The Complete Guide To VO2 Max – Why It’s Important & How To Measure it (2022 Update)

vo2 max expalined

If you’re interested in fitness (just like me), then you’ve likely come across the words VO2 Max at some point or the other.

Heck, you might even know that it has something to do with oxygen use during exercise or something like that!

Congrats. You’re on the right path. The fact is, the V02 Max is a metric to track and embrace.

That said, most people have zero clue what the metric is all about—except that it sounds nerdy but super important.

After all, trying to read and interpret a “VO2 Max chart” can be quite intimidating. I’m not going to judge you if you couldn’t.

Fret no more, though as today I got you covered.

In this post, I’’m sharing the full guide to The VO2 Max without using technical jargon or complicated sentences.

By the end, you’ll learn:

  • What is VO2 Max?
  • Why VO2’max is so important
  • What is a Good VO2 max?
  • How to measure it?
  • What are normal VO2max ranges?
  • How to increase aerobic capacity?
  • And so much more…

This is going to be a long post so let’s get started right away.

What’s The VO2 Max?

The VO2 Max the maximum volume of oxygen that a person can use during exercise. This metric is expressed in liter/minute (L/min) or milliliters/minute per kilogram of body weight (mL/min/kg).

Also known as “maximal oxygen consumption,” “peak oxygen intake,” and “maximal oxygen uptake,” VO2max is the metric that best describes your personal cardiorespiratory and aerobic fitness levels, research tells us.

Here’s what the words stand for:

  • The V in VO2 Max stands for volume. The reason it’s often displayed in scientific text with a dot above it is to show that it refers to volume and volume rate per minute.
  • The O2 in VO2 is the chemical formula for oxygen in its most stable state, the type of oxygen found in the air we breathe.
  • Max is simply maximum, or maximal.

A Good Analogy

Think of the VO2 Max as horsepower in a car. This metric measures the capacity of your engine (body) to utilize fuel (oxygen) when exercising. The higher VO2max score, the longer you can run, jump, row, swim, bike, you name it.

The Main VO2 Max Mechanisms

Your VO2 Max is made up of three main components:

  • Lung capacity & heart volume. The greater your lung capacity, the more oxygenated blood your heart can pump.
  • Capillary delivery. The more oxygenated blood that reaches your muscles, the higher your aerobic fitness score.
  • Muscle efficiency. The better your muscles utilize oxygen from your blood, the better you can perform.

Types of VO2 Max Measures

There are two types of VO2Max measures:

  • Absolute VO2 Max, expressed in L/min and describes the total volume of oxygen you consume in liter per minute. This amount depends on your age, physiology, and other variables.
  • Relative VO2 Max, expressed as mL/kg/min and measures your weight in liters per minute per kilogram of your body weight. This metric allows for a better comparison of aerobic fitness among people of different body sizes.

The Factors That Impact VO2Max

On average, sedentary males have a VO2max of roughly 35 to 40 mL/kg/min, whereas females score around 26 to 30 mL/kg/min.

This number is affected by many factors, e.g., heredity, training, age, gender, and body composition, according to the UC Davis Sports Medicine Department.

Let me explain a few.

Age & Aerobic Capacity

Most people reach their peak around their late 20s or early 30s. Then, the metric declines as you get older by roughly 10 percent per decade.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Research reports that even sporadic intense exercise can help improve VO2 max levels.

Gender

The volume of blood pumped by your heart partly determines aerobic capacity. Men usually have larger organs than women, including the heart. The larger size of the heart allows to pump more blood to the system.

Other factors also matter, such as blood volume, muscle mass, and hemoglobin content, which make women’s maximum oxygen uptake lower than men.

Heredity

Research out of Cerritos College in California claims that genetics may account for as much as 10 to 30 percent of your VO2 Max.

Many genetic factors impact your VO2max, including muscle fiber composition, muscle mass, body type, aerobic enzyme levels, and mitochondrial density.

Altitude and Maximum Oxygen Uptake

Your VO2 Max decreases the less oxygen available to consume at higher altitudes.

