Have you ever busted your tail at the gym, doing cardio day-in, and day-out, only to have some random gym-goer straddle up to the machine next to you and with seeming no effort, blow your pace away? Or maybe you entered a local 5k or mud run, ran as hard as you could, only to get left in the dust by someone not working nearly as hard as you? This is because your VO2 max isn’t up to snuff.
What Is VO2 Max?
The easy way to describe VO2 max is to say it’s a measure of how your body is able to use oxygen. The actual definition is units of oxygen used per kilogram of bodyweight per minute. The higher the number, the better your cardiovascular capability.
For example, 40 is better than 30. This is because that would mean your body could take in and use 40 units of oxygen for every kg you weighed every single minute. That would be better than only being able to take in and use 30 units. In fact, endurance trainees often correlate measured VO2 max with the ability to achieve certain times in various distance runs (1500m, 5k, etc).
Now that you know what VO2 max is, and you know that the higher your VO2 max, the better cardio capability (and performance) you’ll have, the logical next step is wonder how to increase VO2 max. Luckily, there are three options you have to choose from.
Perform Your Endurance Activity More
Chances are, if wanting to know how to increase VO2 max is even in your sphere of consciousness, you perform some sort of endurance activity. This could include roadwork (jogging), biking, rowing, swimming, or more. The simplest way to raise your VO2 capabilities is to just do more of whatever it is your chosen activity. You could either increase your weekly volume, strategically increase your intensity (how hard you’re working), or a bit of both.
A mistake many trainees make is getting caught up only in the idea of increasing oxygen uptake. However, you have to remember that VO2 isn’t just about how much oxygen you can take in and use…it’s also a function of body weight. Taking in more oxygen at your current body weight would increase your VO2, but so would taking in the same amount of oxygen while weighing less. For every pound your body weight goes down, your VO2 goes up.
Intense Workouts that Require Longer, Heavier Breathing
If you want to train your body to take in more oxygen, then that’s what your workouts will have to force it to do. Intensely performed interval training is the best way to do this. There are many ways to do this, but probably the best to start out with is 30/30 or 60/60 workouts (created by French exercise physiologist Veronique Billat).
Start by jogging easily for 10 minutes to warm up. After that, run hard for 30 seconds, then resume a very easy and slow jog for another 30 seconds. Repeat this for 12 total intervals, building up to 20 over time. Then cool down with another 10 minutes of jogging. If you wanted to take the 60 seconds hard, 60 seconds easy approach, perform it the same way, only you’d begin with 6 intervals, building to 10 over time.
A different, but much harder version of this workout involves work intervals of 3 minutes. Start with your 10 minutes easy jogging as a warm up. After that, start your intervals by running at as hard of a pace as you can sustain for 3 minutes, followed by a slow and easy job for 1 minute. Repeat 2 more times for 3 work intervals total.
After your third interval, instead of jogging for only one minute, jog for an easy 10 minutes. After this, you’ll do another 3 rounds of 3 minutes hard running followed by 1 minute jogging. It’s at this point you can finally do your 10 minute cool down jog. Don’t jump into this variation too early, though – it’s only for advanced trainees.
Depending on what your overall workout and activity schedule looks like, do 2-3 workouts like this per week. After 4-8 weeks, you’ll find your cardio has immensely improved, performance on your chosen endurance activity has increased, and you may have even burned off a little body fat. Stay consistent, push the pace, and you’ll find your VO2 max boosted quicker than you think.