Your Complete Guide to VO2 Max – How to Calculate Aerobic Capacity Using The Cooper Method

Professional coaches and elite runners have long known and used the concept VO2 max training in their training programs.

In fact, the VO2 Max has been one of the primary methods to gauge fitness potential since the late 60’s.

Nevertheless, I only know of a few recreational runners who put this excellent training concept in use.

So, is the VO2 max something you should be concerned with as a recreational runner? Or should it be the focus of advanced athletes?

The answer is not all black and white.  That’s why today, in today’s post, I’ll summarize what VO2max is, and how you can measure it without any expensive lab equipment.

So, if you are absolutely confused about this topic, then fret no more. I got you covered.

A Simple VO2 Max Definition

To define VO2 max, let’s first look at the term itself.

First, we have the V, and it stands for volume. Next, the O is for oxygen.

Given the proper context, VO2 max refers to the maximum amount (or volume) of oxygen you can use during intense or maximal exercise within a specific amount of time.

Also known as “maximal oxygen consumption,” “peak oxygen intake,” and “maximal oxygen uptake,” in essence, VO2max is the metric that best describes your personal cardiorespiratory and aerobic fitness level, which defines how aerobically fit are you.

The Main Components of Vo2 MAx

The VO2max is a mix of how much oxygen-rich blood the heart can pump, and the muscles efficiency in getting the most out of the oxygen. The units are usually measured in milliliters per kilogram of body weight per minute (ml/kg/min).

Your VO2max depends on many factors, including how many red blood cells you have, how much blood your heart can spew out, how adapted you are to endurance training, etc.

The Importance of VO2Max

VO2 max is the gold standard for determining aerobic fitness and cardiovascular endurance.

Since muscles need oxygenated blood for intense and/or prolonged exercise, the heart must pump enough blood through the circulatory system to meet the demands of intense exercise.

As a rule of thumb, the more oxygen you can use during intense exercise, the more energy your body can produce. It, in fact, reflects the aerobic physical fitness of the athlete.

Not only that, research also shows that people with high VO2max scores, are healthier, live longer, and enjoy a better quality of life.

Perfect For Beginners

The VO2max Test is a great way for determining how and where you might take up a running/exercise program.

By determining your current VO2 max, you’ll make sure you start at the most suitable level for you. It can also help you decide your training pace, and it’s an excellent way to monitor your fitness program (or lack thereof) for the medium and long term.

Here is a table, taken from TopEndSports, that shows normative data for VO2max in different population groups.

Maximal oxygen uptake norms for men (ml/kg/min)

Age (years)
rating 18-25 26-35 36-45 46-55 56-65 65+
Excellent > 60 > 56 > 51 > 45 > 41 > 37
Good 52-60 49-56 43-51 39-45 36-41 33-37
Above Average 47-51 43-48 39-42 36-38 32-35 29-32
Average 42-46 40-42 35-38 32-35 30-31 26-28
Below average 37-41 35-39 31-34 29-31 26-29 22-25
Poor 30-36 30-34 26-30 25-28 22-25 20-21
Very poor < 30 < 30 < 26 < 25 < 22 < 20

Maximal oxygen uptake norms for women (ml/kg/min)

Age (years)
Rating 18-25 26-35 36-45 46-55 56-65 65+
Excellent > 56 > 52 > 45 > 40 > 37 > 32
Good 47-56 45-52 38-45 34-40 32-37 28-32
Above average 42-46 39-44 34-37 31-33 28-31 25-27
Average 38-41 35-38 31-33 28-30 25-27 22-24
Below average 33-37 31-34 27-30 25-27 22-24 19-21
Poor 28-32 26-30 22-26 20-24 18-21 17-18
Very poor < 28 < 26 < 22 < 20 < 18 < 17

How to Measure VO2 Max?

VO2 max can be assessed through various methods of physical evaluations. These vo2 max assessments can be direct or indirect.

The most accurate test is carried in a laboratory setting under a strict protocol in which you breathe into an oxygen mask to measure the amount and gas concentrations of inspired and expired air, while performing all-out effort exercise, typically on a bicycle or treadmill.

Direct testing is often used in research and is considered, so far, the most accurate. But, as you can clearly tell, this method also requires access to expensive laboratory equipment that most (typical) people do not have lying around the house.

But here is the good news.

