VO2 max – Not the end all for running performance

Posted on: May 4th, 2017 by The Physio Movement | Categories: Sports Medicine & Nutrition

When it comes to discussing a person’s running athletic performance a common term that can get thrown around is the person’s VO2 max. If you have not heard the term it stands for maximal oxygen consumption, expressed as either L/min or mL/(kg.min). The former being an absolute measure where the latter takes into consideration a persons weight.

Understanding the difference is important because if we were to have Person A with a higher absolute vo2 score but 20kg’s heavier, than Person B with a lower absolute Vo2s score but significantly lighter, person’s B vo2max relatively is higher, and with that would coincide with better aerobic performance because of it.

Not to say that VO2 max is a completely moot score, of course it plays an important roll in sports that are predominantly aerobically based, because if yours is in the very low range, its going to be hard to compete against someone who scores much higher. A simple definition of vo2max is a person’s maximal oxygen consumption, or as I like to call it, your aerobic ceiling. Hence it is very common for elite athletes to have very high “ceilings” and unfortunately it is very genetic based and not in fact very trainable. But do not despair, because as our article heading suggests it’s not the end all. For these following points I will be specifically talking in respect to running performance.
The other 2 very important determinants for performance is aerobic threshold/lactate threshold & running economy. To keep it simple lactate threshold is how fast we can go before we start to accumulate more lactate than we can deal with, tipping over into anaerobic zones, kind of like how much of our ceiling can we work at. Whilst running economy is simply how much oxygen consumption at a set given pace.

So the main difference between being trained vs untrained isn’t your VO2 max as the absolute value but both an improvement in your lactate threshold and your running economy. The VO2 max  (L/min) will change, but it can only be improved around 10% and the majority of the improvement comes from your improved cardiac output (not including significant weight lose). Where the level of your VO2 max you can be run at aerobically is very trainable, along with running economy. And when it comes to the longer distances such as marathons the aerobic threshold and running economy become the bigger determinants of performance.

The diagram below is outline in a study by (Basset & Howley 2000) which also describes what I am talking about in much greater detail if you wanted to lean some more as this is only a very brief overview into the physiology of running performance, the above study does a great review or even come in as see us for any further questions.


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