VO2 Max – What Is It and Can You Train to Improve It?

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VO2 max.  What is it, we hear you ask? A term thrown about on the exercise grapevine but who really knows what on earth it means?  Let us try and explain…

VO2 max stands for maximal oxygen uptake and is a factor that can determine an athlete’s capacity to perform when undertaking aerobic endurance.  In other words, it simply measures the maximum amount of oxygen you can breathe in and use at a given period when exercising.  While we’re explaining things, aerobic endurance means the ability to exercise continuously for extended periods without tiring.  The better your aerobic endurance, the quicker oxygen can be transported by the body to the working muscles via the lungs and blood system, and the stronger your performance.  Your muscles will work more efficiently, and you can exercise for longer.  But back to VO2 max…

As a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen you can consume while exercising at your maximum capacity, those who have higher VO2 max values are fitter.  They can exercise more intensely.  To quantify this with figures, it is useful to know that a mean value of VO2 max for men is 3.5litres per minute, and 2.7 for women.  This is calculated by dividing the total amount of oxygen used by the weight of the user.  It’s a useful measure because comparisons can be made between athletes of different shapes and sizes.

How is it measured?


It is a bit of a faff if you want to measure your VO2 max accurately.  It’s calculated in a lab by measuring the volume(V) of oxygen (O2) that you consume while running or cycling.  You’re hooked up to a breathing mask and the level of intensity at which you exercise will get progressively more difficult.  When your oxygen consumption redlines, you’ve reached your VO2 max and your heart rate max and you’re at max effort.  You can then do the maths to work out your VO2 value.  Simply divide your oxygen consumption by your bodyweight.


Photo credit: Fort Carson – Flickr

How to improve it?

Studies have shown that the best way to increase your VO2 max is to work out at an intensity that raises your heart rate to between 65 and 85% of its maximum for at least 20 minutes three to five times a week.  This will improve your ability to produce a substance called ATP, which is the body’s version of a rechargeable battery.  It transports energy and so the more there is available, the bigger the energy supply available to your muscles, and the harder you can train.

It’s also useful to know about stroke volume.  This means the amount of blood pumped with each beat of your heart.  The quicker the blood is pumped around your body, the more oxygen is reaching the muscles.  The best way to improve stroke volume is with short, hard intervals designed especially to make you use as much oxygen as possible over a short period.  As a result, your body adapts, improving the rate at which it delivers oxygen to the muscles.

So one way to improve VO2 max is by how much oxygen can get to the muscles.  Another is to increase the amount of oxygen the muscles can make use of.  A quick biology lesson…

Muscles have muscle fibres. In the muscle fibres, there is something called mitochondria and that is what uses the oxygen.  Therefore the more mitochondria you have, the more oxygen you can burn.  To best improve this, you want to train at the ‘sweetspot’ – zone 3 – a level which you’re working hard but can maintain.  What we would recommend, then, is a combination of intense interval work and sweet spot training. This could be treadmill sprints twice a week with a longer, outdoor 45 minutes run three times a week.  It could be hill training on a bike combined with flat, half-day cycles.  Up to you!

As two methods for increasing VO2 max are training volume and intensity, it is easier to see an improvement if you are a novice exerciser.  Research has proven it is possible for those new to exercise to increase their VO2 max by 20% through proper training. For fit, experienced or professional athletes, a significant increase cannot be expected because they will have already nearly achieved their genetic potential.