What is VO2 Max and how to increase it?

Tags: Technology and concepts | Smart

8.4.2021 | 10 MIN

More and more sportstesters nowadays have the function of measuring VO2 Max. To put it simply, this number can tells us more about our fitness condition. The higher the better. How do you stand and why is it important to be able to work with VO2 Max??

VO2 Max

(1) What is VO2 Max
(2) What is your level of VO2Max
(3) VO2Max among athletes
(4) VO2Max is not only about sport
(5) How to measure VO2Max
(6) How accurately is VO2Max measured by watches?
(7) How to increase VO2Max

(1) What is VO2 Max?

VO2 Max is defined as the maximum amount of oxygen that the body can use during the physical activity. The designation VO2 Max originated from the abbreviations V for volume, O2 for oxygen and Max for maximum. It is measured in milliliters of oxygen consumed per minute per kilogram of body weight (ml / kg / min)..

Simply put, the value of VO2 Max says how we are doing with our condition. The more oxygen the muscles can use, the longer we can perform physical activity. And VO2 Max shows just the largest amount of oxygen that muscles can use during this activity.

VO2Max – an indicator of the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use in one minute of physical activity.

(2) What is your level of VO2 Max?

The maximum oxygen consumption is always an individual value. We all have it different and genetics plays a significant role, which mainly affects the composition of muscle fibers and the size of the lungs. The influence of genetics is reported to be around 25-40%. Other factors also play an important role: body weight, age, gender, body composition and, of course, training. Of those external influences, altitude, the current body fatigue also plays a role in the measurement.

VO2Max – the higher the number, the better is our performance, faster regeneration and slower start of fatigue.

If you know your VO2 Max, the following table will show you how you are compared to the population:

Sex Age Bad Weak Average Good Excellent
Male < 29 < 24,9 25 - 33,9 34 - 43,9 44 - 52,9 > 53
30 - 39 < 22,9 25 - 30,9 31 - 41,9 42 - 49,9 > 50
40 - 49 < 19,9 20 - 26,9 27 - 38,9 39 - 44,9 > 45
50 - 59 < 17,9 18 - 24,9 25 - 37,9 38 - 42,9 > 43
60 - 69 < 15,9 16 - 22,9 23 - 35,9 36 - 40,9 > 41
Female < 29 < 23,9 24 - 30,9 31 - 38,9 39 - 48,9 > 50
30 - 39 < 19,9 20 - 27,9 28 - 36,9 37 - 44,9 > 45
40 - 49 < 16,9 17 - 24,9 25 - 34,9 35 - 41,9 > 42
50 - 59 < 14,9 15 - 21,9 22 - 33,9 34 - 39,9 > 40
60 - 69 < 12,9 13 - 20,9 21 - 32,9 33 - 36,9 > 37

(3) VO2 Max among athletes

VO2Max is one of the main success factors of endurance athletes. It is no wonder, then, that the best in the world have values around 90. Therefore, for young athletes who decide whether to pursue a professional career, it is useful to know the value of VO2Max. It can both indicate potential success, but also the fact that they will not be among the top even with all their efforts.

However, a great VO2Max does not mean that the individual will be a great athlete. It only tells us that someone has certain predispositions to do so, that is, more precisely, that she or he can efficiently process oxygen during exercise. The higher VO2Max also gives us information that the athlete has a better ability to regenerate. This is useful for intermittent sports, such as  football.

As we already know, VO2Max values are influenced by genetics, so when two athletes train in exactly the same way, they may not yet achieve the same results. The weight must also be taken into account. For example, if a rower weighs 20 kg more than a marathon runner, he may have a worse VO2Max, but that does not mean that he will have worse sports results. Physiologists therefore use special conversion tables.

