What Is Good VO2 Max All About?


If you’ve been a fitness fan like myself, then you very likely might have come across the phrase ‘VO2 Max’. Some of us might not necessarily know exactly what it means, but we might have an idea of the role it plays in giving us a picture of how aerobically fit we are.

VO2 max is indeed a good indicator of cardiorespiratory fitness. There is growing evidence that cardiorespiratory fitness is potentially a stronger predictor of mortality than established risk factors such as heart disease and diabetes.

Knowing your VO2 max helps you to tailor your training or workout programme to fit your current fitness needs and training goals more efficiently. This also helps you to set realistic targets and monitor your fitness progress as time goes on.

There has been a growing desire to track fitness levels using numerous fitness trackers currently available on the market. You can never be wrong with getting yourself the standard ones that track daily steps, calories burned, heart rate and distance covered, however acquiring a fitness tracker that estimates your VO2 max is a massive added benefit. It is however worth mentioning that these fitness trackers only give an estimate of your VO2 max. VO2 max testing carried out in a lab controlled setting gives you a more accurate score. More on this later!

What is good VO2 max and what is it all about?

Before talking about what figures represent good VO2 max scores, for the benefit of those coming across this term for the first time, let’s take a moment to look at what VO2 max exactly is.

What Is VO2 Max?

Also known as maximal oxygen uptake, VO2 max is simply a numerical value that indicates the maximum volume of oxygen the body is capable of consuming during high intensity physical activities.

Carried out in a lab controlled setting in the presence of a clinician and or exercise physiologist, VO2 max testing is widely considered the gold standard for measuring the cardiorespiratory fitness and aerobic endurance of an athlete prior to, during, and at the end of a training cycle.

Having a good VO2 max value therefore relies heavily on your circulatory and respiratory systems’ ability to transport oxygen to muscles during prolonged intensive physical activities and how well your muscles are able to utilise the supplied oxygen. Simply put, the capacity to maximise the consumption of oxygen during an intense exercise primarily relates to ability of the heart, lungs and blood vessels working together to ensure efficient supply of oxygen throughout the body during a period of medium to high-intensity physical activity.

Running outside vs treadmill

How Do You Measure VO2 Max?

As stated earlier, some fitness trackers of today can estimate VO2 max values, but if wearing fitness trackers is not your thing, you can estimate your VO2 max with:

  • Heart Rate Method: Your maximum heart rate divided by resting heart rate. The answer is then multiplied by 15.3 to arrive at your VO2 max. Your maximum heart rate can be estimated by using the Karvonen Formula (220 minus your age).
  • The Cooper Test: This involves running as fast as you can for 12 minutes. You then take a note of the total distance covered in meters during the 12-minute run. VO2 max then becomes distance covered minus 504.9 divided by 44.73.

Besides the above 2 methods of estimating VO2 max, there are other methods such as the bleep test and the rockport fitness walking test, but the gold standard method, and the most accurate way of measuring VO2 max is the one conducted in a lab controlled setting.

Conducting VO2 max testing in a lab setting is expensive, but it gives you the most accurate picture of your cardiorespiratory fitness. The test in a lab setting is measured during an exercise of increasing intensity. It involves running on a treadmill or pedaling on a stationary bicycle as fast as possible while the heart rate and oxygen consumption are being measured.

The heart rate and oxygen consumption are measured with the help of a chest strap (or other similar body attachments) and a face mask connected to a special gas meter. This ensures an accuracy in measuring physical effort sufficient to fully challenge the body’s aerobic energy system.

The volume of oxygen your body can consume during the hardest minute of your exercise is considered your VO2 max. Your VO2 max is reached when the body’s oxygen consumption remains at a steady state despite an increase in workout intensity. The higher the value of your VO2 max test, the higher your body’s maximum oxygen uptake.

VO2 max (with V = volume, O2 = oxygen, max = maximum) is commonly expressed as millilitres of oxygen per kilogram of bodyweight per minute, that is ml/kg/min.



