How to Improve Your VO2 Max (According to Science)


Have you ever wondered how to improve your VO2 max, but felt lost in a sea of complex training programs and scientific jargon?

This article is your lifeline.

As a NASM Certified Personal Trainer, I’ve spent countless hours delving into the science of VO2 max, sifting through the latest research, and working with clients to understand how to efficiently improve this important performance marker.

By reading this guide, you’ll gain:

  • A clear understanding of VO2 max and why it matters
  • Insights into the factors that affect your VO2 max
  • Ways to accurately measure your VO2 max
  • Actionable strategies for improving your VO2 max
  • Guidance on how diet and lifestyle affect your VO2 max

Let’s dive in and unlock the secrets to maximizing your aerobic potential!

Getting Started With VO2 Max

Defining VO2 Max

So, what exactly is VO2 max?

The textbook definition of VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during intense exercise. In layman’s terms, it means how much oxygen your body uses during maximum physical exertion.  It’s measured in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute of exercise (ml/kg/min). Just to be clear, the more oxygen your body uses, the better!

Explanation of the Importance of VO2 Max in Physical Performance

Now, you might be asking, “Why does VO2 max matter?”

Think of your body like a car engine. (Think of a gas-powered car, not a fancy electric car!) The more fuel aka gasoline it can use, the more power it can produce. The gas in your car is like the oxygen in your body. A higher VO2 max means your body can take in more oxygen and produce more energy. This translates to better athletic performance – running faster, biking longer, or swimming further, for example.

VO2 max is a key indicator of your aerobic endurance, and hence, an important component of your physical fitness.

The Potential Benefits of Improving VO2 Max

Now comes the exciting part – the benefits of improving your VO2 max. Apart from enhancing athletic performance, a higher VO2 max:

  • Can increase your stamina for daily activities (think less huffing and puffing walking  up the stairs)
  • Can lead to better cardiovascular health
  • Can improve your body’s ability to recover from physical exertion
  • Can enhance your overall physical and possibly mental well-being

Imagine feeling more energetic. Think of all the things that you could do! You could work out more. You could be more active with your kids and friends. You could have more hobbies and do more chores. Life would be more enjoyable because physical tasks would feel easier! That’s the power of improving your VO2 max.

In the next sections, we’ll delve into the science behind VO2 max and how you can take steps to improve yours. Stay tuned!

The Potential Benefits of Improving VO2 Max

Understanding VO2 Max

The Science Behind VO2 Max

So, how does this VO2 max thing work?

At its core, VO2 max is all about how well your body can acquire and use oxygen. During exercise, your muscles need oxygen to produce energy. Your lungs and heart work together to obtain and deliver oxygen via your bloodstream to your muscles.

The better this system works, the more oxygen gets to your muscles, and the more energy you can produce – leading to a higher VO2 max.

Factors Affecting VO2 Max

Okay, so what affects VO2 max?

There are several key factors:

  • Cardiovascular fitness: Your heart’s ability to pump blood and your blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity play crucial roles.
  • Muscle efficiency: Your muscles’ efficiency e at using the oxygen delivered to them affect your VO2 max.
  • Age and sex: Generally, VO2 max decreases with age and is typically lower in females.
  • Altitude: At higher altitudes, there’s less oxygen in the air, which can reduce VO2 max.
Factors Affecting VO2 Max

The Role of Genetics in VO2 Max

Believe it or not, your genes also influence your VO2 max.

Multiple studies suggest (1, 2) that more than 50% of your VO2 max can be attributed to your genetics. This means that some people may have a natural advantage when it comes to physical fitness. 

But, don’t let this discourage you. While you can’t change your genes, you CAN  change your fitness level and muscle efficiency. 

VO2 Max in Different Demographics (Age, Gender, etc.)

Let’s talk a bit about how VO2 max varies across different groups.

As mentioned earlier, VO2 max typically decreases with age and is generally lower in females. However, it’s important to remember that these are just averages, and there’s considerable variation within each group.

This underlines the importance of individualized fitness plans, which we’ll touch on later.

Vo2 Max Chart for Men

Comparison of VO2 Max Across Different Sports

Lastly, let’s look at how VO2 max stacks up in different sports.

