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Developing Aerobic Capacity

Jamie French and Matt Long explore the concept of 'AEROBIC POWER.'

This article provides a brief overview of the physiological underpinnings which signify 'aerobic power' and signposts the kinds of activities that can be done to improve aerobic capability within athletes. 'Aerobic power' is synonymous with the notion of 'V02 max'. Understanding what these terms mean can lead to performance improvements, particularly in middle and long-distance events.


American-based elite endurance coach Terence Mahon said recently, "In simple terms V02 max is the size of your aerobic engine. The genetic component determines how large an engine you have. The training component determines your ability to maximize that engine size". (BMC News, Autumn 2012). It refers to the maximum amount of oxygen a body can process at any one moment in time. To account for different body sizes, it is possible to narrow the definition to reflect how much oxygen one can use in one minute per kilogram of body weight.


The factors that influence maximal aerobic power (or VO2 max) can be broken down into Utilization and Presentation Theories. The former is the efficiency of molecules to process fuels and oxygen to produce the body's energy source, ATP. The latter is the efficiency of the heart, lung, and blood transport systems to transport oxygen where it is needed.


The reason that the VO2 max/kg is important is based on physiological principles in that as running intensity increases, there is a corresponding demand for oxygen consumption to produce energy continually. The reason that this is important is that VO2 max is the key factor in determining the point at which athletes start to produce energy using the time-limited Lactate Energy System.


Male athletes tend to have a higher V02 max than females an example being the five-time world cross country champion and Seoul Olympic 5,000m champion John Ngugi who registered 85.0. The late great Norwegian Greta Waitz who won a staggering nine New York City marathons as well as pocketing an inaugural world championship gold in Helsinki in 1983, registered 73.5. These variations are primarily due to anatomical differences such as lung capacity. As well as gender, as maximum heart rate and stroke volume decrease with age, there is a corresponding reduction in VO2 max. In terms of chronological age, athletes below ten years old tend to show an underdeveloped aerobic system. However, after 12 years old VO2 Max/kg body mass is equivalent to adults meaning that training needs to be different (Bar-Or and Rowland 2004)[2].

How to improve VO2 Max

Research has demonstrated that VO2 max can be increased through exercising the heart rate to between 65-85% of its maximum for at least 20 minutes in duration. Ordinarily, the training effect would need a frequency of between 3-5 sessions per week (Mackenzie, 2001)[3]. Caution should be exercised when prescribing too much progression or too little recovery between exposures/sessions as this may lead to injury. Having mastered the 'Fundamentals' of agility, balance, and coordination, for 'Foundation' level athletes (see diagram below). Constant pace running should be limited to 10 mins, with training focusing on pace judgement for different periods. The duration of continuous pace running can be increased incrementally when athletes are deemed mature enough to move to the 'Event Group' and 'Event Specialist' phases of progression.

Long Term Athlete Development Model

'Performance' athletes at the top of the above pyramid can continue to improve their aerobic power. Mahon cited the example of Athens Olympic marathon bronze medallist and 2006 London marathon winner Deena Kastor who improved her V02 max from 70-80 ml/kg over a four-year period which saw her training volume increase through progressive overload. So, the message is, aerobic power may have a genetic component, but it can be nurtured.

Article Reference

The information on this page is adapted from French & Long (2012)[1] with the kind permission of the authors and Athletics Weekly.


  1. FRENCH, J. and LONG, M (2012) To the Max. Athletics Weekly, November 8th 2012, p. 52-53
  2. BAR-OR, O. and ROWLAND, T.W. (2004) Pediatric Exercise Medicine. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics
  3. MACKENZIE, B. (2001) VO2 max [WWW] Available from: [Accessed 12/10/2012]

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • FRENCH, J & LONG, M. (2012) Developing Aerobic Capacity [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Jamie French and Dr Matt Long are British Athletics Coach Education Tutors. The former lectures sports science at Leeds Metropolitan University and the latter is a volunteer endurance coach with Birmingham University AC.