That’s why you’ll typically have a 5 percent reduction in the cardio fitness score for every 5,000 feet gained in altitude.

Training Status & Oxygen Consumption

Training drastically influences your cardio fitness score.

The exact extent of the impact varies greatly, but V02max can be improved by up to 10 to 20 percent, depending on the individual’s fitness level, fitness background, and training program.

The Importance Of VO2’max Scores

Knowing your score helps you understand your fitness level, and how to improve it. It’s also an excellent way to improve and monitor your fitness progress (or lack) for the medium and long-term.

In general, those who are the least fit experience the biggest jumps, and athletes who are already fit see the slightest gap.

But VO2 max scores aren’t just about how fast or long you can ride, run, or swim. There are more implications to it.

Let’s dive a little deeper.

More Benefits

Research found the V02 Max drastically impacts your lifespan.

A low score has been correlated with higher risks of cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

The next two VO2max charts show the ideal  fitness levels ideal for reducing your risk of cardiovascular diseases, according to research from the Cooper Institute.

 


Source – Whyexercise.com

Congratulation for those who are in the blue zone, your fitness level is impeccable.

For those in the yellow and green zone, you can still reduce your risks by making a few lifestyle changes—one of them is improving your V02 Max (more on that later).

What Does VO2 max Means For your Fitness Performance?

By now, you understand that V02 Max matters a lot. But if you’re looking to improve your athletic performance, keep in mind that the metric doesn’t paint the whole picture. It’s, in fact, only one half of the equation—the other being efficiency.

These include skill training, proper technique, mental preparation, psychological profile, diet, lactate threshold training, etc.

This means that two athletes with similar aerobic capacity readings can have significantly different performances based on how they use oxygen during exercise.

A runner with perfect technique and training plan will be able to run faster and farther than their competitor with bad form and inconsistent training, even with the same VO2max.

That’s why a lot of personal trainers and scientists are hesitant about measuring aerobic capacity as part of a tracking effort for endurance athletes.

It doesn’t tell the whole story, period.

What’s more?

Athletes with higher cardio fitness may score optimally in their specific sport of choice, but it doesn’t translate very well to other sports.

Eliud Kipchoge has dominated the marathon world for the past few years, but that’s not a guarantee seal that he could achieve the same success in, let’s say, cycling or swimming.

For example, running optimally isn’t just about your ability to utilize oxygen. Other elements can influence your performance, such as:

What’s a Good VO2 Max?

Just like any other fitness metric, there’s no one “good” V02 max score that everyone should shoot for since the answer depends on many factors.

These include:

  • Your age
  • Your gender
  • Your conditioning level
  • Elevation

For example:

  • The average non-trained male achieves a VO2’max of roughly 30 to 40 mL/kg/min. The average non-trained female scores roughly 27 to 30 mL/kg/min.
  • Elite male athletes V02 Max can climb up as high as 90 mL/kg/min, while female athletes to up to 80 to 77 mL/kg/min.
  • A good VO2 max score for a 30-year-old man is 50-55 mL/kg/min, while a good score for a 30-year-old woman is 45-50 mL/kg/min.

As a rule, the higher your cardio fitness score—the closer it is to 60—the better it is.

Here are some VO2 Max charts for good averages based on gender, age, and fitness taken from top-end sports, that show normative data in different population groups.

Endurance Training And VO2’max

Higher VOmax scores and endurance sports go hand in hand.

The living proof? Renowned ultra-endurance runner Kilian Jornet was reported at 92.0 ml/kg/min during the peak of his conditioning, while Norwegian cross country skier Espen Harald Bjerke scored 96.0 ml/kg/min.

 

v02 max chart

How to Measure your VO2 Max

Aerobic capacity is measured through various methods of physical evaluation. These can be direct as in a lab or indirect, using submaximal tests outside of the lab setting.

Let’s explain what it is all about.

The VO2 Max Mask Test

The only reliable way to get an ACTUAL reading of V02 Max is by taking the test in an exercise laboratory.

