribute, and utilize oxygen for energy production. VO2max poses the question: how much oxygen are you absorbing and how much of it is being distributed to your muscles?

Why is this important?  Because your body needs oxygen to perform at high endurance.  Exactly how much oxygen you’re using is the discussion.

Dr. Danielle Templeton of the University of Minnesota explains how VO2max works in this video:

What is VO2 Max?
What is VO2 Max?
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The Studies.

Check this out: In a 2007 Norwegian University study (Helgerud, et al., 2007), scientists compared VO2max levels on 40 healthy, non-smoking, moderately trained males when put up against long endurance runs and high intensity interval training (HIIT).  What they found is that high intensity training significantly improved VO2max levels over slow, long runs.

An example of the interval training their subjects experienced include 15/15 running (15 seconds of sprinting followed by 15 seconds of active resting) and 4x4mins (4 minutes of running at 85% maximal heartrate followed by 3 minutes of active resting completed 4 times).

In a more recent study (2013), scientists with the Public Library of Science (PLoS) analyzed the oxygen consumption and distribution of 334 subjects, including 120 women. Over a 20-week period of increased physical activity, 3 days a week, all of the subjects showed improved levels of VO2max.

So what?

“What does this have to do with long distance running? I’m not a sprinter and I like slow, long runs.”

NEO VO2max CatoThe Norwegian study only proved that you can build VO2max levels faster by interval training than by distance running.  This means that more oxygen is being delivered to your leg muscles making your distance run easier.  Think of it this way: the higher your VO2max level, the less chance of hitting a wall during a marathon (not factoring nutrition).

How do you measure VO2max?

This is where it gets complicated.  The mean baseline for an average 20-30 year old, healthy male is about 45 liters of oxygen consumption, per kilogram, per minute.  For females, it's about 35 liters / kg-1 / min-1.

The mean average oxygen consumption for an athlete is about 65 liters / kg-1 / min-1.

You'll get the most accurate result if you contact your local kinesiologist and get hooked up to a treadmill.  But you can also get some pretty good results using a little bit of math, a little data collection (like your heart rate at maximum and resting), and a lot of patience.

 VO2max ≈ (15.3)[MHR/RHR]

(note: you can get your MHR with this: 208 - (0.7 x age).  Your resting heart rate is measured by the number of heart beats per minute)


So, what we’re trying to say is, if you want to be a better distance runner, include some interval training into your training regime.


Helgerud, J., Hoydal, K., Wang, E., et al. (2007). Aerobic high-intensity intervals improve VO2max more than moderate training. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 39(4). 665-671.

Bacon, A. P., Carter, R. E., Ogle, E. A., & Joyner, M. J. (2013). VO2max Trainability and High Intensity Interval Training in Humans: A Meta-Analysis. PLoS ONE8(9), e73182.