Curious about what is VO2 max and how it affects your exercise performance? We give you the scoop on VO2 max, how to measure it yourself, and ways to increase it so you can go harder, and run faster.
Chances are if you’ve been running for a while or have been involved in any type of endurance sport, you’ve heard the term “VO2 max” before.
VO2 max is often referred to in fitness circles, but not very well understood, especially if you’re a beginner to exercise.
In this post, we’ll explain what is VO2 max, how it affects your running, and ways to improve VO2 max to run faster and more efficiently.
Once you begin to focus on your running performance – for example, when in marathon training – it can be beneficial to focus some of your training on VO2 max improvements.
So, what is VO2 Max?
VO2 max is defined as the maximal oxygen consumption of your body during a specified time, usually during intense exercise. Essentially, it’s the maximum amount (Volume) of oxygen (02) your body can take in and actually use during maximal fitness efforts.
Some people refer to VO2 max as a measurement of aerobic power and our aerobic ceiling, and it’s measured in milliliters per minute per kilogram of bodyweight (ml/kg/min).
Your body’s VO2 max capacity is largely dependent on 1) cardiac output and 2) the ability of your muscles to use the available oxygen your heart and lungs are providing them.
Let’s get geeky for a minute. Here’s the scientific formula for VO2 max:
VO2 = SV x HR x (a-v O2 diff)
- SV = stroke volume (the volume of blood your heart is moving with each stroke)
- HR = heart rate
- a-v O2 diff = arteriovenous oxygen difference (how much oxygen the body is actually utilizing)
- SV x HR = CO (cardiac output)
So our VO2 max is determined by our stroke volume, our heart rate, and the amount of oxygen that our body actually uses from our blood.
What does VO2 max mean for running or fitness?
VO2 max is one of the many measurements in our fitness and endurance toolbelt (along with things like lactate threshold and exercise economy) that tell us where our fitness level is, where we can improve, and a way to track progress over time.
If you can improve your VO2 max, you can run farther, faster, and with more intensity. The same goes for any other cardiorespiratory activity like cycling, swimming, etc.
With proper training, you can increase your VO2 max and improve your running speed and endurance by increasing the elements of VO2 max :
- Your stroke volume (strengthening your heart muscle)
- And the oxygen uptake of your muscles (training your muscles to use oxygen more efficiently).
How is VO2 max measured?
Measuring VO2 max is a great way to measure your aerobic capacity. In a lab setting, VO2 max is usually measured with participants wearing a mask that measures incoming and outgoing air.
Participants are placed on a piece of cardio equipment like a stationary bike, treadmill, etc. and exercise is gradually increased until reaching a maximal tolerated level of exercise and physiological measurements (like heart rate) reach a plateau. All the information is collected and calculated into your VO2 max.
Doing formal lab tests for VO2 max can be really helpful if you’re going to test training programs and check for improvement or to establish a baseline. The VO2 max tests are also fairly accessible and available at many university fitness centers and cost about $100.
But these tests may not be practical for the average person who isn’t a competitive athlete. But there is a way to do your own version of a VO2 max yourself for free (more on that in a bit).
If you do get a VO2 max test done (or you do your own test), you can check your place in VO2 max norm charts by gender and age. But the best way to use a VO2 max test is to use the data to measure progress over time to make sure that your training program is working like it should.
How to do your own VO2 max tests: VO2 Max Calculators
If you don’t want to do a formal lab test for VO2 max, you can do your own tests to estimate your VO2 max. These self-tests have a margin of error and are not as accurate as a lab test, but are still helpful in estimating your VO2 max.
There are a variety of tests available that people can do, but we’re listing the protocols for 2 of the easiest tests to complete on your own.
Perhaps the most popular test is the Cooper Test, which we’ve dedicated a full article to.
In this post, we’ll include both the maximal 1.5 mile run test and the submaximal 1 mile jogging test below so there are 2 options for different fitness levels.
For a few other test types, this helpful compilation of tests also includes a submaximal jog test and the Rockport walking test.
1.5 mile run test (maximal test)
The 1.5 mile run test is a maximal test and is suitable if you are conditioned to run at maximal effort. Avoid this test if you have heart problems or or contraindications (like joint problems) that would prevent you from running at your highest 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), and you can do a trial run prior to the run test to get a sense of the pace you’ll be at.
