What Is VO2 Max and Why Do I Want To Track It While Running?
VO2 max (maximal oxygen uptake) is a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can use during intense exercise like running. It’s a common indicator of cardiovascular fitness and aerobic endurance usually expressed in milliliters of oxygen consumed per kilogram of body weight per minute (ml/kg/min). If you can remember all that as you stare at the numbers on your running watch, you get a prize. A higher VO2 max is understood to indicate better aerobic fitness and the ability to sustain higher levels of physical activity. What does this really mean for your running performance and how the heck can you track it?
How can tracking VO2 max help me run better?
First, let’s clear up an important ball of confusion rolling around and smashing into things. Going to a fitness clinic to strap on assessment equipment one time or looking for one magic number on your running watch isn’t going to tell you anything about your VO2 max. Tracking changes in your VO2 max over time gives you one more helpful piece of information about effectiveness of your training regimen.
So fast forward a few weeks after you’ve been tracking some metric given to you after a weekly fitness clinic visit or taken from your running watch. Now what? Look for trends. Are the numbers improving, staying the same, or trending down? What was your training plan during that time period? Were you trying for improvement or were you just going on maintenance runs?
By understanding your VO2 max, you can tailor your training plan to focus on the appropriate intensity levels. If you were following a plan and you are seeing improvement in your numbers, keep at it. If you aren’t seeing improvements, evaluate your plan and tweak it. Maybe it’s not working, or maybe it used to work but you’ve hit a wall. Paying attention to the trend of the numbers can help you evaluate what is going on.
Setting your goals
Setting realistic fitness goals becomes easier when you have a quantitative measure like VO2 max. When you do see positive results over time, you can set goals for improving your VO2 max and track your progress as you work towards them.
Predicting performance in other areas
VO2 max can provide insights into your potential for endurance performance in general. If you are also into aerobic sports like cycling or cross-country skiing, you should expect to see cross-over results.
Identifying a training plateau
I mentioned hitting a wall before. It’s often difficult to figure out if you are just having a bad period or if your training plan needs some fiddling. Monitoring changes in your VO2 max can help you identify actual training plateaus. If your VO2 max levels remain stagnant despite consistent training, it might be a big sign that you’ve done all you can with the current plan.
Personalizing your training zones
Based on your VO2 max, you can establish personalized training zones, such as your aerobic and anaerobic thresholds. These zones can guide your training intensity and help prevent overtraining or undertraining. Without VO2 max data, you are forced to make educated guesses.
Seeing improvements in your VO2 max can be just the extra motivation you need to lace up and go running when the weather is crappy or you just aren’t feeling it. If you are tracking VO2 max on your watch or app, seeing the numbers improve even when your pace or timed intervals went down can give you something to feel positive about.
Monitoring your health
You run to be healthy, right? VO2 max is not just relevant for athletes; it’s also an indicator of overall cardiovascular health. Maintaining a healthy VO2 max can help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes so there’s value in tracking it beyond running.
So how do I track VO2 max?
Scientifically measuring VO2 max typically requires specialized equipment and expertise, such as a treadmill or stationary bike equipped with gas analysis equipment. While lab-based measurements are the most accurate, unless you are a professional runner or have a specific health issue you are trying to address, you don’t need to go through all that trouble. Many running watches offer features that will give you a close approximation of your VO2 max.
How does a running watch estimate VO2 max?
By using data points such as heart rate, running speed, elevation, and personal information like age, gender, and weight, a running watch can provide an estimate of your VO2 max without requiring a laboratory test.
- Heart Rate: Many GPS running watches have built-in heart rate monitors that continuously track your heart rate during workouts. The relationship between heart rate and effort level is used to estimate your VO2 max.
- Running Speed: The watch uses your running speed to gauge the intensity of your workout. Faster running speeds typically correspond to higher levels of cardiovascular effort.
- Elevation: Elevation changes, such as running uphill, add an extra challenge to your cardiovascular system. The watch takes elevation into account when estimating your VO2 max.
- Personal Information: Your age, gender, weight, and other personal details are inputted into the watch. These factors contribute to the accuracy of the estimation, as VO2 max varies based on individual characteristics.
What’s my personal take?
For me, I’m interested in improving my half marathon and 10k times. My running career doesn’t rely on hitting strict performance goals. I look at the VO2 max information from my Garmin in the same way as I look at pace, heart rate, etc. It’s helpful to monitor this information and pay attention to trends, but a number like VO2 max is not going to define the quality of my run or how I feel about my performance. I like having the information and I’ll definitely look for the feature when I buy future running watches.