Endurance athletes, like cyclists and long-distance runners, typically have high VO2 max values due to the intense, prolonged nature of their sports. In contrast, sports that rely more on short bursts of effort, like weightlifting or sprinting, may not require and therefore develop as high of a VO2 max.

VO2 Max and Longevity

Research Evidence on VO2 Max and Life Span

Research has consistently shown a connection between higher VO2 max levels and an increased life expectancy.

In a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Cardiology, it was shown that each increase of 1 MET (Metabolic Equivalent of Task, a unit used to estimate the amount of oxygen used by the body during physical activity) in a person’s cardiorespiratory fitness (which is closely tied to VO2 max), was associated with a 16% decrease in risk of mortality. 

VO2 Max as a Predictor of Health and Longevity

Because VO2 max measures the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise, it’s a great indicator of physical fitness and cardiovascular health.

According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular exercise is as “strong a predictor of mortality as established risk factors such as cigarette smoking, hypertension, and high cholesterol.” The American Heart Association also goes on to say that a fitness level of under 5 METS (meaning not in good cardiovascular shape) is associated with a high risk of mortality while a fitness level of 8-10 METS (good respiratory fitness) is associated with longevity. 

Another study published in Frontiers in Bioscience found that cardiorespiratory fitness, as measured by VO2 max is a strong predictor of all cause mortality independent of other risk factors. 

The “VO2 Max Threshold” for Longevity

There was a super interesting study published in JAMA that found that there really isn’t an “upper threshold” for longevity when it comes to VO2 max.

This is a chart from the study:

On the vertical axis, you have “survival probability,” meaning the likelihood of not dying. 

On the right, you have time in years.

As you can see, the “low” VO2 max people have a much lower probability compared to the “Elite.” But even going from “low” to “below average” is a huge jump, and going from “low” to “above average,” is an even bigger jump, which is attainable for most people. 

To put this in perspective, going from “low” VO2 max to “above average” greatly improves your risk of mortality even with all other factors staying the same. 

How to Measure VO2 Max

Explanation of Traditional VO2 Max Testing Methods

Traditionally, VO2 max is measured in a lab setting with a test called a maximal graded exercise test. This involves running or cycling at an increasing intensity while wearing a mask that measures your oxygen consumption.

It’s the gold standard for measuring VO2 max, but it can be expensive and requires specialized equipment and trained personnel. Plus, running flat-out until you can’t go any further isn’t everyone’s idea of a fun afternoon!

New Technologies for Measuring VO2 Max

Luckily, technology has come to the rescue with less invasive ways to estimate VO2 max.

Many modern fitness trackers and smartwatches now provide VO2 max estimates based on heart rate data collected during exercise. These can give you a ballpark figure for your VO2 max without needing to step foot in a lab.

Just remember, these are estimates and may not be as accurate as a lab test. But they can still provide a useful benchmark for tracking your progress.

The Easy-To-Do-At Home Test for Estimating VO2 Max: The Cooper Test

Or, there is another option. This is my test of choice for most people.

It’s free and simple, and it’s fairly accurate.

It’s called the Cooper Test. 

Developed by Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper in 1968 for the U.S. military, the Cooper Test is a straightforward but effective way to estimate your VO2 max. The test involves running as far as possible in 12 minutes. The more distance you cover, the higher your estimated VO2 max.

It is as simple as that. 

Here’s how you do it:

  • Find a flat, measurable track.
  • Warm up properly.
  • Start the timer and run as fast as you can sustain for 12 minutes.
  • Measure the distance covered.

There are online calculators available (like this one) where you can input your distance and get an estimated VO2 max. 

The beauty of the Cooper Test is its simplicity. All you need is a pair of running shoes and a way to time 12 minutes and measure distance.

Just remember, like the technology methods, the Cooper Test provides an estimate.

The Easy-To-Do-At Home Test for Estimating VO2 Max: The Cooper Test

How to find your Functional Threshold Power (FTP)

If you’re a cyclist, you have another measuring option. You might be familiar with the term Functional Threshold Power (FTP).

FTP is the maximum power, measured in watts, you can sustain for an hour. It’s a commonly used metric in cycling training and can provide another useful indicator of your aerobic fitness.

You can find your FTP by taking an FTP test, which usually involves a 20-minute all-out sprint on a bike. Then, you can use an online calculator to estimate your FTP.  