VO2Max is quite a complex matter, but we know from experience that it is quite a reliable prediction. Below you can see the VO2Max top athletes:

Value VO2 Max Name Sport
97,5 Oskar Svendsen Cycling
96 Espen Harald Bjerke 
Cross-country skiing
96 Bjørn Dæhlie 
Cross-country skiing
93 Kurt Asle Arvesen  
92,5 Greg LeMond 
92 Kilian Jornet 
92 Matt Carpenter 
92 Tore Ruud Hofstad 
Cross-country skiing
Gunde Svan 
Cross-country skiing
91 Harri Kirvesniem 
Cross-country skiing

Czech world champion Jarmila Kratochvílová had a VO2Max of 72.8 and, for example, the cross-country ski champion Bjørn Dæhlie's VO2Max was measured outside the main season. During it, it would probably exceed the limit of 100 ml / kg / min. (See more athletes and their VO2Max values.)

Remember the doping case of Lance Armstrong (who, by the way, had VO2Max 84)? Or the big doping affair at the Tour de France? Cycling is one of the most demanding sports, which is why competitors try to improve their VO2Max. This is exactly what the drug Erythropoietin (EPO) does, it stimulates the production of red blood cells and thus leads to increased physical fitness. It was, of course, banned for top athletes, and I also have bad news for us amateurs: according to studies to date, it does not work for amateurs. Thus, we will have to increase our VO2Max by training.

VO2Max našeho firemního sporťáka Matěje

VO2Max of our colleague Matěj

(4) VO2Max is not only about sport

The value of VO2Max should also interest non-athletes! VO2Max, resp. our cardiorespiratory fitness can be a good indicator of the risk of chronic diseases such as stroke, diabetes, cancer or just cardiovascular disease (high blood pressure, heart and coronary artery disease, etc.).

The number of chronic diseases in the Western world is growing. It is nothing new, when we say  that our sedentary lifestyle, smoking and other bad habits are also to blame. Low VO2Max, ie low cardiorespiratory fitness, is then associated with the occurrence of these chronic diseases. So even if you don't use the VO2Max values as an athlete, maybe a low number will at least lift you off the couch.

I also have good news for beginning athletes. VO2Max grows rapidly during regular training, which is motivating. But it can also fall quickly, for example, if you miss a month of training, it can be 10-20% lower. For top athletes who train regularly, the possibility of increasing VO2Max is relatively low. It is logical, a beginner hobby runner will see a quick increase with the right training, but the pro has already approached his best value.

And one more interesting thing for you. If you want to know your maximum VO2Max, the highest possible number that your body is able to reach, you should have achieved it before the age of 20. Then it gradually decreases with age. Nevertheless, it is worth trying to reach at least the current maximum.

(5) How to measure VO2Max

The maximum value of oxygen is measured during exercise with increasing intensity. We can therefore achieve the most accurate results in special laboratories.

VO2Max measurement in the laboratory. In laboratory conditions, the measurement takes place on a treadmill or exercise bike, where the activity must be developed for at least 10-12 minutes, so that the amount of oxygen received before complete depletion is really the maximum.

During the measurement, the tester is connected to a chest strap, which senses the heart rate, and to a mask, which measures the amount of inhaled and exhaled oxygen. The intensity of the load gradually increases until the air consumption remains the same despite the increase in load. This is a signal that your body may switch from aerobic metabolism (the body's most efficient way to convert food energy into fuel that requires a lot of oxygen) to anaerobic metabolism. Shortly afterwards, fatigue comes, and the body is forced to switch back to aerobic metabolism to continue.

Measuring VO2Max at home. Testing in laboratories is the most accurate, but of course it costs money. If you want to know at least an approximate value, you can test yourself with one of these tests:

  1. Astrand's treadmill test: Start with a starting speed of 8km / h + 0% incline. After three minutes, increase the slope to 2.5% and then increase the slope every two minutes until you can do it. The total test time is recorded. VO2max = (time reached in minutes x 1.444) + 14.99

  2. Balke's treadmill test: Men start at 5.3 km / h + 0% incline. After 1 minute, increase the slope to 2% and then by 1% every minute. You then calculate the value with the same formula as the previous test, namely VO2max = (1.44 x achieved time in minutes) + 14.99

  3. Balke's Athletic Oval Test: Run for 15 minutes to run the longest distance possible. After 15 minutes, stop the time and use the distance to calculate: VO2Max = ((Distance traveled in meters: 15) - 133) x 0.172) + 33.3.

