VO2 max measures the maximum amount of oxygen a person can utilize during intense exercise.
With good reason, it’s increasing in popularity as a measure of an endurance athlete’s aerobic capacity and cardiorespiratory fitness level, but how do you measure it yourself, and – most importantly, how do you increase your VO2 max and improve performance?
I’m Helen, one of the founders of Trail & Kale, and in this article, I cover everything we runners, mountain bikers and other endurance sports aficionados need to know about how to increase VO2 max, including specific changes you can make to your training to see improvements in your athletic performance.
Why is VO2 max important for endurance training?
As explained above, during exercise, the VO2 max metric quantifies the maximum amount of oxygen that a person can utilize.
A higher VO2 max indicates better aerobic capacity, allowing for sustained exercise at higher intensities. In contrast, a lower VO2 max reflects reduced aerobic capacity, which can limit endurance and exercise performance.
This is, of course, important given that the more oxygen your body can bring in and utilize efficiently, the more oxygenated blood you can send around your body to use to produce energy and keep yourself below your lactate threshold when training and racing at higher intensities.
Of course things like running gels and energy chews will also give you spikes in energy which can be managed when you eat the gels at regular 30 minute intervals, for example.
What are the benefits of increasing VO2 max?
These are the four main benefits of increasing your VO2 max:
1. Increased endurance
By improving VO2 max, the body becomes more efficient at utilizing oxygen during exercise. This means that a person can sustain exercise at a higher intensity for a longer period of time before experiencing fatigue, ultimately leading to increased endurance.
This benefit is particularly important for endurance athletes such as anyone training for a marathon, cyclists, and triathletes, who require high levels of endurance to achieve their fitness goals and perform at their best.
2. Better overall fitness level
Improving VO2 max inherently leads to better overall fitness as it reflects the body’s ability to utilize oxygen during exercise.
This means that a person who has a high VO2 max is likely to have better cardiorespiratory health and overall fitness than someone with a low VO2 max, so as an endurance athlete you’ll be better positioned to be able to ride, swim or run faster and longer, if you have a higher VO2 max.
It’s widely known that improved fitness can lead to many other health benefits, such as the reduced risk of chronic diseases (see below), improved mental health, and better quality of life.
3. Improved heart health
Increasing VO2 max has been shown to improve heart health, as it can strengthen the heart muscle and improve blood flow to the body’s tissues.
This can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular conditions. Additionally, regular endurance exercise has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and improve cholesterol levels, all of which can contribute to better heart health.
4. Increased metabolism
Increasing VO2 max can lead to increased metabolism, as the body becomes more efficient at utilizing oxygen during exercise. This means that the body can burn more calories during exercise and at rest, which can contribute to weight loss or weight management.
Additionally, regular exercise has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism, which can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
How do you measure VO2 max?
It used to be the case that you’d have to visit a cardiologist or sports performance lab and run some intensive treadmill intervals as part of a performance evaluation to work out your VO2 max. And, of course, you still can!
UCSF’s Human Performance Center is an example of a sports performance center near us at Trail & Kale HQ which offers such testing to the public.
However, with huge developments in heart rate monitors and running watches with integrated wrist-based heart rate monitors, the best running watches now track a range of performance and fitness metrics for you, during every run, ride or other endurance sport or activity, and that includes VO2 max.
Using your running watch to track VO2 max
How each running watch brand tracks VO2 max may vary, but if you take Garmin as an example, it is calculated by looking at the relationship between your pace and heart rate (although this is an over-simplification of their algorithm!).
Similarly, Apple Watch Series 3 or later can record an estimate of your VO2 max using the heart and motion sensors during an outdoor walk, run, or hike. I’ve studied both as I use one or the other on the majority of my road and trail runs, and have been comparing data between the two.
So whether your choice of watch brand is Garmin, Coros, Suunto, Polar or even your Apple Watch, if the watch has that function and is tracking your heart rate to make the measurement possible, then this means you’ll get a VO2 max measurement from it.
If you are looking to buy a new watch for running then our running watch buyer’s guide will help you choose.
Comparing VO2 max data between watches
It’s worth noting that my Apple Watch shows a lower VO2 max than the Garmin Fenix 7S, for example, plus the Apple Watch will also only record VO2 max for certain activities, such as an outdoor walk or run, so I can’t combine the data from both and have it be particularly meaningful.
