What Is VO2 Max and How to Calculate It

If you practice any sport and you searched for training plans, you have certainly bumped into the VO2 max term multiple times. But what is VO2 max? It is a value that indicates the maximum volume of oxygen your body can take in and use during exercise. It can be found under many names, like maximal oxygen uptake, peak oxygen uptake or maximal aerobic capacity, maximal oxygen consumption, or peak oxygen intake. No matter the name,  this is an indicator of your cardiorespiratory fitness and endurance capacity. This is probably the best indicator of your cardiovascular fitness level.

As you most likely already guessed, the name comes from putting together volume (V), oxygen (O2), and maximum (max). It indicated the maximum volume of oxygen your body can take in and use during exercise, so the higher the value, the fitter you are.

Expression

There are two ways to express VO2 max:

  1. absolute: liters of oxygen per minute – L/min
  2. relative: milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body mass per minute – mL/(kg x min)

The relative expression is generally used in order to compare the fitness levels of athletes between them, or between different times in their training schedule.

Values

Photo by Árni Svanur Daníelsson on Unsplash

Professional athletes usually have quite high VO2 max values, as expected. Their bodies are trained constantly and are usually in optimal shape for intense physical activities.

Here are the VO2 max values for some famous athletes:

Male athletes:

VO2 max Name Sport
96 Espen Harald Bjerke Cross country skier
96 Bjørn Dæhlie Cross country skier
93 Kurt Asle Arvesen Cyclist
92.5 Greg LeMond Cyclist
92 Kilian Jornet Runner

Female athletes:

VO2 max Name Sport
78.6 Joan Benoit Runner
78 Therese Johaug Cross country skier
76.6 Bente Skari Cross country skier
76 Flavia Oliveira Cyclist
74 Charlotte Kalla Cross country skier

As you can see there is a significant difference between female and male athletes.

Cross country skiing and cycling are the most demanding sports when it comes to effort, so it’s not a surprise to see these are dominating the top positions.

But let’s take a look at the values for regular people, as this post is not about elite athletes. The average values for male persons are somewhere between 40 and 45, while for females the average values range between 30 and 35, but these of course vary with age. You can check in the below tables to see what would be the average values for your age and cardiorespiratory fitness level.

Man

Age Fit Very Poor Poor Fair Good Excellent Superior
13-19 < 35.0 35.0-38.3 38.4-45.1 45.2-50.9 51.0-55.9 > 55.9
20-29 < 33.0 33.0-36.4 36.5-42.4 42.5-46.4 46.5-52.4 > 52.4
30-39 < 31.5 31.5-35.4 35.5-40.9 41.0-44.9 45.0-49.4 > 49.4
40-49 < 30.2 30.2-33.5 33.6-38.9 39.0-43.7 43.8-48.0 > 48.0
50-59 < 26.1 26.1-30.9 31.0-35.7 35.8-40.9 41.0-45.3 > 45.3
60+ < 20.5 20.5-26.0 26.1-32.2 32.3-36.4 36.5-44.2 > 44.2

Women

Age Fit Very Poor Poor Fair Good Excellent Superior
13-19 < 25.0 25.0-30.9 31.0-34.9 35.0-38.9 39.0-41.9 > 41.9
20-29 < 23.6 23.6-28.9 29.0-32.9 33.0-36.9 37.0-41.0 > 41.0
30-39 < 22.8 22.8-26.9 27.0-31.4 31.5-35.6 35.7-40.0 > 40.0
40-49 < 21.0 21.0-24.4 24.5-28.9 29.0-32.8 32.9-36.9 > 36.9
50-59 < 20.2 20.2-22.7 22.8-26.9 27.0-31.4 31.5-35.7 > 35.7
60+ < 17.5 17.5-20.1 20.2-24.4 24.5-30.2 30.3-31.4 > 31.4

 

How Can You Measure Your VO2 Max

VO2 max tests are done in a laboratory, and they involve a very intense physical effort session that stresses the cardiorespiratory system to the max. The subject will use either a treadmill or a training bike,  wearing a face mask. The mask is used to measure the volume and gas concentrations of inspired and expired air. The intensity of the exercise is increased every few minutes until exhaustion. The subject’s heart rate is also measured in order to obtain the maximal heart rate. The VO2 max is calculated based on the maximal heart rate and the volume of oxygen consumed.

Not everybody has access to such a lab or has the money to spend on this, nor do I think they should.

How Can You Calculate Your VO2 Max

There are multiple ways to estimate your VO2 max. The easiest one is if you have a fitness watch that has such a function. There are many such watches, and most of them use the Firstbeat method to calculate it. They claim this method provides a 95% accuracy compared to a test lab.

If you do not have such a device, there are still ways to calculate this on your own. Probably the most commonly used method is the Cooper test. This was developed in the 1960s  for the United States Air Force and is still considered a decent way to estimate your VO2 max.

Here is another fairly easy method you can use – you will still need a treadmill and a heart rate monitor.

There is also a formula you can use to estimate this based on your resting and maximum heart rate values:

VO2 max

 

 

Why Would You Want to Find Your VO2 max?

VO2 max was a while ago considered a great way to measure an athlete’s performance. Science progressed and we now know there are also other parameters impacting it. If multiple athletes are to compete, it is not unusual to see one with a lower VO2 max to win.

VO2 max is useful to estimate your fitness levels. As mentioned in the beginning, this reflects how well your lungs and heart take in and pump the oxygen to the muscles and also how efficiently the muscles utilize it.

Most importantly, you can use this value to plan your training sessions and monitor your training efficiency.

Conclusion

Knowing your VO2 max value and tracking its evolution in time is a good way to estimate your current cardiorespiratory fitness level, but it also helps you plan your training and monitor the results.

There are multiple ways to obtain this value, but for regular persons, I think a fitness watch that calculates it is by far the most convenient one.

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