Vo2 Max – What Is It and How Do You Improve It?

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When it comes to assessing the health of your cardio-respiratory system, your fitness and endurance potential, one term you may encounter is “VO2 max.” But what exactly is VO2 max, and why does it matter? 

As an endurance athlete since the age of 15 I often worked with a sports medicine doctor to enhance my performance and VO2 max was a key metric in the evaluations of my fitness. My curiosities have led me to experimenting with pranayama, controlled breathing in yoga, and its impact on my respiratory capacity while working out.

Continue reading to learn more about VO2 max, its importance, how its measured and how you can affect yours.

What is VO2 Max

VO2 max, or maximal oxygen uptake, is a numerical value that represents the maximum amount of oxygen your body can consume and utilize during intense physical activity. It is often expressed in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute (ml/kg/min). In simple terms, VO2 max reflects your body’s ability to take in oxygen, transport it to your muscles, and convert it into energy during exercise.

VO2 max serves as a fundamental measure of your aerobic fitness level and cardio-respiratory health. The higher your VO2 max, the more oxygen your body can use, indicating a greater capacity for endurance activities. Understanding VO2 Max isn’t just for endurance athletes. Everyone can benefit from understanding VO2 max because the higher your VO2 max, the more you decrease your chance of developing hypertension or cardiovascular disease.

(Side note: please consult with your doctor before performing any exercise or exercise testing to make sure your body can handle it)

How is VO2 Max Calculated

Calculating VO2 Max can be an involved process, requiring a specialist. There are a few other methods of providing an approximate VO2 Max, which are more accessible.

  • Direct Gas Analysis: This method is considered the gold standard for measuring VO2 max. Direct Gas Analysis involves collecting and analyzing the gases you inhale and exhale during exercise.  Most often clinicians will test people using either a treadmill or stationary bike. If you want to test for a specific endurance sport it would be advantageous to find a clinician who has a machine for your sport.  When I did my VO2 max tests I used the rowing machine (ergometer). I was hooked up to the mask and rowed a 2k as fast as I could.  This method of testing does require specialized equipment to measure the volume and concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide. You’ll need to find a sports med doctor or facility that can test for this.  That said, this method provides the most accurate results.
  • Smart Devices: Devices like the Apple Watch or Garmin watches provide an estimate of your VO2 Max based on your pace of movement and your heart rate.
  • Rockport 1-Mile Walk Test: Not everyone has the resources to go to a fancy sports lab or rock a smart device so this is a great alternative.  It won’t provide as accurate results as the gas exchange but it will give you a good idea of your VO2 max.
    • Steps for performing the Rockport 1-Miles Walk Test:
      • Warm up for 5-10 minutes with some light, easy peasy walking
      • Calculate an exact 1 mile route
      • Start a stopwatch and immediately start walking the 1 mile as fast as you can without running.  If both feet are ever off the ground at the same time, you’re no longer walking.
      • Stop the stopwatch as soon as you’re done and log the time.
      • Immediately after the mile take your heart rate.  If you’re counting on your own it is easier to count the beats for 15 seconds and then multiply that number by 4.
      • Then plug all these numbers into this super easy to read (slight sarcasm) formula 
      • VO2 max = 132.853 – (.0769 x your weight in lbs) – (.3877 x your age) + (6.315 if you are male or 0 if female) – (3.2649 x walking time) – (.1565 x HR at end of test)

Factors that Impact Your VO2 Max

Some factors that contribute to your VO2 max are out of your control. There are a few things that are within your control to affect your VO2 Max though.

Factors out of your control:

  • Genetics: Certain genetic variations can affect cardiovascular function, lung capacity, oxygen transport, and muscle fiber composition. 
  • Age: VO2 max tends to decline with age due to physiological changes.
  • Gender: On average, males tend to have higher VO2 max values than females. This difference is attributed to physiological factors such as men having larger lung volume, higher hemoglobin levels, and greater muscle mass. However, individual variations within genders are substantial, and training can significantly impact VO2 max in both males and females.
  • Altitude: Altitude can affect VO2 max due to the reduced oxygen availability at higher elevations.

