VO2 max is the value of how effective your blood is in taking oxygen and transporting it to your organs and through your body. If your VO₂ max is high, you will be able to perform better at fitness intensive sports as your body will go harder for longer with more sufficient oxygen levels.
It’s no wonder that many elite athletes spend so much time pondering how to increase VO2 Max – the reward is a competitive advantage in performance.
How can you increase your VO2 max? And what are the fastest ways to do it?
There are a few different ways to increase your VO₂ max. The most effective method is to implement HIIT training – or interval training. Intense workouts delivered at your current VO2 Max capacity will force your body to gain better efficiency at transporting oxygen.
In combination with a healthy diet and a smart training plan, it’s possible to see huge gains within a 10 week period.
Here are a few tips to help you get there fast.
Start With An Accurate VO2 Max Reading
The most accurate way VO2 max gets tested is in a lab setting. If you are serious about your VO2 max and want to set a goal to increase it, you will have to go to a professional to test your levels on a VO2 max bike.
The goal of this test (called maximal intensity cycle ergometer) is to measure aerobic capacity. You wear a mask that measures the amount of oxygen you take in and the amount you exhale. According to these values, the specialist can determine your value in ml/kg/min.
The ergometer test is strenuous, as your peak heart rate affects your final VO2 max value. The machine also measures your blood pressure, and some places even take blood samples to estimate your lactate levels during different phases.
Once you have your baseline VO2 Max reading, you can measure the effectiveness of your training plan by the impact that it has on your test results at a later date.
An elite athlete might measure before a training program starts, and then after 10 weeks to gauge the results.
The downside is that VO2 Max lab tests are expensive, and you might have to travel a fair distance to find a sports clinic that has the tools and apparatus to get it done.
For many athletes at a recreational level, it’s not necessary to test with this rigour. You can get results that are ‘good enough’ with a smartwatch or fitness tracker.
Choose a Measuring Device & Stick To It
The only way VO2 max tested accurately in the past was through the ergometer test. Nowadays, with technology taking over the world, some devices have managed to get it very close to the results of an ergometer test.
Garmin and Fitbit both give values, and they sometimes name them differently. One of the often used terms is cardio fitness. However, you must ensure your watch is precisely placed on your arm to get ongoing heart rate readings during your workout. It isn’t as accurate as the ergometer, but studies showed it was close.
When using a watch to track your aerobic capacity, it’s best to do it with a heart rate strap to ensure you have the best possible values and ensure your device has a built-in GPS activated throughout your training.
At the end of the day – it’s relative progress that we’re tracking.
Even if you don’t have the most accurate baseline reading to start with, as long as you stick consistently to the same device, you will be able to tell whether your VO2 Max is heading in the right direction.
And if you don’t want to rely on the algorithms of Garmin or Fitbit, you can always use our helpful VO2 Max Calculator instead.
Increase VO2 Max with Interval Training
Okay, so we’ve worked out how we’re going to keep track of our score.
What are the fastest ways to improve VO2 Max?
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is the first type of exercise people will suggest if you are interested in working on your aerobic capacity. That’s because intense HIIT requires that you are working at that level of VO2 max.
The science shows that most reach their VO2 max at about 2 minutes of strenuous exercise, and your intervals should thus be 3 to 5 minutes long with a rest period of a maximum of 2 minutes. Longer intervals are to stay as long as possible in that state of using the most oxygen in your body.
HIIT is one of the top ways to exercise your heart muscle to increase the capacity of oxygen pumped to the extremities. Three minutes at your highest output can be too much if you are not a usual interval trainer and only starting.
You can then start with 30-second intervals and increase it as you can. The shorter intervals also showed benefits in increasing VO2 max in people with a lower than average value.
There are plenty of ways you can implement HIIT training, but the easiest as a runner is to do interval sprints, followed by a short jog or walk, and then additional sprints.
Note: HIIT training should be used selectively – not in every training session! Overuse will lead to burnout.
Lactic Threshold Training To Improve VO2 Max
Training to increase your lactic threshold might not be a standard method to increase VO2 max, but it certainly is essential. People shy away from this method as it is challenging and not a walk in the park.