The Relevance of Heart Rate in VO2 Max

It came up earlier. Let’s talk about heart rate and why it’s relevant to VO2 max.

During exercise, your heart rate increases to pump more oxygen-rich blood to your muscles. The more fit you are, the more efficiently your heart can do this. 

This is why heart rate is often used as a proxy for oxygen consumption aka  VO2 max. A lower heart rate implies more efficient heart function and a better VO2 max. 

Remember, no single metric can give a complete picture of your fitness. But by combining different measures like VO2 max, FTP, and heart rate, you can get a more comprehensive view of your cardiovascular fitness level and track your progress over time.

Strategies to Improve VO2 Max

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

First on the list is High-Intensity Interval Training, also known as HIIT.

In a nutshell, HIIT involves short bursts of near-maximum effort followed by recovery periods. 

A typical HIIT workout includes 30 seconds of maximum effort followed by 90 seconds of rest for 8-10 cycles.This high-intensity effort forces your heart to pump more blood quickly, and in turn, improves your VO2 max.  

Interval Training

Similar to HIIT, we have regular interval training.

This also involves alternating between higher and lower-intensity periods of exercise, but the high-intensity periods are less intense than in HIIT. Interval training can be a good option if you find HIIT too challenging. You still get the heart-strengthening benefits of increased blood flow followed by periods of recovery and slower blood movement.  

Long-Distance Endurance Training

On the flip side of interval training, we have long-distance endurance training.

This type of training, which includes activities like long-distance running, cycling, or swimming, builds your aerobic capacity over time, which can also improve your VO2 max. With this type of exercise, your heart has to pump blood through your body at a moderate speed, but for a longer duration. 

Strength Training and Its Impact on VO2 Max

Strength training might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about improving VO2 max, but it plays an essential role too.

By building stronger muscles, you improve their efficiency at using oxygen, which can help increase your VO2 max. Also, the more muscle tissue you have, the more oxygen can be utilized. 

The Role of Cross-Training in Enhancing VO2 Max

Lastly, let’s talk about cross-training.

Cross-training is exactly how it sounds. It involves doing a variety of different types of exercises as part of your fitness routine. It usually involves sport-type exercises like running, cycling, rowing, and swimming. This works well to improve your overall fitness and prevent overuse injuries. It can also boost your VO2 max by challenging your body in different ways.

All of these strategies have been proven to help increase VO2 max. Based on my experience, the ideal plan is to incorporate interval training (either HIIT or regular interval), cross-training, endurance training, and strength training throughout the week. Alternate your workouts based on these styles. They all contribute to the improvement of VO2 max in different ways. And remember, the key to improving VO2 max is consistency. Start where you are, do what you can, and keep striving for improvement!

Strategies to Improve VO2 Max

Role of Diet in VO2 Max Improvement

Fueling Strategies Before, During, and After Training

Depending on the duration of exercise, making sure you have adequate glycogen stores (fuel aka food) plays a significant role in VO2 max improvement. 

In your muscles is stored energy (glucose) called glycogen. If your body runs out of glycogen, you won’t have the fuel to perform at your best. 

Think of it like trying to get to the maximum speed of your car, but you run out of gas. 

Glycogen is the gas of your body.

The body can only store a certain amount of glycogen. If you’re performing high-intensity exercise or long-duration aerobic exercise (for over 90 minutes), you will run out of stored glycogen. If you don’t replace the glycogen, you won’t be able to perform at the same intensity level without your body breaking down muscle tissue to access and use the stored energy within your muscles. 

To ensure optimal performance and avoid muscle breakdown, eat complex carbohydrates 2-3 hours before exercise. I recommend quinoa, sweet potatoes, lentils, etc.   If you’re performing aerobic exercise in excess of  90 minutes, consume simple carbohydrates (think fruits or honey) at regular intervals during your workout to supply your muscles with the fuel to make energy. 

And then, eat carbs and protein post-exercise to restore your glycogen levels and promote recovery. According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), it’s important to refuel post-exercise, ideally with about 1g/kg of carbohydrates and 0.5g/kg of protein. So, for a 150-pound person, this would be about 68 grams of carbohydrates and 34 grams of protein. 