As consistency in the data is key, it’s best to stick with one method for tracking your VO2 max rather than trying to compare it when it comes from different data sources with different methods and algorithms for calculating it.
Sense checking your VO2 max readings
When you’re reviewing the results after your run or ride, have in mind that you’ll need to check the watch data to ensure it makes sense.
Data can be thrown off if the tracking has been affected, for example, if your wrist-based heart rate monitor (on the back of the watch) is not fitted correctly to your wrist, then it may not get accurate heart rate readings, which affects the VO2 max calculation.
Another example of where I’ve found the data to be challenging is if I do a lot of hill training.
As the Garmin Fenix method of calculating VO2 max looks at the relationship between pace and heart rate, I will get a lower score on hill-training days, because I’ll be moving relatively slowly (running uphill) but my heart rate will be relatively high (because I’m… you guessed it, running uphill!).
However, it does ultimately translate to overall VO2 max gains, given the quality of those hill workouts!
It’s also worth noting that other Garmin watches such as the Garmin Enduro have a specific trail running VO2 max measurement that does take into account hills, which makes that watch a particularly great option for trail and ultrarunners who want greater accuracy for VO2 max monitoring.
What is a good VO2 max?
With all that said, you’re probably wondering what a good NUMBER, or score, is for VO2 max.
VO2 max is measured based on the number of milliliters of oxygen you use per kilogram of body weight in one minute, or ml/kg/min, and for humans, the score is less than 100. For animals, such as dogs and horses, it can be a lot higher!
However, often people don’t bother mentioning the units, and quote VO2 max simply as a number that’s typically between 30 and 60 for the majority of the population.
Generalizing a little and using the guidance applied by Apple in my Apple Health app, the ‘typical’ VO2 max for a man in their 30s or 40s is somewhere in between 30 and 40, with ‘good’ being over 50. For a woman of the same age, ‘good’ is the high 30s and upwards.
So, if your VO2 max is over say 50 (for men) or 40 (for women) then you could say you have a good VO2 max. Whether that’s because you trained to get it there, or you were just born that way and are not particularly active, I couldn’t tell you!
For a full table of VO2 max ranges by age and gender, see the chart on page 6 of this guidance from the Fitness Registry and the Importance of Exercise (FRIEND).
If you’re also wondering what an exceptionally high VO2 max looks like, look at some of the world’s most impressive elite athletes in endurance sports, such as ultrarunner and mountaineer, Kilian Jornet, whose VO2 max has been reported to be in excess of 85, and at times over 90.
Factors that Affect VO2 Max
Your VO2 max is influenced by genetic and lifestyle factors. You can’t change the genetic factors, but, of course, you can train differently to target improvement in your cardiovascular fitness in order to increase your VO2 max.
If you’re born with a set of genes associated with superior athletic performance this can have a significant influence on how high your VO2 max is, even if you’re not particularly well-trained in endurance sports.
That being said, even if you’re not born with unique genetic potential, you can put the training in to improve your aerobic fitness and VO2 max score… it just may never quite get to the level of someone who does a similar level of training, AND was born with that genetic potential.
Age and gender
A good VO2 max to aim for will vary by age and gender. The ranges are lower for women and what is considered to be ‘good’ decreases for both men and women as you get older.
Oxygen consumption is affected at higher altitudes. If you live or train at altitudes over 1,600 meters (5,250ft) above sea level then expect your VO2 max to be lower at altitude than it would be at lower elevations.
According to the National Federation of Professional Trainers, “For every 1000 meters [3,280ft] above this level, maximal oxygen uptake decreases even further, by approximately 8-11%”.
So, for altitude training, adjust your training expectations accordingly, and enjoy the gains when you head down to lower elevations!
Similarly, as mentioned above, a lot of hill training may show a lower VO2 max on those days, and if you run in high heat or humidity, expect this to also affect the readings.
How you choose to train is the primary factor that you can change (compared to the factors listed above) in order to improve your VO2 max, and we’ll get onto how you can do that in the next section of this post.
How to increase Vo2 Max
Here are four ways you can train to increase your VO2 max.
1. Regular Aerobic Exercise
Put simply, regular endurance training can improve VO2 max and overall fitness, leading to improved performance in endurance events such as marathons and ultramarathons, triathlons, and cycling races.
As well as making regular cardio workouts a habit, it helps to have a varied program each week, with targeted workouts rather than just doing the same comfortable run or ride each time.
