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What Is VO2 Max? How To Measure And Improve Your VO2 Max

See how this gold standard of athletic performance is used to analyze your fitness.

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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 is poorly understood, especially if you’re a beginner at exercising. However, VO2 max values are the gold standard of aerobic fitness and an important piece of information to help analyze your athletic performance.

VO2 max, or volume oxygen maximum, is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use while exercising at high intensity.1UC Davis Health. (2023). VO2max and Oxygen Consumption | UC Davis Sports Medicine. Health.ucdavis.edu. https://health.ucdavis.edu/sports-medicine/resources/vo2description

In this guide, we will 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.

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. It is measured in milliliters of oxygen per minute per kilogram of body weight (ml/kg/min).

what is VO2 max

Your body’s VO2 max capacity largely depends on cardiac output and the ability of your muscles to use the available oxygen your heart and lungs provide.

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.

A high VO2 max theoretically enables you to produce more ATP (adenosine triphosphate) per minute so your muscles can do more “work” or support faster running or higher-intensity exercise before crossing your anaerobic threshold.

What Does VO2 Max Mean For Running Or Fitness?

VO2 max is one of the many measurements in our cardiovascular fitness and endurance toolbelt (along with lactate threshold and running economy) that tell us where our physical 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 more intensely. The same goes for any other cardiorespiratory fitness activity, such as cycling or swimming.

Proper training can increase your VO2 max and improve your running speed and endurance by increasing these elements:

  • Your stroke volume (strengthening your heart muscle)
  • And the oxygen uptake of your muscles (training your muscles to use oxygen more efficiently).
What Is VO2 Max Chart

How is VO2 max measured?

Measuring VO2 max is a great way to measure your aerobic capacity. In a lab setting, a VO2 max test consists of participants wearing a mask that measures incoming and outgoing (carbon dioxide) air.

Participants are placed on cardio equipment like a stationary bike or treadmill, 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 scores.

Formal lab tests for VO2 max can be really helpful if you’re testing training programs to check for improvement or establish a baseline.2UC Davis Health. (2023). VO2max and Oxygen Consumption | UC Davis Sports Medicine. Health.ucdavis.edu. https://health.ucdavis.edu/sports-medicine/resources/vo2description VO2 max tests are fairly accessible, cost about $100, and are available at many university fitness centers.

These tests may not be practical for the average person who isn’t a competitive athlete. However, there is a way to do your own version of a VO2 max test yourself for free (more on that in a bit).

If you get a VO2 max test done (or do your own test), you can check your place in VO2 max norm charts3Wood, R. (2012). Norm values for VO2max. Topendsports.com. https://www.topendsports.com/testing/norms/vo2max.htm by sex and age.

However, 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 as it should.

If you have a Garmin GPS watch or another running watch, you may see it gives you your estimated VO2 max values. However, a test will be much more accurate.

How Can I Do My Own VO2 Max Test?

You can do your own tests if you don’t want to do a formal lab test for 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 various tests available that people can do, but we’re listing the protocols for two of the easiest tests to complete independently.

Perhaps the most popular test is the Cooper Test, which we’ve dedicated a full article to here.

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 two options for different fitness levels.

For a few other test types, this helpful compilation of tests4Tests For Predicting VO 2max Maximal Tests. (n.d.). https://sites.uni.edu/dolgener/Fitness_Assessment/CV_Fitness_Tests.pdf also includes a submaximal jog test and the Rockport walking test.

How To Improve VO2 Max

1.5-Mile Run Test (Maximal Exercise 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 contraindications (like joint problems) that would prevent 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), 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 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 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 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)

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.

What Is VO2 Max 3

VO2 Max Calculator – 1 Mile Comfortable Jog Test

Use the formula below to calculate your estimated VO2 max:

VO2 max = 100.5 + (8.344 x sex) – (0.0744 x weight in pounds) – (1.438 x mile time in minutes and fraction of minutes) – (0.1928 x heart rate)

Sex multiplier = 1 for male; 0 for female

What’s A Good VO2 Max For My Age?

What Is VO2 Max? How To Measure And Improve Your VO2 Max 1
VO2 Max Chart for men and women

The VO2 Max Chart above shows the various VO2 max ranges for both men and women, sorted by age group.

How Can I Increase My VO2 max?

After you learn what VO2 Max is, the next step is to figure out how to improve it.

If you’d like to increase your VO2 max (maximal oxygen uptake) so you can run faster and more efficiently, there are a few ways to do this. Here’s our recommendations:

#1: Interval training

Studies have shown that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) improves VO2 max by improving oxygen delivery in the body.

To train your VO2 max with intervals, your hard work interval segments must 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 any issues with your cardiovascular health. 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, add HIIT interval training to your running workouts!

Curious about VO2 max and how it affects your running? We give you the scoop on VO2 max, how to measure it yourself, and ways to increase it so you can run faster. | MarathonHandbook.com #running #fitness #exercise

#2: Supplements

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.

Obviously, you should never try to replace proper training and aerobic exercise 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 taking a new supplement.

Here are a few examples of supplements and nutrition strategies shown by scientific studies to be effective for improving VO2 max:

  • Quercetin5Davis, J. M., Carlstedt, C. J., Chen, S., Carmichael, M. D., & Murphy, E. A. (2010). The Dietary Flavonoid Quercetin Increases VO2max and Endurance Capacity. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism20(1), 56–62. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.20.1.56 (a natural plant bioflavonoid) has been found effective at increasing VO2 max.
  • Iron6Magazanik, A., Weinstein, Y., Abarbanel, J., Lewinski, U., Shapiro, Y., Inbar, O., & Epstein, S. (1991). Effect of an iron supplement on body iron status and aerobic capacity of young training women. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology62(5), 317–323. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00634966 supplementation if you have low blood iron levels.
  • Peppermint essential oil7Meamarbashi, A., & Rajabi, A. (2013). The effects of peppermint on exercise performance. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition10, 15. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-10-15 taken by mouth seems to improve VO2 max and respiratory rate.
  • Rhodiola and ginkgo8Zhang, Z., Tong, Y., Zou, J., Chen, P., & Yu, D. (2009). Dietary supplement with a combination of Rhodiola crenulata and Ginkgo biloba enhances the endurance performance in healthy volunteers. Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine15(3), 177–183. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11655-009-0177-x combined appear to improve endurance performance and VO2 max.

Certain supplements like a glucose9Ivy, J. L., Miller, W., Dover, V., Goodyear, L. G., Sherman, W. M., Farrell, S., & Williams, H. (1983). Endurance improved by ingestion of a glucose polymer supplement. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise15(6), 466–471. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6361440/ or caffeine may increase time to exhaustion and mitigate the feelings of exhaustion but don’t necessarily increase your VO2 max.

#3: Breathing Techniques

There are a few breathing techniques to increase your aerobic capacity as a runner, which you may wish to check out.

What Else Should I Take Into Consideration When Improving My Running?

VO2 max is a great metric 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.

For some specific VO2 max workouts to get you started, check out this next guide:

How To Increase VO2 Max

References

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Sarah Jane Parker is a food and healthy living blogger at The Fit Cookie, an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer, ACE Certified Health Coach, Revolution Running certified running coach, YogaFit Level 1 certified yoga instructor, and an ACE Certified Fitness Nutrition Specialist.

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