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The DIY VO2 Max Test: How To Measure Your Own VO2 Max

These do-it-yourself tests can give you an accurate reading of your VO2 max.

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Knowing your V02 max (maximal oxygen consumption) or aerobic capacity is a valuable metric for both competitive and recreational athletes who want to assess their cardiovascular fitness.

This metric is also helpful for sedentary and everyday individuals who want to understand their cardiovascular health and disease risk.

There are various ways to measure your VO2 max, the most precise being a lab test with a cardiologist present. However, not everyone has access to such tests and is looking for a way to test their fitness level independently.

In this guide to measuring VO2 max, we will discuss what V02 max is and how to test it on your own outside of a lab.

A VO2 Max test on a treadmill.

What Is VO2 Max? 

Aerobic capacity is measured by VO2 max, which refers to maximal oxygen uptake.

Also known as maximum oxygen intake, it is a metric that quantifies your aerobic capacity. 

Your VO2 max denotes the maximum volume of oxygen (milliliters of oxygen) that your body can use per minute per kilogram of body weight while running or performing some other form of vigorous physical activity. 

VO2 max measurements use milliliters per kilogram per minute (mL/kg/min) as measurement units. 

So, for example, if your VO2 max is 37 mL/kg/min, it means that when exercising at your maximum aerobic capacity, your body can take in and use 37 mL of oxygen per kilogram of your body weight per minute.

But, what factors actually go into your VO2 max score?

A woman running wearing a mask.

What Factors Can Affect VO2 Max Scores?

If you consider the various components of the cardiovascular system and aerobic metabolism—producing energy (ATP) aerobically (with oxygen)—several physiological components of cardiorespiratory fitness influence this metric.

Again, VO2 max quantifies the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use, so it looks at:

  • The ability to inhale oxygen (via the respiratory system)
  • Transport oxygen to your muscles (through the heart and blood vessels or the circulatory system) 
  • Extract the oxygen efficiently from the blood at the muscle fiber and capillary interface level
  • Use the extracted oxygen efficiently for aerobic energy production (via aerobic metabolic pathways in the mitochondria in your muscles).

Therefore, you need:

  • Strong lungs with good tidal volume to take in a lot of oxygen
  • A strong heart that can efficiently pump blood with a greater stroke volume per beat
  • Elastic blood vessels that can handle a lot of blood
  • Sufficient hemoglobin to carry the oxygen in the blood
  • Ample capillaries surrounding all of your skeletal muscles used during exercise as if opening up more “roadways“ to bring oxygen to the muscles
  • A high mitochondrial density in your type I muscle fibers so that you can produce lots of ATP through aerobic respiration simultaneously
  • Trained muscles so that they require less oxygen/ATP at higher exertion rates because they are conditioned for the activity you are doing
A vo2 max test.

Thus, the higher your VO2 max measurement, the better your aerobic capacity or physical fitness.

This is because a high VO2 max means that you can take in and use a lot of oxygen efficiently during high-intensity exercise without crossing the anaerobic threshold, after which fatigue will rapidly ensue.

For this reason, it is considered to be the gold standard measurement of cardiorespiratory fitness or aerobic fitness.1Habibi, E., Dehghan, H., Moghiseh, M., & Hasanzadeh, A. (2014). Study of the relationship between the aerobic capacity (VO2 max) and the rating of perceived exertion based on the measurement of heart beat in the metal industries Esfahan. Journal of Education and Health Promotion3(55), 55. https://doi.org/10.4103/2277-9531.134751

‌As such, its measurements are particularly important for endurance athletes like distance runners, cyclists, endurance swimmers, long-distance hikers, and triathletes.

How Do I Calculate VO2 Max?

The gold standard for measuring VO2 max is an exercise test that requires going to an exercise physiology lab and using fancy metabolic equipment and specific protocols, which is generally not an accessible or affordable option for everyone.

The good news is that there are a few ways to test VO2 max outside of the lab treadmill test or at least estimate your measurement well.

A person on a treadmill.

1.5-Mile Run Test (Maximal Exercise Test)

The 1.5-mile run test is a maximal test suitable if you are conditioned to run at maximal effort. Avoid this test if you have heart problems or contraindications preventing you from running at your maximum effort.