During this test, you’ll wear an oxygen mask that measures the amount and gas concentrations of inspired and expired air while performing all-out effort exercise (on a treadmill, elliptical machine, or stationary bike).

The video below explains more about the testing procedure

The VO2 Max Mask Testing Protocol

You start at a warm-up pace. Then, you increase exercise intensity every few minutes, whether by resistance, speed, or incline, depending on the machine.

Next, you keep pushing it further and harder until you reach exhaustion. This is the threshold intensity point—measured by the equipment and recorded as a number.

At this point, your body switches from aerobic training to anaerobic training. This means that your body has switched from using oxygen to generate energy to glycogen or creatine phosphate for fuel.

Typically, you’ll reach your VO2Max when oxygen consumption remains constant at a steady state despite an increase in training intensity. But here’s the downside: direct testing is the most accurate, but accuracy isn’t cheap.

If you’re in a pinch, you can also get a reading of your VO2’max by using other methods that don’t require expensive lab equipment.

Let’s look at a few alternatives.

2.  Submaximal VO2 Max Tests– Calculating Aerobic Capacity the Easy Way

Though submaximal V02max tests are not as accurate as laboratory tests, they’re still useful to estimate your VO2 max levels.

Let’s explain a few.

Note –You’ll need a stopwatch to keep track of time when performing these VO2 max tests

The Cooper Method

Coaches and fitness aficionados widely use the Cooper 12-minute run Test as it requires little equipment, and it offers a rough yet very reliable estimate of maximal oxygen consumption.

This method was developed by Dr. Kenneth Cooper, a leading authority on aerobic fitness and exercise science, to measure the VO2Max of military staff.

After thorough research, Dr. Cooper found a high correlation between the distance an individual could run or walk and their Vo2max.

To perform the Cooper test, you’ll need

  • 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

Warm up for 10 minutes. You can briskly walk for 5 minutes, then do a set of dynamic stretches to get your body ready.

Next, start the stopwatch, and run as hard as you can for 12 minutes. Last up, record the distance 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.

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 nine laps around a standard track).

Since 2.2 miles equals 3600 meters, he can estimate his aerobic capacity by doing a simple calculation:

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

That’s a good VO2 max if you ask me.

The Astrand Treadmill Test

Initially designed by Per-Olof Astrand in the 50s, the test is straightforward. You simply maintain a steady running speed with a 2.5 percent increase in gradient every two minutes until exhaustion instead of running as fast as you can for the given duration.

To perform the Astrand test, you’ll need

  • A treadmill with adjustable speed and incline
  • A stopwatch or clock
  • An assistant to record the time.

The Astrand Testing Protocol

Set the treadmill at five mph (or eight km).

Run at this speed for three minutes with no incline, then increase the incline to 2.5 percent while maintaining the same speed.

Every two minutes after that, increase the incline by 2.5 percent but keep your running pace the same until exhaustion.

Once you can no longer keep it up, record your time expressed in minutes and fractions of a minute.

For example, if you reached total exhaustion after 15 minutes and 45 seconds, you record 15.75 ( 15 mins + 60/45 seconds).

Scoring The Test

To get your VO2 max score, input your results into the following equation:

(Time x 1.44) + 14.99

For example, let’s say you’re a 27-year-old woman and were able to make it in 13 minutes and 30 seconds. That’s 13.50, so you’d calculate:

13.50 X 1.44= 19.44

19.44 + 14.99 = 34.43

Therefore, your aerobic capacity would be 34.43, which is not bad.

The Rockport Fitness Walking Test

last but not least, The Rockport walking test. This test was first designed in the 80’s by scientists at the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

You can easily self-administer the test, and it’s well suited for sedentary individuals.

To perform the Rockport test you’ll need:

  • A level 1-mile (or 1.6 km) track (not a treadmill). High school tracks are great for this. Keep in mind that on full lap within the inside lane equals 400 meters.
  • A proper pair of walking shoes
  • A stopwatch
  • An accurate scale.

