What Is VO2 Max – Introduction
What’s VO2 Max, Why Is It Important + How to Improve
Aerobic exercise is good for your health.
Activities like running, cycling, swimming, and rowing strengthen your heart, lungs, circulatory system, and muscles, all of which make most everyday physical activities more manageable and improve your general well-being. Aerobic fitness is inextricably linked to increased longevity, too.
For most people, simply “doing” cardio is enough to build a good level of aerobic fitness. Heading out for a 20-30 minute run a couple of times a week is as complicated as your training needs to be.
You’ll know your workout is effective because, as the months pass, you’ll be able to exercise for longer, or you’ll feel your rate of perceived exertion starting to fall. In short, your fitness will improve, as will your capacity to exercise.
However, some people are more analytical and want to put a number to their aerobic fitness. For them, subjective improvements are not enough, and they want to see imperial proof they’re getting fitter.
VO2 is the most commonly used measure of aerobic fitness.
This article explains what VO2 is, discusses its importance, clarifies how to estimate your VO2, and reveals how to improve your score.
What Is VO2 Max, And Why Is It Important
VO2 max is the maximum (max) amount (V) of oxygen (O₂) your body can use during exercise. It’s also known as aerobic power or aerobic capacity.
VO2 max is the number of milliliters of oxygen you use per kilogram of body weight in one minute (ml/kg/min).
That said, you’ll often see it expressed as a single number without the units of measurement. Your VO2 max is also your highest sustainable level of aerobic exercise.
In a nutshell, your VO2 max is your ability to take in, transport, and utilize oxygen. As such, it’s directly related to the health and efficiency of your lungs (intake), heart and blood vessels (transport), and muscles (utilize).
Aerobic exercise primarily uses fat for fuel, which most people, even elite athletes, have in abundance. Providing your stay below your VO2 max, you should be able to continue exercising for a relatively long time.
In the case of long-distance runners and cyclists, this can be several hours of continuous exercise.
If you exercise beyond your VO2 max, you’ll go anaerobic, where your workload exceeds your ability to keep your muscles supplied with sufficient oxygen. When this happens, lactate levels start to rise uncontrollably, and fatigue will quickly set in.
The higher your VO2 max, the harder and longer you’ll be able to exercise. It’s the size of your “aerobic engine,” so if you increase it, your aerobic performance will improve.
Endurance athletes use VO2 max to put a quantifiable measure to their aerobic fitness and they also train to improve it.
However, it’s important to note that other factors also affect aerobic performance, especially during competition. This includes form/technique, nutritional status, recovery, pain tolerance, mental state, etc.
The athlete with the highest VO2 max is not always the fastest.
That said, you need a high VO2 max to be a successful endurance athlete.
How to Estimate Your VO2 Max
The most accurate way to determine your VO2 max is in a sports science laboratory. Invariably, this involves running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike while wearing a breathing mask that measures inhaled vs. exhaled oxygen levels and monitoring your heart rate.
The workload gradually increases until you are no longer able to continue.
However, this sort of test is inaccessible and impractical for most people.
Luckily, there are some alternative tests you can use to estimate your VO2 max. But it should be noted that these are educated guesses and are not 100% accurate.
Some activity-tracking watches have a built-in VO2 max test, as do some home and commercial cardio machines. Both take you through a guided workout and then compare your workload with your heart rate to produce an estimated VO2 max score.
Other accessible VO2 max assessments include:
Multistage beep test
Run back and forth along a 20-meter track in time to a soundtrack of progressively faster beeps. Continue until you cannot keep time with the beeps to determine your VO2 max.
The 20-meter (65.6 feet) Beep Test
Cooper 1.5-mile run/walk test
Cover the 1.5 miles as fast as possible and then compare your time to the accompanying chart.
The Cooper 1.5-mile run
Harvard step test
Do step-ups at a set tempo for three minutes and then compare your finishing heart rate to the accompanying chart.
The Modified Harvard Step Test for VO2 Max
Rockport 1-mile walk test
Walk one mile as fast as possible and then compare your results to the accompanying chart.
The Rockport Walk Test
Because of this, maximal tests, like the aforementioned beep test, usually produce more accurate results but are more challenging to perform.