On a level running surface, run 1.5 miles as fast as possible. Try to run at an even pace near the end (like you would in a race).

Record your time to complete the 1.5-mile run in minutes and seconds and your maximum heart rate at the end of the test. Use the formulas below to estimate VO2 max:

VO2 Max Calculator: Fast 1.5 Miles Test

VO2 max = 88.02 + (3.716 x sex multiplier) – (0.0753 x body weight in pounds) – (2.767 x time for 1.5 miles in minutes and fractions of minutes)

Sex multiplier = 1 for males, 0 for females.

Remember that the equations in parentheses are completed first, then the rest is completed.

Example: if Joe is a 25-year-old male who weighs 175 pounds and completes his 1.5-mile run in 12 minutes 15 seconds, his equation will look like this:

VO2 max = 88.02 + (3.716 x 1) – (0.0753 x 175) – (2.767 x 12.25)

VO2 max = 88.02 + 3.716 – 13.178 – 33.896

VO2 max = 44.6 (rounded up)

A person running.

This test provides useful information for runners and other endurance sports athletes that is more practical than many other common ways to measure V02 max at home.

For one, you can calculate your maximum heart rate from the highest heart rate you achieve during the test, based on your heart rate monitor data.

Most age-predicted maximum heart rate equations have a pretty large standard deviation2Shargal, E., Kislev-Cohen, R., Zigel, L., Epstein, S., Pilz-Burstein, R., & Tenenbaum, G. (2015). Age-related maximal heart rate: examination and refinement of prediction equations. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness55(10), 1207–1218. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25389634/ or margin of error, so actually measuring your maximum heart rate can be more helpful than a formula predictor.

Many runners train and perform their aerobic exercise by heart rate or use heart rate zones, so the more accurate you can be in knowing your maximum heart rate (beats per minute, BPM at maximal exercise effort), the more accurate your training zones will be.

Knowing your resting heart rate while calculating these zones is also useful.

A person running fast.

There are other ways to test this important metric at home or outside of a lab, some of which may be more appropriate if you are not a runner or cannot reach maximum exercise intensity safely (or unsupervised).

Examples of VO2 max estimation protocols include the Rockport Walk Test, the Cooper VO2 Max Test, and the YMCA Cycle Ergometer Test. 

Most of these can be done on your own. Plus, because they are submaximal protocols for estimating VO2 max, they can be safer and easier for older adults, those with health conditions, or anyone who has a lower level of fitness.

There are also various step tests, such as the Queens College step test or the YMCA step test.

However, these DIY tests require using steps of a specific height, so it can be difficult to do these at-home tests if you do not have the correct step size; using a step of a different size will produce inaccurate results.

Finally, higher-end running watches or GPS sports watches now have algorithms that estimate your VO2 max based on your heart rate, pace, and relative effort level.

For example, some of the best Garmin watches, such as the Forerunner 45, 55, 265, 745, and 945, all Garmin Fenix watches, and Garmin Vivoactive 4/Venu watches, have VO2 max, as do the Polar Pacer and new Polar Vantage 3.

I highly recommend the Garmin Forerunner 265 as the best GPS running watch for runners of most levels, from recreational runners to highly competitive runners.

The Garmin 265 GPS running watch measures VO2 max via Firstbeat Analytics along with other useful metrics such as running power, distance, speed, and everything you might imagine otherwise. It is nice and small (it comes in two watch face sizes)

A study3Automated Fitness Level (VO2max) Estimation with Heart Rate and Speed Data. (n.d.). https://assets.firstbeat.com/firstbeat/uploads/2017/06/white_paper_VO2max_30.6.2017.pdf that measured Garmin VO2 max accuracy found Garmin VO2 max values estimated to be 95% correct, with a margin of error of less than 3.5ml/kg/min (which is equal to 1 MET).

This is quite reliable, and the Garmin VO2 accuracy is said to increase the more accurate you are with your true max heart rate.

What Is A Good VO2 Max For My Age And Sex?

After you have your VO2 max data, you may be curious to see how you stack up among your age group. Check out this next guide to see if you have a good VO2 max for your age and sex:

Can VO2 Max Be Increased And, If So, How?

Also, if you want to increase your VO2 max by adding high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or lactate threshold workouts to your training program, check out some of our sessions here.

References

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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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