VO2 Max or Volume Oxygen Maximum shouldn’t just be left to the pros to worry about. To briefly explain what it means it is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during exercise. To get a very accurate measurement you need to visit a lab or university and use either a treadmill or stationary bike with a face mask fitted to a machine that measures the oxygen and carbon dioxide amounts of inhaled and exhaled air. It is defined by either liters per minute or as a ratio of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute. However all this can be easily estimated during a performance test.
Obviously the higher your VO2 max the better your body’s ability to use oxygen. Sadly, like most things, it will decrease with age, but thankfully exercise will increase it. Training between 75-85% of your Maximum Minute Power (MMP), as determined by a performance test, will achieve the best results at developing the cardiovascular system and VO2 max. If you don’t use a power meter you should be aiming to be training at around 89-94% of Maximum Heart Rate (MHR). If you don’t use a heart rate monitor you should be very stressed, gasping and sweating heavily. This is known as Zone 5 training.
Other than boosting your VO2 max and developing your cardiovascular system, training in zone 5 will build your ability to sustain a maximal aerobic power (the power you output at VO2 max), you’re improving anaerobic energy production (your body’s ability to provide fuel in the absence of oxygen), you’ll be improving the speed at which your body expels waste products from the body (lactic acid etc.), it’ll also improve your time trialing ability and resistance to short term fatigue.
The type of training you need to be doing is fairly simple, short and hard but sustainable intervals. It is possible to do these outdoors, but like most things it is most efficient indoors on a turbo trainer. When outputting power as high as you will be in this zone it is advisable to warm-up for at least 20 minutes. Intervals can be between 3 and 8 minutes but in my experience the shorter the better so try 3 minutes at 85% of your maximum minute power or 94% of your maximum heart rate followed by 3 minutes rest or active recovery.
Although not specifically linked to VO2 max levels some athletes use special lung or respiratory trainers. These are designed to restrict the air to your lungs forcing you to breathe harder to get the same amount of oxygen. These will develop the diaphragm muscles making them stronger, the idea being that without the respiratory trainer you will breathe better. Sadly there is very little evidence to suggest that these actually work. One thing that you see a lot of pros doing is altitude training. As the oxygen thins at a higher altitude the lungs are forced to use oxygen more efficiently. When at a lower altitude or sea level your lungs should therefore function better. Again sounds like a good idea, but little evidence suggests to support it and ventilation rate shouldn’t be confused with VO2 max.
Although it is always good to compare yourself to the professionals it isn’t always the best to get hung up on it. Unlike power outputs which are determined fairly easily and accurately, VO2 max is a struggle to monitor regularly with absolute accuracy. But don’t discount training to boost it. The benefits maybe slightly more hidden but no less important.