  4. Walking for 2 kilometers: walk on flat terrain exactly 2 km as fast as possible. At the destination, record the time and heart rate (TF) for 15 seconds. Multiply TF by x 4. VO2Max = males = 186.6 - (5.32 x time) - (0.22 x TF) - (0.32 x age) - (0.24 x weight), females = 124.2 - (2.81 x time) - (0.12 x TF) - (0.16 x age) - (0.24 x weight)

For all types of measurements, both at laboratory and at home, it is necessary to warm up thoroughly before the activity.

(6) How accurately is VO2 measured by watches?

Many sports testers can also measure VO2Max, quite comfortably. Most watches (Garmin, Suunto and others) perform the calculation automatically during sports activity based on speed / pace and heart rate. It is also based on the entered data about your body weight, age and gender.

To display the VO2Max, even about 20 minutes of active walking or a shorter run is enough (depending on the brand of the sports tester).

Zobrazování hodnoty VO2 Max na hodinkách Garmin

Display of the VO2 Max value on a Garmin watch

The values of VO2Max may differ between running and cycling, in which better sports testers also take into account the wattage (the product of the force exerted on the pedals and the speed of their speed), for which a compatible sensor is necessary.

You will definitely be interested in what is the accuracy of VO2Max measurement for watches - indicative. Here it will be true that the more accurate the measurement of the heart rate, the more accurate the result. Therefore, the deviation will be smaller if you use a chest pulse sensor, instead of a less accurate optical measurement from the wrist. If you only measure your heart rate from your wrist, it is important to have a tight strap so that the deviation is as small as possible.

As an example of deviation, let's mention the information from Garmin, respectively the result of study conducted by Edwardsville University in Illinois.

„When measuring the heart rate with the chest strap, the difference in determining the VO2 Max value between the watch and the laboratory was 1-1.25 ml / kg, which represents an accuracy of about 2% -4% depending on the VO2Max value. When measuring the heart rate with an optical sensor, the values reached 2.7-3 ml / kg, but for a standard user these are still acceptable deviations.“

And it's true that according to user experience, Garmin has a very accurate estimations of VO2Max. It is also important to mention that the measured value of VO2Max will be more accurate with other tested activities. So the more sports activities you perform with a given sports tester, the more accurate the result will be. But always keep in mind that the watches can not achieve the accuracy of laboratory test in perfect conditions.

Today, VO2Max measurement functions are no longer domain of expensive sports testers; on the contrary, due to its popularity, we often find it in smartwatches that are not specifically intended for active athletes. But it is certainly not surprising that more accurate values will be achieved by watches focused on sports performance, where brands often cooperate with external companies dealing with the issue, the most famous being FirstBeat.


(7) How to increase VO2Max

It might seem that to increase the VO2Max that we associate with endurance sports, it is ideal to do endurance sports. Which is exercise of medium intensity for a long time in the presence of a sufficient amount of oxygen (so-called aerobic excercise). We burn fat with it, but VO2Max does not increase it much for us.

On the contrary, we need to overcome this comfortable oxygen zone, and anaerobic excercise, is ideal for this, which takes place with insufficient oxygen supply, but for a shorter time, but intensively. E.g. sprint.

Therefore, one of the most recommended activities is interval training (for example, the well-known HIIT), where you force your body to work at high intensity long enough to cross the anaerobic limit before returning to aerobic metabolism. In general, any training where you push your limits can improve your VO2Max score.

Try e.g..:

  • 3 x 1200 meters running in combination with 3-4 minutes rest
  • 30/30 interval - regular alternation of 30s load and 30s rest, 12-20 repetitions
  • Interval 60/60 - 60s load, 60s rest, 6-10 repetitions
  • Uphill run - 90 seconds run up to 3 minutes with the intermediate track back, 4-10 repetitions, depending on fitness

Some sports testers can help you improve VO2Max. Not only will it motivate you when an increasing number appears on the display, but it will also tell you when you enter the anaerobic zone. This is indicated by the value of the heart rate, which is around 75% of the maximum heartbeat rate.

Interesting links:

The first edition of the article: 31. 1. 2019. Last update: 17. 7. 2020