Factors loosely in your control:

  • Body Composition: [ARTICLE LINK] If you’ve read my article about body composition, which includes information about the doshas from Ayurvedic medicine, you’ll understand why I say this is loosely in your control.  Body weight, body fat percentage, and muscle mass can influence VO2 max. Excess body fat can increase the metabolic demand and make it more challenging for the body to maintain higher oxygen uptake. Having a higher proportion of lean muscle mass can enhance oxygen utilization and improve VO2 max.
  • Health Conditions: Certain health conditions, such as cardiovascular diseases, respiratory disorders, and anemia, can impact VO2 max.

Factor you can control:

  • Training Status: Regular aerobic exercise and training can significantly improve VO2 max. Engaging in activities that challenge the cardiovascular system, like running, cycling, or swimming, can lead to adaptations in the heart, lungs, and muscles, resulting in increased oxygen uptake and use.

Benefits of Improving VO2 Max

  • Enhanced Endurance Performance: A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that runners with higher VO2 max values demonstrated better performance in long-distance running events. They were able to sustain a higher pace for a longer duration compared to individuals with lower VO2 max levels.
  • Improved Cardiovascular Health: Research published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology suggests that individuals with higher VO2 max have a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attacks and strokes. 
  • Increased Exercise Efficiency: A study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise revealed that individuals with higher VO2 max exhibited greater exercise economy. This means they required less oxygen to maintain a given exercise intensity. This increased exercise efficiency allows for better performance and reduced fatigue during physical activities.
  • Faster Recovery: According to research published in the National Library of Medicine, athletes with higher VO2 max values tend to recover faster between bouts of intense exercise. Their improved aerobic capacity enables efficient oxygen delivery to the muscles, facilitating quicker recovery and readiness for future exercise sessions.
  • Better Overall Health and Longevity: A study published in JAMA Network Open suggests individuals with higher aerobic fitness have a reduced risk of premature death and a higher chance of living a longer, healthier life.

How to Improve VO2 Max

  • High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): HIIT involves alternating between intense exercises and recovery periods. Studies have shown that HIIT leads to significant improvements in VO2 max. In the Journal of Applied Physiology it reported that HIIT style workouts improved VO2 max more than long, steady state exercise.
  • Moderate Intensity Continuous Training (MICT): This is a fancy, wordy way of saying “endurance training.” Training at moderate intensity also improves VO2 max.  In fact a study in the National Library of Medicine found that for overweight and obese people, it improves their VO2 max more than HIIT.
  • Resistance Training: This may come as a surprise but resistance training does in fact increase VO2 max, for a segment of the population, those with a VO2 max less than the average.
  • Pranayama: This may come as a bigger shock and research into this connection is still new. Pranayama, the practice of breath control in yoga, has shown to significantly increase VO2 max in untrained individuals when performed regularly for 12 weeks.  This is huge because, traditionally, the main ways to increase VO2 max has been moderate to intense cardio. Not everyone can workout, either due to movement restrictions or injury, so this make cardio-respiratory improvement accessible.  I have an article detailing how to use pranayama to increase your VO2 max.

Conclusion

VO2 max is a terrific metric for understanding cardio-respiratory health, it’s not just for endurance athletes.  There are many ways to both test and improve your VO2 max.  I mentioned a few other article I have written that pertain to VO2 max and you can find those here:

I definitely suggest checking those out to deepen your understanding of this important metric.

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AUTHOR

As a highly disciplined competitive athlete for 35 years Jess is now working to find more balance, more fun and more ease in the way she moves her body. In building her home gym she's been able to integrate a lot of equipment that helps her find play and she hopes to inspire others to do the same. She is a former nationally competitive rower, Concept 2 CIRI and 500 RYT Yoga Teacher.