Factors That Influence VO2 Max Scores

VO2 max values can indeed improve with training and an improved cardiorespiratory fitness, but there are other factors that can influence the value. These factors include:

  • Gender: When values are adjusted based on blood volume, body size, amount of hemoglobin, body composition (ratio of muscle mass to body fat), a man’s VO2 max will normally be about 20% higher than that of a woman.
  • Age: Age plays a vital role in VO2 max scores. Most people reach peak VO2 max scores by their mid 20s, with some hitting a peak in the early 30s. Thereafter, VO2 max scores starts declining, with most people experiencing a decline of about 30% by the time they hit their 60s. This decline can however be slowed down with regular physical exercise throughout life.
  • Genetics: Just like most physical activities and abilities, genetics play a role in impacting VO2 max. Genetics can play up to a 30% role in VO2 max scores. The percentage impact varies from one individual to another.
  • Altitude: Since there’s less air to consume at higher altitudes, the higher you are above sea level, the lower your VO2 max scores. In general, for every 5000 feet gained in altitude, VO2 max decreases by about 5%.
  • Lifestyle: The more sedentary (inactive) your lifestyle is, the higher the likelihood of having a lower VO2 max score. In other words, having an active lifestyle, by regularly exercising and staying fit, increases the likelihood of having a good VO2 max score.


What Is A Good VO2 Max Score?

Very high VO2 max scores are often associated with elite athletes of certain endurance sports like distance running, cycling, cross-country skiing and rowing. Cross-country skiier Bjorn Daehlie has been reported to have hit a VO2 max of 96 ml/kg/min, very impressive, right?

For the rest of us not in the above elite endurance sports, what then is a good VO2 max score?

In general, no exact number can be written down as a good VO2 max score. This is because factors such as age, fitness level, gender and altitude should be taken into consideration before deciding whether the test score is good or not.

  • The VO2 max for an average inactive male is approximately 35 to 40 ml/kg/min, while that of an average inactive female is approximately 27 to 30 ml/kg/min.
  • Good VO2 max scores for some age groups include:
  • Males 20 – 29 yrs = 42.5 – 46.4. Females 20 -29 yrs = 33.0 – 36.9
  • Males 30 – 39 yrs = 41.0 – 44.9. Females 30 – 39 yrs = 31.5 – 35.6
  • Males 40 – 49 yrs = 39.0 – 43.7. Females 40 – 49 yrs = 29.0 – 32.8
  • Males 50 – 59 yrs = 35.8 – 40.9. Females 50 – 59 yrs = 27.0 – 31.4
  • Elite male runners have recorded VO2 max scores of up to 85 ml/kg/min while their female counterparts have recorded VO2 max scores of up to 77 ml/kg/min.


How To Improve Your VO2 Max

It is always a plus to get an accurate picture of your aerobic endurance by getting an accurate VO2 max test. Working hard on improving your body’s ability to maximise oxygen consumption is the best way to boost your VO2 max.

Conducting High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is one of the best ways of boosting your VO2 max. In order to improve your VO2 max, you must subject your cardiorespiratory system to physical demands greater than it is used to. A HIIT is one of the best ways of doing that.

The road to improving your VO2 max is not as smooth as you might think and definitely not an overnight task. It needs hard work and commitment. You need to find your heart rate at your current VO2 max and then conduct a lot of your workout sessions at that heart rate intensity. Training at such an intensity places a lot of demand on your heart and lungs, which pushes your body to adapt and improve oxygen utilisation.

Conducting medium to high intensity workout sessions, at least 3 times a week is ideal. You should be aiming for about 60 minutes for a medium intensity workout session or 30 to 40 minutes for a high intensity workout session. The intensity and duration of your workout sessions must be tough enough to challenge your cardiorespiratory system, and the frequency must be good enough to maintain continuous progress.

Good VO2 max scores are mostly associated with endurance activities like distance running, rowing, cycling, swimming, cross-country skiing, boxing, racquet sports, basketball and soccer, just to mention a few.

Add some of these activities to your weekly workout schedule, work hard, stay committed to the cause and observe an improvement in your VO2 max, as time goes. Remember, it doesn’t happen overnight!

Comments, questions, suggestions and contributions are welcome in the comments section below. There are other VO2 boosting activities and exercises not mentioned in this blogpost. Can you think of any?

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