I always recommend to my clients to consume whole foods as much as possible. Whole foods have vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients in addition to the desired macronutrients. Additionally, it’s important (if possible) to eat animal protein to ensure that you are eating all of the essential amino acids. 

Hydration and Its Impact on VO2 Max

Staying hydrated is crucial for optimal physical performance. Dehydration can decrease blood volume, making your heart work harder, and potentially decreasing your VO2 max. It is imperative to stay well hydrated during all exercise, but especially while sweating and exercising in the heat. Water isn’t enough, you must consume electrolytes including sodium. 

Supplements that May Enhance VO2 Max

Certain supplements may help to boost your VO2 max.

Beta-alanine, for instance, is a non-essential amino acid that has been shown to enhance muscular endurance, which can indirectly improve VO2 max.

Similarly, beetroot juice is rich in nitrates, which can improve the efficiency of the mitochondria (your cells’ energy factories), potentially increasing VO2 max.

And last, but certainly not least, creatine is super important for increasing VO2 max. Creatine helps your body create ATP, which is the energy currency of the body. When you have more energy, you can workout harder for longer. 

Importance of Rest and Recovery in VO2 Max Improvement

Sleep and its Role in Recovery and Performance

Sleep isn’t just for the weary; it’s an active period for your body to repair and grow.

During exercise, you break down muscle tissue. During sleep, your body produces growth hormones, which help to repair muscle tissue and build strength. Adequate sleep also ensures that your body is rested and ready for the next day’s workout.

Getting your recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night can do wonders for your performance and indirectly, your VO2 max.

Active Recovery Techniques

Active recovery days, where you perform light, low-impact activities like walking, yoga, or leisurely biking, can also help improve your VO2 max.

These slower-paced activities promote blood circulation, aid in nutrient delivery, and encourage waste removal from your muscles ultimately speeding up recovery. This is also important because too much intense exercise is counterproductive. 

The Impact of Stress and Relaxation on VO2 Max

Stress, whether physical or psychological, can impair recovery and negatively impact your VO2 max. When you are stressed, your body thinks that there is a threat and the response is a cascade of hormonal responses. These hormonal responses are focused on the “perceived” danger not repairing or rebuilding muscle tissue. 

Activities like yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises can help manage stress levels, enhance recovery, and improve your overall fitness performance.

Potential Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Overtraining and Its Negative Impact on VO2 Max

Overtraining can lead to decreased performance, increased injury risk, and could even decrease your VO2 max.

Signs of overtraining include increased resting heart rate, ongoing fatigue, decreased performance, and mood changes. It’s important to incorporate the appropriate rest periods between sets and give your heart rate an opportunity to lower. 

Listen to your body and ensure you’re taking adequate recovery time.

Avoiding Injuries While Working on VO2 Max Improvement

Preventing injuries is paramount. Incorporating proper warm-up and cool-down routines, maintaining good form during exercises, and gradually increasing your training intensity can help prevent injuries.

If you do experience an injury, it’s important to allow ample time for recovery before getting back into your training routine.

Maintaining Balance Between Training and Recovery

Maintaining a balance between training sessions and recovery is vital for improving your VO2 max.

While it’s important to push your limits during training, equally crucial is allowing your body time to recover and adapt to the increased workload. This balance is key to continuous improvement and avoiding burnout.

Wrapping It Up

Recap of the Strategies to Improve VO2 Max

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this guide:

  • From understanding VO2 max and why it’s important,
  • To the science behind it, and factors that can affect it,
  • Different methods to measure it, including traditional tests, new technology, and the simple Cooper Test,
  • Multiple training strategies like HIIT, interval training, endurance training, strength training, and cross-training,
  • The significant role of diet and hydration,
  • And the importance of rest, recovery, and avoiding overtraining.

Improving your VO2 max is a journey, not a destination.

It’s about pushing your personal limits, becoming fitter, and enhancing your overall athletic performance. It’s a holistic process that involves not just training, but nutrition, rest, and a mindful approach to your wellbeing.

With patience, perseverance, and the strategies we’ve covered in this guide, you have the tools to improve your VO2 max.

Nolwen Cameron

Nolwen Cameron has had a lifelong passion for exercise and nutrition. She loves to educate and coach people to help them feel and look healthy inside and outside. She is an ISSA Certified Specialist in Fitness Nutrition and NASM Certified Personal Trainer.

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