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How to Increase Your VO2 Max to Level up Your Workouts

Whether you're a runner, cyclist, or general fitness enthusiast, you're likely familiar with this metric. Here's what you need to know.

By Kells McPhillipsFebruary 29, 2024

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It’s the current flex in a fitness era defined by smartwatch metrics: “I have a high VO2 max.” And there’s a good reason why: Having a high aerobic capacity may improve your respiratory and cardiovascular health and even boost your athletic performance. But does VO2 max really deserve all the hype that’s been coming its way? Well, sort of. 

According to Peloton instructor Dr. Charlotte Weidenbach, VO2 max is a great indicator of your fitness, but it’s still only one metric. Here’s what you need to consider. 

What Is VO2 Max?

“VO2 max is the maximal oxygen (O2) consumption in the body,” says Dr. Charlotte. “It is a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen that a person can utilize during exercise.” 

VO2 max is one indicator of how fit you are. Put simply: Your body requires oxygen for aerobic efforts such as running, biking, or swimming. So, the higher your VO2 max, the more you may excel at those sports. 

And surprise, surprise: Athletes—and particularly those in endurance sports—tend to have a very high VO2 max due to the intensity and frequency of their training. However, our aerobic capacity isn’t entirely in our control. “Besides our fitness status, VO2 max is mainly influenced by age, genetics, and sex,” Dr. Charlotte says. 

Should You Try to Increase Your VO2 Max?

Like many of the numbers on your smartwatch, VO2 max tells one piece of your fitness story (not the whole story). “VO2 max is a valuable indicator, but it’s not the only measure to be associated with fitness and wellbeing,” Dr. Charlotte says. “This means that while VO2 max can give a good idea about someone's fitness status, it doesn't directly correlate with their overall health and well-being.”

Even though VO2 max isn’t the be-all, end-all of fitness metrics, a high VO2 max does come with a few health benefits. Here, Dr. Charlotte breaks them down. 

A High VO2 Max Is Linked to a Healthier Heart

“Higher VO2 max is linked to better cardiovascular health,” Dr. Charlotte says. “It is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular conditions.” And there’s more to love: Aerobic workouts, the type of exercise that helps boost your VO2 max, may also improve your blood pressure, blood lipid profiles, and overall heart function. “So it isn't necessarily the VO2 max itself that decreases the risks and improves health, but it's actually the exercise that leads to a better VO2 max, which is so beneficial for our health,” Dr. Charlotte explains. 

Given that more than 800,000 people die of heart disease each year, taking the time to care for your ticker is crucial for living a long, healthy life. 

A High VO2 Max May Improve Cognitive Function

Your brain may also make gains as well. A 2021 study found that a higher VO2 max was associated with more gray matter in the brain, a type of tissue responsible for critical functions such as movement, memory, emotions, and cognition. 

How to Measure Your VO2 Max

VO2 max is calculated by the milliliters of oxygen consumed in a minute per kilogram of body weight (mL/kg/min). Generally speaking, you’ll need a smartwatch or a VO2 max test to determine your number. 

Unfortunately, measuring your VO2 max isn’t as easy as taking your pulse. It requires a few extra steps. For the best results, you’ll want to take a formal test, which often entails a treadmill or stationary bike. Talk to your doctor about which examination is right for your fitness level. (For example, if you’re a more seasoned athlete, you may be well-suited for the Astrand treadmill test, while if you’re a beginner, you may want to try the Cooper 1.5 mile walk run.)

According to Dr. Charlotte, a mask analysis offers the most accurate results. “The athlete will be running on a treadmill while the speed and incline gradually increase (on a bike, resistance increases),” she says. “[Testers] wear a mask connected to a metabolic cart that analyzes the volume of oxygen consumed and carbon dioxide produced during exercise. It can provide data on the individual's respiratory exchange ratio (RER) and oxygen consumption, which are used to calculate VO2 max.”

Smartwatches with heart rate monitors can also estimate your VO2 max. That said, this data is not as valuable as a formal test. “The relationship between heart rate and oxygen consumption is monitored to assess cardiovascular fitness, but formulas used to connect heart rate and VO2 max are approximates,” she says. “The resting and maximal heart rate can roughly predict VO2 max, but much less so than gas analysis can.” 

How to Interpret Your VO2 Max

“When interpreting VO2 max results, it's crucial to consider individual factors,” Dr. Charlotte says. “Rather than focusing on achieving a specific numerical value, one should aim to improve their own baseline through regular and appropriate exercise.” Here, she offers some general classifications for VO2 max levels. 

Excellent

Men: 60 ml/kg/min or higher 

Women: 50 ml/kg/min or higher 

Good

Men: 50-59 ml/kg/min 

Women: 40-49 ml/kg/min 

Average

Men: 42-49 ml/kg/min 

Women: 35-39 ml/kg/min 

Below Average

Men: 33-41 ml/kg/min 

Women: 28-34 ml/kg/min 

Poor

Men: 32 ml/kg/min or lower 

Women: 27 ml/kg/min or lower

How to Increase Your VO2 Max Through Training

While your age, genetics, and sex all affect your VO2 max, there are still ways to raise your aerobic capacity. Dr. Charlotte recommends a combination of steady-state zone 2 training (think: long, easy runs and bike rides) and high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which consists of explosive, short movements. Research indicates that exercise conducted at about 80 to 92 percent of your VO2 max—or moderately high to high-intensity workouts—may be the best range for VO2 max improvements.  

“It can be beneficial to also alternate types of workouts, like swimming, cycling and running, if that is something they like,” she says. Just make sure you’re also incorporating strength training and mobility workouts into your routine to balance out the strain that HIIT can place on your body.

(You can find HIIT and zone 2 workouts, as well as mobility and strength training classes, on the Peloton App.)

If you ultimately decide to train with this stat in mind, in the end, remember that VO2 max is only one angle for analyzing your health and well-being. It’s not the only metric that matters.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.

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