What is VO2 Max?

You might be familiar with the term VO2 max. It’s possible that your coach has mentioned it, or notifications on your watch might even appear, indicating your predicted VO2 max. But what is VO2 max exactly? In this article, we will delve into what VO2 max is, how to measure it, and what makes a good VO2 max score.

Understanding VO2 Max

VO2 max is the maximum rate of oxygen your body is able to utilise, so if your VO2 max is higher, it means your body (i.e. heart, lunges and muscles) is better at effectively using oxygen during exercise. Given this, it’s not surprising that performance correlates with VO2 max.

From a health perspective, individuals with a low VO2 max are more likely to face early mortality and the onset of various chronic illnesses. On the other hand, those with a high VO2 max have a lower risk of developing chronic diseases, overall mortality, and coronary artery disease. 

VO2 max is measured in millilitres of oxygen consumed per kilogram of body weight per minute (mL/kg/min). It’s also referred to as peak oxygen uptake, maximal oxygen uptake, or maximal aerobic capacity.

How is VO2 Max Calculated?

VO2 max can be measured directly or indirectly, it is dependent upon accessibility, cost and expertise. 

Direct approaches to measuring VO2 Max

Lab Testing

VO2 max can be measured in a laboratory setting, which is the gold standard approach. This is carried out through direct analysis involving breath-by-breath examination during progressive and maximal treadmill or cycle ergometer tests with various protocols. But what does this mean? 

Typically, you’ll either jog on a treadmill or pedal on a stationary bike whilst wearing a specialised facemask. The test is usually gradually progressive and finishes when you reach the point where you can no longer keep going, the test usually lasts for 8-12 minutes. This will accurately determine an individual’s VO2 max.

When testing VO2 max directly, it holds strong validity and reliability; however, it may be expensive and some may not have access to facilities. If you would like to complete a VO2 max test like this, contact your local university as they may offer this service!

Indirect approaches to measuring VO2 Max

Indirect approaches encompass field tests, which predict VO2 max using mathematical models, provide an interesting alternative.

Testing with indirect methods offers advantages such as cost-effectiveness, simple implementation, and accessibility of testing sites. However, indirect methods to estimate VO2 max can introduce measurement errors. 

Below, we’ll briefly explore a selection of these indirect methods: 

The Astrand Test

To undertake the Astrand Test, start by walking/running on a treadmill at 5 mph with a 0% incline for 3 minutes. After, increase the incline by 2.5% every 2 minutes until you are unable to continue and complete the following formula to calculate your VO2 max.

(Time × 1.444) + 14.99 = V02 Max.

For example, If you stopped the test after 11 mins 30 secs of running, V02 max would be (11.5 x 1.444) + 14.99 = 31.596 ml/kg/min.

Fitness Watches

Earlier we mentioned you may have seen your VO2 max prediction pop up on your watch, this is another way you may gauge your VO2 max. Scientists discovered that they could obtain a reasonable estimate of VO2 max by dividing the maximum heart rate by the resting heart rate and then multiplying the result by 15.3.

These calculations were derived from data collected from well-trained men between the ages of 21-51. This method showed greater accuracy when using the actual measurements of maximum heart rate, as opposed to relying on age-based estimations. However, this doesn’t account for sex differences. 

Cooper Test (a 12-Minute Run)

The Cooper test, also known as the 12 minute run, involves athletes running as far as they can within 12 minutes. The distance they cover in the 12 minutes is then used to estimate the athletes VO2 max using the following equations:

  • V02 max = (35.971 x distance in miles) – 11.288
  • V02 max = (22.351 x distance in kilometres) – 11.288
  • VO2 max = (distance covered in metres – 504.9) / 44.73

What are good scores for VO2 Max? 

VO2 max scores can vary based on many factors including your age, gender, genetics, fitness levels and sport. 

Below, we have norm VO2 max scores for athletes from different sports: 

Typical VO2 max of athletes playing the sport (ml.kg-1.min-1)
ClassificationMalesFemalesSport
Extremely High70+60+Cross-Country Skiing
Middle-Distance Running
Long-Distance Running
Very High63-6954-59Cycling
Rowing
Race Walking
High57-6249-53Football
Middle-Distance Swimming
Canoe Racing
Handball
Racquetball
Speed Skating
Figure Skating
Downhill Skiing
Wrestling
Above Average52-5644-48Basketball
Ballet Dancing
American Football (Offensive, Defensive Backs)
Gymnastics
Hockey
Horse Racing (Jockey)
Sprint Swimming
Tennis
Sprinting
Jumping
Average44-5135-43Baseball
Softball
American Football (Linemen, Quarterbacks)
Shot Put
Discuss Throw
Olympic Weightlifting
Data from Nieman (1995), table adapted from Haff & Triplett (2016)

Frequently Asked Questions on VO2 Max

How accurate are smart watches for measuring VO2 Max? 

Smartwatches calculate VO2 max by evaluating the relationship between your pace and heart rate. The faster you can run at a relatively lower heart rate, the higher your watch VO2 max score will be. But, if we look at studies, it’s still hard to say exactly how accurate Apple and Garmin watches are at predicting VO2 max. What we do know though, is that smart watches are not as accurate as the gold standard lab testing. 

How to improve VO2 Max

You can improve your VO2 max by engaging in regular cardiovascular exercise and following a healthy lifestyle. Look out for our future articles exploring this further. 

Does VO2 Max Measure Aerobic or Anaerobic Fitness?

VO2 max assessments are a common way to measure aerobic fitness. Aerobic fitness is how well your body can get oxygen to your lungs, heart and muscles and use it during exercise. This determines how well you can do during aerobic exercise, such as running or swimming. 

Summary

Understanding and measuring VO2 max plays a crucial role in assessing an individual’s aerobic fitness and overall health. VO2 max reflects the body’s ability to use oxygen efficiently during exercise, and a higher VO2 max is associated with better performance and reduced risk of chronic disease. 

The measurement of VO2 max can be achieved through direct methods, involving controlled lab tests, or indirect methods that use predictive formulas based on various exercise tests or data from watches. 

In the quest for better performance and health, keep an eye out on future articles and how you can train your VO2 max. 

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