Beginners and the less fit should stick to less strenuous submaximal tests, while more experienced exercises will get better results from more intense assessments.
To see improvements in your VO2 max, you need to periodically repeat your chosen test. However, you must a) perform the same test and b) perform that test under the same conditions to produce comparable results.
For example, you can’t do the Harvard step test one day and then the Rockport 1-mile test a month later. The two tests are too dissimilar to provide accurate results.
Similarly, if you did the beep test when feeling unwell but then repeated it a month later when you were symptom-free, your results would be incomparable.
So, make sure that:
- You are well rested before doing your chosen test.
- You have no illnesses or injuries.
- Any equipment is the same.
- The time of day is the same.
- The temperature is the same.
- The test protocol is the same.
- Women should also try to perform tests at the same time of the month.
VO2 Max Ratings
Now you know how to measure your VO2 max, you probably want to know how your score measures up. Compare your VO2 max score to the charts below.
Note that VO2 max tends to naturally decline with age. However, regular cardio exercise can slow this decline.
As with strength, flexibility, mobility, etc., it’s a case of “use it or lose it”.
What is a good VO2 Max by Age Table
How to Increase Your VO2 Max
Your VO2 score will naturally improve if you do cardio workouts frequently and consistently. For most people, this means three to five 20-40 minute workouts per week at 60% or above of your maximum heart rate. (MHR = 220 minus your age).
That said, there are various types of training you can do that could improve your VO2 max faster.
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT):
This involves doing short periods of intense exercise alternated with brief rests, e.g., run (or cycle, swim, row, etc.) hard for two minutes, walk/jog for three minutes, repeated six times. You can do shorter or longer intervals.
However, as VO2 max is a measure of aerobic fitness, very short, fast “sprint” intervals are not recommended.
This workout involves mixed-pace training, so it’s a sort-of unstructured interval workout.
For example, head out and mix walking, jogging, and running over various terrains. Speed up when you feel you can, and slow down when you need to recover.
Fartlek is Swedish for speed play.
For this workout, you exercise just below your maximum sustainable pace.
Go much faster, and you’ll have to slow down or stop as lactate levels rise uncontrollably. Tempo/threshold workouts are usually relatively short, e.g., 20-30 minutes, and done at about 85-90% of MHR.
Gradually increase duration and speed as your VO2 max improves.
LSD stands for long, slow distance.
In this workout, you go at an easy pace (60-70% MHR) for a long time, e.g., an hour or more. This teaches your body to become better at using fat for fuel and increases your ability to utilize oxygen.
Cross-training takes a page from the triathlon training manual.
With this workout, you pair two cardio activities and do them back to back. This tends to be less tiring than doing one activity non-stop.
For example, run for 30 minutes and then do 30 minutes on an exercise bike immediately afterward. This method spreads the exercise stress around your body, which may help ward off overuse injuries.
Note: You can use these training methods with any cardio modality or exercise you wish, including running, cycling, swimming, rowing, air bikes, ellipticals, etc.
What Is VO2 Max and Why Is It Important – Wrapping Up
Many exercisers are happy not to know their VO2 max or the strength equivalent, their 1RM (one repetition maximum).
These people are usually more process-orientated and realize they’re getting fitter and stronger simply because their workouts are getting longer or harder.
For example, if you struggled to run a mile without stopping last year but can now run three miles comfortably, you have obviosity got fitter, and your VO2 max will also have improved. You just don’t know by how much.
However, if you are more goal-orientated, you may find it motivating to estimate your VO2 max and then retest it periodically to quantify your fitness improvements.
But it’s important to note that VO2 max doesn’t increase linearly or predictably, and improvements tend to be slower as you get fitter. Also, one “bad” score, where your score doesn’t change much, could be very demotivating.
Testing your VO2 max can be helpful for endurance athletes.
That said, knowing your VO2 max won’t automatically make you a better athlete, and it’s just one part of the equation for being successful. Mindset, nutrition, recovery, strength, mobility, and technique all play a part.
Of course, your Maximum VO2 max may also be genetically predetermined.
So, decide whether knowing your VO2 is going to be helpful. Not every exerciser needs to know their VO2 max.