Your VO2 max is one of the key metrics for fitness and for showing your potential as a runner. As a measure of your maximum aerobic capacity, it is a gauge of how efficiently your body uses oxygen during high-intensity exercise.
A traditional VO2-max test is done on a treadmill. You start at an easy pace, and then the intensity is increased in set increments of time, either by upping the speed of the treadmill or alternatively by increasing the gradient. The goal is to gradually build to your maximum effort, over 10-20 minutes. If conducted in a lab these will often be done with a crash mat behind the treadmill to prevent injuries if you really do run 'to exhaustion'. During the test, you breathe into a mask which measures your inhalations and exhalations.
However, scientists at the University of Kent recently devised a new ‘self-paced’ VO2-max test. Unlike lab tests, which can run into the hundreds of pounds, this Vo2-max test is free (providing you have access to a treadmill and a heart rate monitor) and more user-friendly. It also, say its creators, more closely represents the actual demands of running and racing in real life. Unlike a theoretical number that your GPS running watch might give you, this test actually offers you the data to set training paces and to see your maximum heart rate.
The test is just 10 minutes long, and comprises five distinct two-minute stages. However, unlike the usual standard protocol for lab tests, the runner doesn't have to increase their intensity by a specific, set amount each time. ‘They can choose to raise it by more, or less in order to yield the appropriate rate of perceived exertion [RPE],’ explains lead researcher Dr Lex Mauger. ‘While it is completely self-paced, it does get progressively harder because each stage is linked to a higher RPE.’
When the test was examined against laboratory trials, in which the subjects’ oxygen intake and carbon dioxide output were measured using a mask and accurate instruments, the results of the self-guided test were the same VO2 max values, confirming its validity and accuracy. What's more, because it uses speed, not incline, the test also gives a good measure of maximum heart rate and vVO2 velocity – that is the speed at which a person is running once they get to their VO2 max – both of which can be used to accurately determine training paces. Best of all, you don’t need a fancy lab to perform the test or to pay anyone – you can do it yourself.
Do note that this is a very high-intensity test, so you should only undertake it if you are in good health and are already exercising regularly. If in doubt, always seek medical advice.
How to do the VO2-max test
You will need
A heart-rate monitor
A friend on hand for support/data collection
The guide below: please read all the way through beforehand
Warm up thoroughly first. When you are ready to begin, set the gradient then set the treadmill gradient to one per cent.
Consulting the RPE values (out of 20) in the box below, run for two minutes at the first level, then two minutes at the second, moving through all the blocks. ‘Adjust your speed so your RPE at each stage stays at the required level,’ says Mauger. As the test goes on, you will be working harder to try to honestly gauge your RPE on a moment-to-moment basis, adjusting the speed at any point to stay at the correct effort level.
The final two minute stage should be an all-out effort. When it begins, increase the speed so that you are running as fast as you can at that moment. ‘This will cause fatigue very quickly and you will probably slow down early on,’ says Mauger. ‘You may even finish the test at walking speed. This is fine.’
Interpreting your results
Maximum heart rate: This will be your maximum, highest heart rate recording during the 10 minutes of the test. You can use this figure to determine your training zones. For instance, tempo runs are usually done at around 85% of your maximum heart rate, while your easy runs should be around 70-80%.
vVO2 Max: This is the speed at which you were running, when you hit that maximum heartrate on the treadmill. Running at vVO2 max builds leg-muscle strength and power, and boosts neuromuscular responsiveness and coordination.
How can I improve my VO2-max?
Try the session detailed below, though not more frequently than once a week. In a study, athletes who completed this session on a regular basis improved their vVO2 max by 3% and running economy by 6%.
The 30-30 session
Run for 30 seconds at your vVO2 max.
30 seconds at 50 per cent of this pace, to recover.
Continue alternating 30/30 until you can no longer achieve the required pace at vVO2 max.
Cool down with a few minutes of easy running.
Progress this towards a 60-60 session using the same method.
Other useful data from the VO2-max test
Other metrics from the self-paced VO2-max test can help you track your progress.
‘Measures such as average speed at each stage, peak speed in the final stage and fatigue index in the final stage (the percentage drop from peak speed to slowest speed within this stage) should improve as your fitness progresses,’says Mauger. If you repeat the test every eight weeks or so, you can monitor progress.
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