How to improve VO2 max

Increase your VO2 max with our handy tips, giving you a bigger engine come race day


Triathlon training and racing lasts more than a minute – several hours if you’re going long – which makes you an ‘aerobic athlete’. This means oxygen (O2) is a vital addition to existing fuel sources stashed around your body to help the process of movement. 


While a VO2 max test will accurately measure the maximum volume of oxygen that can be used by your body, there are many things you can do as an aerobic athlete to maximise your oxygen-processing system. Here, Tri Training Harder‘s Philip Hatzis and leading triathlon coach Joe Beer explain how you can improve your VO2 max.

How to improve VO2 max

Coach Philip Hatzis explains how to improve your VO2 max…

Several studies indicate that time spent at VO2 max leads to the most significant improvement in this aspect of performance. Remember, this is HR-based training, so time spent at this HR zone is key.

Often, athletes mistakenly assume that time doing a VO2 max power or pace is the same measure, but it isn’t. Therefore, to truly train this aspect of performance, you must ensure your heart rate is up at that VO2 max zone.

Athletes must be well-rested going into the session to get the heart rate high enough. The best way of doing this training style is to extend the time spent at VO2 max. So look at doing more time at that high heart rate rather than trying to go at a maximum effort above that or attempting to ‘push up’ your VO2 max.

These sessions are demanding, and therefore, the recovery must be proportional. Recovery is usually 1-2 times the work interval (e.g. 2mins of VO2 max work will need 2-4mins of recovery).

That being said, these sessions are the icing on the cake. The first step is to ensure that you’re aerobically competent. Therefore, slower, steady-state, easy efforts at or below the first lactate turn point will be critical to improving VO2 max.

If VO2max is essentially a fitness metric, then being fitter through traditional slow, steady work will also be a component of improving your fitness.

Literature suggests that people’s VO2max is primarily fixed by genetic factors and can only be improved by perhaps 10-15%. Though this may be true, most athletes will do better by becoming aerobically more efficient and working at their aerobic capacity.

Both of which are the styles of training mentioned above. However, this must be done without missing the point that increasing VO2max should be done with the aim of getting faster, not just increasing it for the sake of increasing it.

Tips for boosting VO2 max

Coach Joe Beer shares his tips for boosting your VO2 max…

Lose weight

Never forget that you, the athlete, are the biggest piece of kit you’ll be carrying on race day. If fat loss is possible, and necessary, this will conserve considerable oxygen use across all sports, especially on a hilly bike course.

Less mass means run sections of triathlons will be faster, hence the quickest and most economical runners are light, usually with a BMI of less than 20 for females and less than 21 for males.

But you can still find that tweaks to every single piece of equipment you use on race day will help conserve your energy (it’s just more expensive than getting lean by eating less). From modern, low water-retention wetsuits to lightweight aero helmets, it’s possible to trim weight if you weigh products and compare them to other items on the market.

Put the hours in

To be more oxygen efficient you need to do many, many hours of training. Despite the trend in gyms to cram a quart into a pint pot, efficient triathletes are born out of many hours of weekly training. My guesstimate is an age-grouper at the front 25% of their field needs to do 300-600hrs per annum, not three, one-hour ‘mega-xtrain-super-intense’ classes a week.

But one sneaky way to produce a better training effect with the same amount of hours may be to train with low glycogen levels, by doing a double-session day without trying to store significant glycogen in between the two sessions.

Head to the hills for better economy

The reason running hills is so hard is partly due to lactic-production recycling and/or tolerance to high lactate levels, coupled with better movement patterns born out of exaggerated work against gravity.

Running hills works, but there’s a small timescale in which to drop 2-5% off your 5km time, so time it right: do your last hard, interval session a week before your race; three days to go, do a moderately hard session including 4 x 4min efforts from upper Z1 to just below threshold, followed by 4-5, 1min efforts.

Add some bike high-intensity training (HIT) efforts to your regime

Pushing the system hard can raise your VO2 and improve the efficiency of lactate recycling when racing. Intervals can improve cycling economy, time-trial ability and therefore boost your triathlon cycling performance from T1 to T2. They’re also time efficient, weather independent and very purposeful.

Consume oxygen boosters

It’s possible to tweak your diet or supplement intake and boost oxygen levels for training and racing. Foods high in nitrates can make for more economical muscle movement and top-end improvements in speed. For example, roasted beetroot, spinach, rocket, celery, cress and chervil, to name but a few, all help to increase your blood nitrate level.

But beetroot is the only research-proven method, so is a good choice to add to your diet. Supplementing sodium phosphate has also been shown to increase VO2 max and increase performance.

(Images: Jonny Gawler)


For lots more advice on how to improve your performance head to our Training section