If you’re a fitness enthusiast or on a journey to enhance your health, you’re likely exploring ways to enhance your performance, push your boundaries, and track various fitness indicators such as heart rate, calories burned, and steps taken. You might even be aware of your basal metabolic rate. However, there’s another vital fitness metric you might not be familiar with yet: Your VO2 max.
VO2 max can offer valuable insights about your cardiorespiratory fitness, such as your ability to maintain a certain exercise intensity, which is related to fitness benchmarks like your mile run time. This article will help you understand what VO2 max is, how to measure it, and how to enhance yours.
Understanding VO2 Max
VO2 max denotes the maximum volume of oxygen you can utilize during exercise. It’s frequently used to assess the aerobic endurance or cardiovascular fitness of athletes before and after a training cycle. VO2 max is measured in milliliters of oxygen consumed in one minute, per kilogram of body weight (mL/kg/min).
It’s not the same as heart rate, but it can be equally, if not more, effective in measuring and tracking your fitness progress. VO2 isn’t the same as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), which refers to the increase in oxygen your body uses after a workout, not during.
Also, VO2 max shouldn’t be confused with the lactate threshold, the point during exercise where lactate accumulates in your bloodstream faster than your body can eliminate it. You reach your lactate threshold at about 50 to 80% of your VO2 max.
Measuring VO2 Max
Although VO2 max is a reliable fitness marker, it has some limitations. You can’t accurately measure it outside of a lab with costly clinical equipment, which is why VO2 max is typically a fitness marker reserved for elite and professional athletes.
However, some gyms and holistic health clinics offer VO2 max testing for their members or patients. For instance, TriFitLA, a studio gym in Los Angeles, offers VO2 max testing along with several different performance and health tests. If you’re really interested, your best bet is to search “VO2 max testing near me” on Google.
To measure VO2 max, you wear a mask and heart rate monitor hooked up to a treadmill or stationary bike. The mask is connected to a machine that collects and measures the volume of oxygen you inhale, and the amount of air you exhale. You’ll slowly increase exercise intensity on the treadmill or bike — getting faster and/or adding more resistance — until your oxygen consumption remains steady despite an increase in intensity.
What Should My VO2 Max Be?
Like heart rate, there’s no one “good” VO2 max. Your VO2 max will differ from someone else’s based on age, gender, fitness level and outside factors like altitude. For example:
- The average sedentary (inactive) male achieves a VO2 max of about 35 to 40 mL/kg/min, and the average sedentary female scores approximately 27 to 30 mL/kg/min.
- Elite male runners have shown VO2 maxes of up to 85 mL/kg/min, and elite female runners have scored up to 77 mL/kg/min.
- A good VO2 max for a 25-year-old male is 42.5-46.4 mL/kg/min, while a good value for a 25-year-old female is 33.0-36.9 mL/kg/min.
Improving Your VO2 Max
If you ever do get around to visiting a sports performance lab and getting your VO2 max tested, it’d be worth it to act on that number. Increasing your body’s capacity to utilize oxygen is one surefire way to get you closer to your endurance-related goals — a higher VO2 max essentially extends your breaking point.
High-intensity interval training is one of the best ways to improve your VO2 max. It works because you train your body to work at incredibly high levels for a period of time just long enough to push or surpass your anaerobic threshold before returning to a steadier, aerobic state.
In a theoretical sense, any exercise that pushes your limits can increase your VO2 max. Think of it like building muscle: Muscles won’t grow unless they’re exposed to workloads that challenge them. If you never increase your weight on the barbell, you’ll never get stronger.
The same goes for VO2 max — it’s like a muscle of its own. If you run at the same easy pace for the same amount of time every day, you won’t get faster or better at running.
Instead, try adding intervals to your run. For example:
- Run fast for one minute
- Jog slowly for two minutes
- Sprint for 30 seconds
- Jog slowly for two minutes
- And so forth
If running isn’t your thing, you can apply the same principles to swimming, cycling, rowing, or any cross-training activity.