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Improving Aerobic Capacity

Aerobic capacity is the maximum capacity of a person’s body to transport and use oxygen during exercise. It is also referred to as VO2max and it’s explained in our previous article. In order to improve your aerobic capacity, you have to stress your body’s systems for delivering and processing oxygen to the limit. The key is to stress those systems to the limit, but not beyond. In other words, you have to practice running right at your VO2max.

Most runners can’t intuitively sense when they’re running at their VO2max. A good estimate of the appropriate pace is a few seconds per mile faster than your 5K race pace. Since running faster than your 5K race pace can be quite uncomfortable and mentally taxing, the most efficient way to train at VO2max is by doing intervals with rests in between.

The caveat is that no matter how fast you’re running, it takes about 2 minutes for your body to work it’s way up to your VO2max. So, your intervals have to last at least 2 minutes for you to get any benefit to your aerobic capacity out of the workout (there is an exception to this rule that I’ll discuss later). Furthermore, your VO2max is beyond your lactate threshold so you’re going to really start feeling the burn in your muscles during your intervals. If you’ve got too much burn, then you won’t be able to maintain the proper pace and you won’t get the benefit to your aerobic capacity. Because these intervals are so taxing, it’s a good idea not to go beyond 5 minutes for each interval. For most people, 1200m (or 3/4 mile) is an ideal distance.

Here’s how a typical workout might go:

  • Warm-up with 1 mile at an easy conversational pace
  • Run 1200m hard (slightly faster than 5K race pace)
  • Rest for an equal amount of time or less (if the 1200 m hard run took 5 minutes, then rest for 4-5 minutes)
  • Repeat the above two steps until your time spent running hard is 20-25 minutes, or about 8% of your total weekly mileage (whichever is less).
  • Cool down with 1 mile at an easy conversational pace.

You can vary the amount of time you spend running hard from workout to workout to keep things interesting. They key rule to follow is that your rest time should be roughly equal to your interval time. The exception is when your intervals are less than 2 minutes. Because you won’t reach your VO2max in the first few intervals, your rest periods have to be shorter than your intervals. Otherwise, your body will recover completely between intervals and you’ll never reach your VO2max. If your intervals are shorter than two minutes, then your rest periods need to be about half as long (time-wise) as your intervals. If you’re running more than 2 minutes, then it’s okay to recover completely between intervals because you’ll hit your VO2max after the first 2 minutes of each interval.

The goal of the workout is to spend time running at your VO2max. So, make sure you get there. On the other hand, there’s no point in running the workouts faster than what is required for you to hit your VO2max. Running faster will not provide any additional stress on your aerobic capacity, but it will provide additional stress on the rest of your body. At best, this additional stress will cause you to cut the workout short, thereby training your aerobic capacity less than you had originally intended. At worst, it will lead to injury. So, don’t do it.

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Brian Darrow is a running coach in St. Petersburg, FL who specializes in online coaching for beginners. Follow him at

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One Response to "Improving Aerobic Capacity"

  1. Karen Mandeville Dibbern says:

    Thanks for the info!

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