Notably, this study suggests that “high-intensity, sub- and near-maximal exercise (~80–92.5% VO2max) may be the ideal exercise intensity range for eliciting improvements in VO2 max”. Workouts of this intensity include threshold or tempo runs, as well as interval training.
To work on improving my VO2 max through aerobic exercise, I like to include a weekly tempo run in my training plan, which can look something like a 40 minute run at my ‘threshold pace’, which is the fastest pace I can sustain for that period of time, and much faster than my usual comfortable running pace.
I’d also encourage you to consider how you breathe when you run, cycle and workout, as well as in your everyday life. To learn more about how you breathe can affect your running performance, read how to breathe while running.
2. Incorporating High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
If you’re an endurance athlete, even just a recreational one, then you may not be in love with the idea of doing weekly interval workouts as part of your training (I see you!! I’d rather do a nice long trail run than an interval training session, too, and if I do any, it’s probably some trail-based hill reps :-)).
However, the reality is that intensive interval training such as a weekly HIIT workout is going to help you increase your maximal aerobic capacity. Plus, you’ll probably get stronger and faster as added benefits.
I like to plan for an easy run or ride, or rest day, either side of an interval training day, to allow my body time to recover.
I also ensure tough interval workouts like a HIIT session are followed by a good recovery-focused meal (see ‘nutrition’, below), to help repair intensively-worked muscles.
3. Resistance Training
Perhaps a less-obvious way to increase VO2 max is by making one of your weekly workouts a resistance (strength) training session. Studies such as this one have shown consistent 30-minute resistance training sessions over a series of weeks can have a positive impact on your VO2 max score.
You can do this at the gym with weights and machines, or simply do circuits of full body weight exercises. It may help to work with a certified personal trainer to put together a program that will provide you with a well-balanced, yet challenging workout routine to get the most out of your resistance training time.
4. Nutrition and Hydration for VO2 Max Improvement
You wouldn’t try to fuel a Ferrari with red diesel and expect it to perform well, so why would you expect that of your body?!
While often overlooked, proper nutrition is essential for increasing VO2 max in endurance athletes. A healthy diet, including an adequate intake of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats provides the necessary energy for intense exercise and supports muscle growth and repair.
Additionally, proper hydration is important for maintaining blood volume and regulating body temperature during exercise. Certain nutrients, such as iron and vitamin B12, are also crucial for oxygen transport in the body.
Foods to avoid
When trying to increase VO2 max, it is important to avoid foods that can hinder exercise performance and overall health, which includes foods that are high in saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and processed carbohydrates.
These foods can lead to inflammation, weight gain, and insulin resistance, which can negatively impact cardiovascular health and endurance.
In fact, it’s probably best to give these foods a miss even if you’re not trying to increase your VO2 max – they don’t do you any favors and can lead to numerous health issues!
It is also important to limit alcohol and caffeine intake, as these can affect hydration and sleep quality.
Tips for Improving VO2 Max Safely and Effectively
If you plan to work on improving your VO2 max, here are some tips to help you do so safely and effectively:
Start with a gradual increase in exercise intensity and duration, and monitor your progress through fitness assessments.
Get enough quality nutrition and recovery
Prioritize ensuring your body is receiving proper nutrition and hydration before, during and after your workouts, including protein shakes to aid with muscle recovery after intense workouts.
Balance your endurance training with adequate rest and recovery time, including getting enough good quality sleep, to avoid injury and overtraining.
Diversify your training
Incorporate a variety of exercises, such as running, cycling, and swimming, as well as resistance training if you feel you need to improve overall fitness but keep your workouts interesting and challenging.
For example, I like to do resistance workouts on the Tonal, and sprint and speed interval training on my Peloton bike as an alternative to on the pavement.
This can also help you continue training if you have a running-related injury or niggle that prevents you from doing your usual running workouts.
Work with a professional, if needed
Finally, it is important to consider whether you should consult with a healthcare professional, or work with a certified coach to develop a personalized training plan that meets your individual needs and goals.
Increasing VO2 max is essential for improving endurance and overall fitness in endurance athletes. Through proper training, nutrition, and rest, it is possible to safely and effectively improve VO2 max and achieve better performance in endurance events.
By incorporating these tips into your training plan, you can maximize your potential and reach your goals as an endurance athlete. Remember to listen to your body, stay consistent, and have fun along the way.