No track? No problem—as long as you can estimate the distance.

Use a mapping app to measure a one-mile course on a smooth, flat, and unbarred route with no ditches, stop signs, or elevation.

Even an increase of 3 percent can skew the outcome of the test.

The Testing Protocol

Start by warming up for 5 to 10 minutes. Then, hit the start button and immediately walk as fast as possible but avoid power walking or speed walking.

Once you reach the end of one mile, stop your stopwatch and record your results in decimals.

For example, 10 minutes and 20 seconds (20 seconds ÷ 60 seconds) = 10.3.

You should take your pulse rate and record your heart rate.

In case you’re not using a heart rate monitor, count the number of heartbeats for 30 seconds, and then multiply it by two to get your heart rate.

Scoring The Test

Once you have your results, input them into this not-so-simple formula:

VO2 Max  = 132.853 – (0.0769 × Weight) – (0.3877 × Age) + (6.315 × Gender) – (3.2649 × Time) – (0.1565 × Heart rate) .

Still want more V02 Max tests?

There are many methods for estimating VO2’max scores and different types of VO2 max charts.

Maybe you heard a similar term but different methods.

Here are some of the most reliable ones.

These should be suitable for any fitness and lifestyle—even if you can’t walk:

How to Increase Your VO2 Max

Now that we have the theory out of the way, let’s look at how you can improve your aerobic capacity.

Sure, increasing your maximal oxygen consumption won’t help you automatically run, swim, or ride faster.

But it’s a step in the right direction.

So, what’s the fastest (and legal) way to improve your VO2 Max?

Is it:

(a) Diet

(b) Sleep

(c) Steady-state cardio training

(d) High-intensity interval training (HIIT)

(e) Altitude training

If you answered (d), you’re on the right path.

According to research, high-Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT for short, is the ideal way of improving your peak oxygen intake, as it challenges your cardiovascular system to work to maximum effort.

The more you push yourself (the higher the RPE Scale), the better.

HIIT workouts consist of performing intervals of intense aerobic exercise, like running, spinning, or swimming, taking a recovery break, then repeating the whole cycle for a specific amount of time.

Sample VO2 Max Workout Routines

Here are two specific VO2max sessions you can implement to improve your overall score. Just make sure to warm up and cool down at an easy pace for 10 to 15 minutes each before and after any of the below routines. You can start with this dynamic warm-up.

  • The Track Workout – Perform five 1000-meter (or two laps and a half) near maximum capacity. Recover for two to three minutes between each interval.
  • The Treadmill Incline Workout – Increase the incline to 8 percent and complete five two-minute intervals at maximum capacity. Remember to pace yourself, so you don’t burn out.

Be Careful

Slow and gradual is the key when it comes to improving aerobic capacity. VO2 max training is no easy walk in the park as it challenges your body like nothing else.

But if you stay consistent and train regularly, you’ll reap the benefits soon.

Another note.

Avoid doing VO2max workouts back-to-back.

Instead, plan easy or rest days between sessions to allow your body to recover and adapt.

As you get fitter, increase the number of intervals you perform, the intervals length, or take less time for recovery.

Conclusion

There you have it! Now not only do you know what’s a good VO2 max but also how to improve it.

If you’re serious about reaching your full athletic potential, then V02Max should be one of your supporting tools for measuring your fitness progress over time.

Of course, you still need to back up your fitness routine with a proper diet, good technique, consistency, and all of that.

Nothing is an accident.

Please feel free to leave your comments and questions in the section below.

In the meantime thank you for dropping by.

Keep running strong

David D.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. The scale for age related VO2Max stops at 65+
    I am 76 and according to my Garmin watch my score is 39
    How does that relate?

  2. Great article! Loved all the tables. I am a 62 year old male with a V02 Max of between 50 and 52 depending upon the day. I recently ran a 21:48 5K on a chip-timed, USATF certified course. I would love to get sub 21 but don’t really know how to get there.

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