Your lactic threshold is defined by how much lactic acid your body can build up and how long it takes to do it. The longer it takes to accumulate lactate to a point your body cannot execute an activity anymore, the longer you can do continuous training without failure.
The higher your lactic threshold, the better your VO2 max value.
Better lactate accumulation means your body has sufficient oxygen during the lactic build-up to remove it successfully.
To increase your lactic threshold, you can do rounds of 800m (0,5mi), as full out as you can, resting by jogging for 400m (0,2 mi). Do six or seven of these rounds and increase to 1000m (0,62mi) and 1200m (0,75mi) rounds after that, totaling 5000m (3mi).
You can see that you will have to be reasonably fit to do lactate intervals successfully.
As a cyclist, you will want to know your lactate threshold before you can train to increase it. You should know your ability, at what intensity and speed you can ride for hours, and where you will only be able to ride for a few minutes. The line between those two – is your threshold.
Do lactate intervals after you have done a lot of speed and aerobic riding. Lactic threshold workouts, like running, are the last step to add to your VO2 max training.
Ride 10 minutes at a heart rate five beats under your lactic threshold value. A recovery ride follows for another 10 minutes and you then repeat this sequence three times.
A further step is to add two 20-minute rounds of the same and increase it weekly as you can.
Don’t add more than two lactate interval sessions per week and spread it out over the week.
Use our training pace calculator to work out what speed represents each category of training.
Endurance Training To Increase VO2 Max
If you are a beginner in training to increase your VO2 max, it’s best to start with easy runs at a lower heart rate. You do these runs without pushing yourself to breakdown or running hard – it is 100% aerobic.
By increasing your aerobic ability and the efficiency of your running form, you can improve your VO2 max as well.
It’s necessary to bake in some base training in order to do the intense drills that will have the biggest effect on VO2 Max.
These also count for cyclists. You can start with easy rides, choosing accessible routes with not much effort needed only to get your heart pumping and get the oxygen to circulate through your body.
When you increase your endurance training ability (you can go longer before you get tired), you can start to add HIIT training to your workout regime, and lastly, add lactic intervals.
How Diet Can Affect VO2 Max
Science has shown that some food increases lung function, oxygen flow, blood circulation, and oxygen transportation.
Healthy foods for promoting VO2 Max include:
- Avocado (oxygen flow and lung capacity)
- Steak (transport oxygen to muscle)
- Apples (lung volume)
- Marmite (heart function)
- Tofu (increased blood flow)
- Champagne (increase circulation)
Mixed Evidence Around Supplements
There are a few supplements some people claim to help with the improvement of cardiovascular capacity, but no studies have clinically proven it.
Nonetheless, they remain popular supplements for runners:
Iron supplements can help keep your iron levels in check, as long-duration training influences your iron levels, which, in turn, can affect the quality of your blood. Supplementing with the iron will only help increase VO2 max if your iron levels are low.
Beta-alanine is a supplement that dilates the blood vessel, letting more blood through to the organs and muscles. If your body can get used to this amount of blood pumping through, the heart muscle will increase in strength.
The significance of beta-alanine didn’t show any improvement in VO2 max in a study done on water polo athletes. Still, the science behind it makes sense that it might influence over an extended period than the four weeks the study ran.
A study showed that peppermint oil taken by mouth acts as a vasoconstrictor (enhancing the efficiency of oxygen intake through the lungs). More oxygen will enter the bloodstream with better oxygen uptake, improving VO2 max.
A combination of Gingko and Rhodiola helps to increase oxygen uptake by the lungs and postpone fatigue, leading to an increase in VO2 max.
Consistency Delivers Results
Bottom line: You will have to implement a plan to increase your VO2 max.
It will include regular training with a combination of HIIT, a clean diet, supplements (optional!), and consistency.
You will have to push your limits in those harder sessions because the limit is exactly the factor we want to raise. But it’s important to do this sensibly and avoid the risk of over-training.
There’s a thin line between boosting VO2 Max fast – and burning out!