Updated: August 29th, 2021

Have you ever wondered why someone of the same age, physique and fitness level runs a 5k faster than you? It could be down to differences in technique Or likes of nutrition. But you monitor your heart rate and train in cohesion with your hormones (if that applies) yet, theres one element you haven’t got around to measuring (to be fair, most fitness watches don’t track this): your VO2 Max.

They might simply have a higher Vo2 Max than you. If they can get more oxygen to their active muscles, those muscles are going to be able to work harder and for longer, leaving you in their dust.

Man and woman racing

Your VO2 represents your bodies ability to use oxygen through exercise; defining how aerobically fit you are. VO2 MAX is the absolute highest amount of oxygen your body can in any given time. With me so far?

It is dependant on a number of factors such as:

  • your red blood cells count
  • Your participation in cardiovascular activities
  • The amount of blood your heart pumps per beat

But all it all; it measures how aerobically fit you are as an individual – and improving that number will make you more efficient in using oxygen, catapulting your performance in your sports, whether it be running (obviously or why else would you be here?) cycling, CrossFit, life.

Low levels of cardiovascular endurance (and consequently a low v02 max score) correlate to an increased risk of heart disease. And choosing to increase your overall levels of cardiovascular fitness associates with benefits such as:

  • Enhanced quality of life
  • Reduced risk of stroke, heart disease, diabetes and cancer
  • Improved mood
  • Better sleep
  • Increased Athletic prowess
  • Some even say you live longer

Okay, you want to live a healthier life, how do test for your VO2 max? And how do you go about improving it? Don’t worry, I’ll explain it all.

Jumping trainers

VO2 max testing

The tests designed for VO2 Max are the gold standard method to test your cardiovascular endurance, one you’ll want to try (even if you’re not an athlete). Understanding your VO2 max parameters, can help you determine your overall health. Although it has its pitfalls.

For a true, accurate VO2 max score, you’d need to visit a clinical lab with expensive equipment and manned by professionals, so more often than not a fitness marker reserved for the elite. And other data can be collected too like metabolic rate, lactate threshold etc.

However, some gyms and holistic health clinics offer VO2 max testing for their members/patients. For the most accurate and up to date list, search online for “VO2 max tests near me” and let google do its magic. Be warned, it can get pricey.

Maybe you have yours booked? Take a look at the protocol and what to expect:

Firstly it’s important to note, that these tests can be completed on a treadmill, bike or rowing machine. However to measure specifically for your sport, if you’re a runner stick with the treadmill. Cyclist? Stick with the bike, need I go on?

Cardio kit gym

Next you will have a a heart rate monitor attached to you and a mask covering your nose and mouth; which collects data regarding the volume of oxygen you inhale and exhale.

The intensity of the exercise will increase (either by speed, or resistance) until your oxygen consumption plateaus despite the constant exercise increase. As soon as you reach the plateau, your body has switched from aerobic metabolism (WITH oxygen) to anaerobic metabolism (WITHOUT oxygen). Your body is no longer using oxygen for the breakdown of carbohydrates/fats for energy simply because there isn’t any.

The aerobic to anaerobic ‘switch’ means your bodies workload is steadying and muscle fatigue is setting in, you need the oxygen (the aerobic switch) in order to continue because right now you have no energy to sustain your efforts.

That ‘switch’ would be the exact, maximum level that your body can work with oxygen. And be your VO2 Max score.

VO2 max test

What should my VO2 max score be?

Similar to your heart rate your VO2 max is personal to each of us, and so differs with age, gender, fitness levels, training status, genetics, body composition, to name a few. – Not surprisingly, age is strongly linked to VO2 max, with the highest values typically recorded between the ages of 20-25. Why? well, as we get older, our VO2 max is known to decrease. In most cases, it declines at a rate of approximately 0.5ml/kg/min per year. This is due to the age-related decline in maximum heart rate and heart stroke volume.

However, Athletes record much higher Vo2 Max scores than others:

  • Most female athletes have a score between 60-85 ml
  • Male athletes between 70-85 ml
  • Some athletes even record a score greater than 90

Interestingly enough, the highest of the athletic VO2 Max scores come from:

  • Male XC skiers, recording values up to 96 ml/kg/min
  • Female XC skiers record scores in the region 72-80 ml/kg/min
  • Ultramarathon and trail runners record V02 max scores in the region 80-90 ml/kg/min

A record breaking young cyclist from Norway reports a VO2 max of 97.5 ml/kg/min, though scientists are still trying to figure out if that reading was accurate.

Nordic skiing

Your “VO2 max age”

You may find that your VO2 max score offers you a fitness age, all this means is your fitness capacity is that of someone of ___ age. For example, if a woman’s VO2max is 35 ml/kg/min, her Fitness Age is 43 years, because an average 43-year-old woman has a VO2max of 35 ml/kg/min.

And of course, a Fitness Age of 43 conveys a different message, whether the actual age of this woman is 20 or 65.

How to improve your VO2 max

So you’ve been to the lab and have your VO2 max score. Excellent! Now lets get to work. Because even if it is a high score, it is worth improving on. Increasing your bodies ability to use oxygen will only smash your endurance based goals; a higher VO2 max essentially extends your bodies breaking point.

I’m sure its no surprise that high intensity interval training is the key to improve your VO2 max score. It demands an incredibly high intensity of work, just long enough to push your anaerobic threshold followed by aerobic rest. Literally playing with ‘the switch’.

With that logic, any exercise that pushed your limits can increase your VO2 max – the same principal applies to a muscle. Muscles wont grow unless worked under excessive load; if you never increase the weight on your leg extension machine – your quadriceps wont get stronger.

Quadriceps extension

Same goes for your VO2 max. Running at an easy pace on a flat surface all the time wont enhance your running capabilities. You need to throw in the likes of hills, a change in pace, terrain and effort in order to improve.

If running really isn’t you’re thing, don’t worry; these principles can be applied to any sport. And cross training keeps it interesting. Ready to improve your vo2 max? Start incorporating interval training, today!

How long does vo2 Max take to improve?

This element depends on your current training levels – if you are currently inactive then you’ll likely notice aerobic improvements in the first 4-6 weeks of training. However the fitter you are, the longer it will take to increase. Keep pausing your limits by challenging yourself through hill work, intensity, distance or volume of training; your hard work will pay off.

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