Record your time to complete the 1.5 mile run in minutes and seconds, and your 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 gender multiplier) – (0.0753 x body weight in pounds) – (2.767 x time for 1.5 miles in minutes and fractions of minutes)
Gender multiplier = 1 for males, 0 for females.
Remember that equations in parentheses are completed first, then the rest of the equation is completed.
Example: if Joe is a 25 year old male that weighs 175 pounds and completes his 1.5 mile run in 12 minutes 15 seconds, his equation would 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)
1 mile jog test (submaximal)
The 1 mile jog test is a submaximal test that is great for people who are not able to complete a maximal run test for a variety of reasons.
Complete a comfortable jog over exactly 1 mile measured distance. It’s should not be fast, so pace should be less than 8 min/mile for men and 9 min/mile for women.
Once the test is completed, immediately record the time and record the heart rate from a heart rate monitor within 5 seconds of completion. If you’re doing a manual heart rate check, check heart rate as soon as possible and count your beats for 15 seconds, then multiply by 4 for your beats per minute at completion.
VO2 Max Calculator – 1 Mile Comfortable Jog Test
Use the formula below for calculating your estimated VO2 max:
VO2 max = 100.5 + (8.344 x gender) – (0.0744 x weight in pounds) – (1.438 x mile time in minutes and fraction of minutes) – (0.1928 x heart rate)
Gender multiplier = 1 for male; 0 for female
VO2 Max Chart: Men and Women
The VO2 Max Chart above shows the various VO2 Max ranges for both men and women, sorted by age group.
How to increase your VO2 max
After you learn what is VO2 Max, the next step is figuring out how to improve it!
If you’d like to increase your VO2 max (your maximal oxygen consumption) so you can run faster and more efficiently, there are a few ways to do this. Here’s our recommendations:
Studies have shown that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) improves the VO2 max of young participants by improving oxygen delivery in the body.
To train your VO2 max with intervals, your hard work intervals segments need to be at or near maximal intensity. Your heart rate during these hard work segments should approach your max heart rate.
More on interval training:
Note that this type of training is not suitable for everyone, especially if you have heart problems. Always check with your doctor about new exercise programs.
Unlike HIIT training, submaximal exercise like moderate jogging appears to improve metabolism, but doesn’t increase VO2 max. So if you’d like to increase your VO2 max, make sure you’re adding HIIT interval training into your running workouts!
What Is VO2 Max – Supplements To Improve VO2 Max
I know what you’re probably thinking: it’s not possible to increase your cardio capacity with supplements.
But studies have shown that it is possible to improve your maximal oxygen consumption with certain supplements. It’s believed that some of these supplements (like peppermint mentioned below) work by increasing vasodilation (opening up the blood vessels), and improving lung function which increases oxygen uptake.
There are a few breathing techniques to increase your aerobic capacity as a runner which you may wish to check out.
Obviously you should never try to replace proper training with supplements, but combining natural, sport safe supplements and nutrition strategy with a solid training routine may help.
Make sure to speak with your doctor before beginning a new supplement!
Here are a few examples of supplements and nutrition strategies shown by scientific studies to be effective for improving VO2 max:
- Quercetin (a natural plant bioflavonoid) has been found effective at increasing VO2 max.
- Iron supplementation if you have low blood iron levels.
- Peppermint essential oil taken by mouth seems to improve VO2 max and respiratory rate.
- Rhodiola and ginkgo combined appear to improve endurance performance and VO2 max.
Certain supplements like a glucose or caffeine may increase time to exhaustion and mitigate the feelings of exhaustion, but don’t necessarily increase your VO2 max.
VO2 max is a great thing to work on and improve, but it is not the only thing to consider. VO2 max isn’t the same thing as lactate threshold, first or second ventilatory threshold (VT1 and VT2), etc.
If you’d like to improve running, here are a few other things to keep in mind along with VO2 max:
- Lactate threshold (the point at which lactic acid accumulates in the blood faster than it can be removed)
- Mental fitness and psychological readiness for races
- Strength training and conditioning of legs and core for movement efficiency
- Stride length, cadence, and foot strike.