If you don’t have an in-house laboratory equipped for VO2max testing, you can still practically ESTIMATE (not measure) your VO2max using indirect, less sophisticated, methods.

In general, you can reach your VO2 Max by running at the fastest effort you can sustain for six to seven laps on a track (roughly 2600 to 2800 meters long).

One of these methods that stood the test of time is the Cooper 12-minute run Test. This approach is widely used by coaches and fitness enthusiast as it requires little equipment, and it offers an approximate, and reliable, reading of VO2 Max.

Enter the Cooper Method – Calculating Aerobic Capacity the Easy Way

The Cooper Method is an approximation formula developed by Dr. Kenneth Cooper, a leading authority on aerobic fitness and exercise science, and the guy often held as the “inventor” of aerobics.  The test was initially used to measure the VO2 max of military staff.

After thorough research, Dr. Cooper noticed that there was a high correlation between the distance an individual could run or walk and their Vo2max.  Out of this correlation, the Cooper test was born.

How?

In a nutshell, the Cooper Method tests your ability to use oxygen to power it while running. The result is based on the distance you’re able to cover, your age and your sex.

It’s Not Perfect

Just keep in mind that the Cooper Method is not the most accurate in the world, but it’s close enough.

Nothing beats direct testing under a controlled lab setting under the guidance of a professional physician.

How To Calculate VO2 Max Using The Cooper Method

Take the test on a flat surface or track at a stadium for a precisely measured road.

You can either time yourself or have an assistant record the distance/time you cover during the test.

The VO2 Max Testing Protocol

Begin with a proper warm up for 10 minutes. Brisk walk for 5 minutes, then do a set of dynamic stretches to get your body ready.

Next, start the stopwatch, then run as hard as you can in 12 minutes. The primary goal of this test to go as hard and as far as possible during the test.

Last up, record the distance you’ve covered to the nearest 10 meters. (Use the track, roughly 400m/437 yards per lap, to work out your overall distance). Then compare and contrast your results.

Beginners Be Careful

If you are a complete beginner, then take walk breaks or do a walk/run version of the Cooper method. No need to exhaust yourself.

However, I strongly encourage you to push yourself as hard as you can to cover the longest distance possible.

Scoring The VO2 Max Test

The Cooper Test method comes with its own norm tables for general guidelines for reading the results of the Cooper Test.

Here is the simple formula:  VO₂ Max = (Distance covered in meters during 12 minutes – 504.9) /44.73

Example: Mike warms up for 10 minutes and then times himself for 12 minutes, aiming to cover as much distance as possible.

At the end of the test, Mike ends up running 2.2 miles (about 9 laps around a standard track). Since 2.2 miles equals 3600 meters, he can estimate his VO2 by doing a simple calculation:

VO2 Max = 3600 –504.9/44.73 = 69.19 ml/kg/m.

Or just use this table:

Age Excellent Above Average Average Below Average Poor
Male 20’s >2800m 2400-2800m 2200-2399m 1600-2199m <1600m
Females 20’s >2700m 2200-2700m 1800-2199m 1500-1799m <1500m
Males 30’s >2700m 2300-2700m 1900-2299m 1500-1999m <1500m
Females 30’s >2500m 2000-2500m 1700-1999m 1400-1699m <1400m
Males 40’s >2500m 2100-2500m 1700-2099m 1400-1699m <1400m
Females 40’s >2300m 1900-2300m 1500-1899m 1200-1499m <1200m
Males 50 & older >2400m 2000-2400m 1600-1999m 1300-1599m <1300m
Females 50 & older >2200m 1700-2200m 1400-1699m 1100-1399m <1100m

Conclusion

There you have it. Chances are, if you’re a regular runner, then you should at least score within the average VO2 Max category. That said, if you ended up in the below average, or poor category, then don’t lose hope. The best thing you can do to increase your VO2 max is to train regularly and do plenty of high intensity interval training workouts.

Here are a few articles that can help:

Top 15 High Intensity Interval Workouts You Need To Try
The 30-Minute Interval Treadmill Workout to Burn Fat Fast
Running 101 – Speedwork Training For Beginners
The 7 Running Workouts You Need to Build Strength and Endurance
A Beginner’s Guide to CrossFit For Runners

In the meantime, thank you for reading my VO2max introduction post. Please stay strong, and train hard.

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David Dack

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