If you are into fitness, you may have heard the term VO2 max at some stage or another. When you’re exercising (behind the beads of sweat on your forehead!), maximizing your workout and getting your best performance may be on the back of your mind, and that’s where knowing the basics of VO2 max can be useful.
VO2 max is a useful indicator when it comes to understanding your body. Basically, the term refers to the maximum amount of oxygen a person can consume and use in one minute during exercise. VO2 max is measured in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of the body per minute (mL/kg/min). The higher the number the better. But why is this so important to fitness?
Below, we answer that question with the help of an expert and reveal how to measure your VO2 and the various ways you can improve it.
Why is VO2max important?
Rhona Pearce is Exercise Science Manager at Loughborough University (opens in new tab) In the UK, sports-related subjects have been ranked first in the world in the QS World University Rankings by Subject for the past six years.
“VO2 Max is a key measure of a person’s aerobic fitness and a good measure of a person’s overall fitness,” Rhona said. “It’s important because it sets an upper bound on a person’s aerobic capacity.”
Dr Christopher Kirk, Lecturer in Exercise and Exercise Physiology, Sheffield Hallam University (opens in new tab)Another leading sports university in the UK, explains why VO2 Max not only helps determine aerobic capacity, but can also reflect a person’s overall fitness.
“When we exercise, our bodies break down energy to make muscles contract,” explains Chris. “We only have a very small amount of energy for the muscles to use – about enough for three seconds of work – so it has to be replaced as it’s used. That’s what oxygen is for, breaking down the carbohydrates and fats we consume in our diet to replace Energy used by muscles during exercise.
How to measure your VO2 Max?
The most accurate way to measure your VO2 max is to wear a mask while running, cycling or rowing in a physiology lab equipped with a gas analyzer until you can’t run any faster and your body is at max VO2. However, you need a team of physiologists and access to the lab to get your results.
Other more practical methods of VO2 max estimation include:
1. 12-Minute Cooper Run
During this test, you can run as fast as you can for 12 minutes without stopping. Then build an equation between the distance you cover and your age, weight and gender to predict your VO2 max.
2. Multi-level physical fitness test (commonly known as beep test)
No doubt, you must have heard of and most likely took this test. The athlete performs a continuous 20-meter shuttle run, reaching each marker before the next beep. The time between each sound is sped up, increasing the intensity. No professional equipment is required.
3. YoYo Intermittent Testing
Similar to the beep test, this consists of short, intensive runs between two marks at increasingly faster speeds and shorter recovery times. Pause to give this test its ‘YoYo’ name.
Both the YoYo interval test and the multi-phase fitness test use an equation similar to the 12-minute Cooper run, but of course not as accurate as the lab test.Many sports watches like the best running watches and the best fitness trackers (opens in new tab)) now provides maximum VO2 estimates, including models from Apple and Samsung, as well as several of the best Garmin watches.
Is there a good “score” for your VO2 Max?
“Above 40 mL/kg/min is recommended for the average person who just wants to stay healthy enough and avoid certain diseases, with ‘average’ 35-55 mL/kg/min for the majority of the population.”
In terms of a “good” VO2 max “score,” it depends on what you want to do, says Dr. Christopher Kirk. “If you want to be a high level marathon runner or road cyclist then 70mL/kg/min is the absolute minimum you need, scores in the mid 70’s to mid 80’s are more realistic for men, and in the 70’s Mid-term for women. For participating in team sports, anything above 60mL/kg/min will be fine.
How to improve your VO2 Max?
To some extent, your VO2 max depends on genetics, but it can be improved, Rhona Pearce says.
“VO2 max is genetically determined but can be increased with proper training. How much you can train and increase VO2 max will depend on how close your current genetic limit is. The main limiting factor is the delivery of the cardiorespiratory system to the working muscles. Oxygen capacity, which is genetically determined. Well-trained elite athletes often fail to make much of an improvement and instead improve their performance in other areas.
“Traditionally, the two main ways to increase VO2max have been a lot of low-intensity exercise, or short, high-intensity intervals to build up VO2max over time.”
So essentially, two things that can help improve your VO2 Max can be a moderate-intensity run, like 30-40 minutes, or a HIIT run (including a moderate-intensity warm-up for five minutes, followed by five repetitions, each set of three High-intensity minutes, two minutes of rest between each run).For inspiration, check out our five ideas for a fun cardio HIIT workout (opens in new tab).
Dr. Christopher recommends choosing options that you may agree with. “There is a lot of debate as to whether mid- and long-distance cardio or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is better for increasing VO2 max. Most likely, when done correctly, there is little difference between them.
“The only difference is which one you prefer: 30-40 minutes of steady running, or about 25 minutes of intense work. Which one would you personally prefer, and which would you personally stick to each week? Do that.”