When running any considerable distance, the top speed that you can move at any given point does not really matter. Why? Because top speed is not the bottleneck that is limiting your performance. Rather, the bottleneck for most people is their ability to keep moving. We can run quite fast for a short while but inevitably this eventually gives way to us doubling over and panting like a dog. In other words? We tire out quickly.
This prevents us from training as much as we should and it severely hampers us in athletic contests.
So what can we do about it?
What Is VO2 Max?
The subject that is really under scrutiny here is ‘VO2’ max.
A VO2 max tells us the maximum amount of oxygen we are capable of consuming in a particular amount of time. More specifically, our VO2 max is calculated as the units of oxygen used per kilogram of bodyweight, per minute.
So take a moment to calculate that. Basically, this tells you how much oxygen you take in for every pound of bodyweight each minute when you’re exercising at full intensity. All you really need to know is that this is shown as a number which will usually range between 30-60 – although it can actually go significantly higher.
This table shows the average VO2 max range for different ages and genders:
An athlete though might go as high as 90.5!
The Link Between VO2 and Performance
As a general rule, the higher your VO2 max, the faster you will be able to run over a long distance. Why is this? Because our ability to take in oxygen and use it is what provides us with energy when we exert ourselves. During aerobic exercise, oxygen is used to burn fat stores for fuel and this fuel is then delivered to our muscles to allow us to keep running. The more oxygen we can consume in a short time, the faster we can provide our bodies with the necessary energy and the faster we can move without collapsing.
Our VO2 max is actually dictated by a number of different factors. These include the amount of oxygen you can take in per breath (not normally a limiting factor), the rate at which your body can absorb the oxygen from your lungs, your red blood cell count, the number and efficiency of your mitochondria, the strength of your heart for pumping blood around your body and more.
It is for these reasons that some athletes will turn to using EPO to dope for sporting events. EPO is a hormone that is technically known as ‘erythropoietin’ and which is naturally produced in the body to stimulate the production of new red blood cells. The more EPO you have, the more red blood cells you have and the more oxygen you can carry around the body/more fat you can burn. While we have a certain amount of EPO in our bodies already, some athletes have been known to cheat by injecting extra synthetic rhEPO (recombinant erythropoietin) giving them an unfair advantage.
How to Raise Your VO2 Max
Injecting with EPO is illegal and dangerous. However, you can raise your VO2 max in a number of other ways too.
For instance, there are ways you can naturally increase your EPO/red blood cell count. Consuming more iron for example will help you to increase your red blood cell count. Meanwhile, certain supplements/food like echinacea and even beetroot may help to increase EPO to a small extent according to some sources. Beetroot in particular has been shown to give athletes a modest improvement in endurance tests (1) and this is also likely to the high quantity of nitrates. Nitrates as vasodilators that widen the blood vessels thereby allowing the heart to pump more blood and more nutrients around the body than it would otherwise be able to. Many other foods and nutrients can also increase mitochondrial count and function, such as lutein, coenzyme Q10, PQQ etc.
Living at altitudes where there is low air pressure may also help to increase VO2 max and aerobic efficiency. This has led to ‘hypoxic training’ becoming quite popular. In reality though, you would likely need to live (not just train) at altitude in order for this to have a large impact. What’s more is that these adaptations are likely to fade very quickly.
In reality, it’s unlikely that your diet or altitude is going to have a huge impact on your VO2 max. And that’s not how athletes get their VO2 max up to 90+.
What’s much more effective is to try and improve it through good old fashioned training. Any kind of aerobic or cardiovascular exercise should do the trick, though it seems that HIIT (high intensity interval training) might be particularly effective in improving maximum oxygen consumption (2). This makes sense: when we push ourselves to the anaerobic threshold we are effectively ‘maxing out’ our body’s ability to retrieve oxygen from fat stores to the point where we’re forced to switch to glycogen and blood sugar for fuel. Pushing yourself in any capacity is almost always the best stimulus for growth.