How to Increase Aerobic Capacity

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Your aerobic capacity is a measure of how well your body is able to deliver and use oxygen. This measurement, which is also referred to as your maximum oxygen uptake, or VO2 max, is what’s most often used to assess your aerobic fitness. After building a cardiovascular fitness base, you can further increase your aerobic capacity by doing cardio exercise at a particular intensity and working out in high-intensity intervals. Regularly test your aerobic capacity to monitor your progress.

Building a Cardiovascular Fitness Base

  • If you’re just starting to exercise, you can see significant improvements in your aerobic capacity simply by incorporating consistent cardio workouts into your regimen. Begin by doing cardio exercise three days per week at 15 to 20 minutes at a time. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that you exercise at 55 to 64 percent of your maximum heart rate (MHR). To calculate this heart-rate range, subtract your age from 220 and multiply that value by both 0.55 and 0.64. Eventually, after consistently exercising three days per week for 15 to 20 minutes at the same intensity, your aerobic capacity will hit a plateau and will no longer increase. This is because your cardiovascular system has fully adapted to the stress of your workout program. How long it takes you to reach a plateau depends on your cardiovascular shape when you start training. Beginning exercisers usually take longer to hit an aerobic-capacity plateau than those who have been training and already have somewhat of an aerobic-fitness base. You'll know you've hit a plateau when you continuously achieve the same scores in the aerobic-capacity fitness test. To see further aerobic-capacity improvements, you’ll need to exercise at a higher intensity by increasing the speed or resistance of your workouts or you'll need to exercise in intervals.

Intensity for Further Increases in Aerobic Capacity

  • To see further increases in your aerobic capacity, periodically increase the intensity of your workouts. Exchange your regular cardio workout for a higher-intensity aerobic workout one to two days per week. Instead of exercising at 55 to 64 percent of your maximum heart rate, kick up the intensity so that you’re exercising at about 70 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. You increase the intensity of your workouts by either increasing your speed or resistance. If you’re exercising on an elliptical machine, for example, you can pedal at a faster rate or increase the resistance on the machine. If you bike, cycle at a faster speed or find hills where you can ride. Runners can run at a faster pace or also find hilly areas to exercise.

Using High-Intensity Intervals

  • More advanced cardio athletes will need to incorporate one to two high-intensity interval workouts into their regimen to see aerobic-capacity improvements. High-intensity interval workouts consist of short bursts of high-intensity exercise followed by periods of rest or low-intensity exercise. For example, you could do four rounds of four-minute runs at a high intensity followed by three-minute runs at a low intensity. High-intensity interval workouts are effective at increasing how much blood your heart can pump with each beat, thereby improving aerobic capacity.

    When doing interval workouts, you want your high-intensity bursts to be performed at an intensity that’s 70 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate. The low-intensity bouts should be no higher than 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. For runners, Amby Burfoot of Runner’s World suggests that runners looking to increase their aerobic capacity run at a slightly quicker pace, like 10 to 30 seconds per mile faster than their typical 5K race pace, for 800 meters, followed by four to five minutes of slow jogging.

Testing Your Aerobic Capacity

  • Measuring your actual VO2 max is costly and requires special equipment that’s only available at medical centers and university research labs. However, you can still monitor the progress of your aerobic capacity with other cardiovascular tests. When your aerobic capacity is greater, you’ll be able to exercise at a higher intensity for longer periods. One way to keep track of your aerobic capacity progress is to use the 12-minute cardio test. Runners run as fast as possible for 12 minutes and keep track of their distance covered. If you exercise on a stationary bike or elliptical machine, you can employ the same test, exercising as quickly as possible and keeping track of the distance covered. As your aerobic capacity increases and you exercise at a higher intensity, you'll see that you're able to travel further in the 12-minute period. You can also use the distance-traveled test. For runners, run as fast as you can for 1.5 miles and keep track of your time. Once again, you can also use this test while cycling or while using a cardio machine. The greater your aerobic capacity, the faster you'll be able to cover the 1.5 mile distance.

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