Unless you’re a professional athlete, “VO₂ max” probably sounds like a formula you forgot from high school chemistry. But VO₂ max training is becoming more and more prevalent as average-Jane exercisers are training like, well, athletes.
Below, your cheat sheet for VO₂ max.
What Is Maximum Oxygen Uptake?
As the intensity of your exercise increases, so does the amount of oxygen your body requires. That’s because your body utilizes oxygen to produce energy (also known as ATP), which keeps you energized while you’re active, explains Thanu Jey, D.C., C.S.C.S. chiropractor and clinic director at Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic in Toronto. You’re familiar with the labored breathing that accompanies exercise, so you’re already aware of this to some extent.
What you may not know is that there is a limit to the amount of oxygen your body can utilize per minute. And that maximum oxygen intake is referred to as your VO₂ max.
“VO₂ represents volume (V) of oxygen (O2) and it’s a numerical value that indicates the maximum amount of oxygen a person can intake per unit of time,” explains Niket Sonpal M.D., gastroenterologist and adjunct professor at Touro College. “It is a good fundamental indicator of a person’s cardiorespiratory capacity.”
It is expressed in milliliters of oxygen over kilograms of body mass per minute, which is abbreviated as ml/kg/min. “The higher the number, the more cardiovascularly conditioned you are—and the easier a longer workout will feel,” says Allen Conrad, B.S., D.C., C.S.C.S. chiropractor at Montgomery County Chiropractic Center in North Wales, P.A.
What is a favorable VO₂ max? For women between the ages of 18 and 45, the average maximum oxygen uptake is roughly between 35 and 46. For more elite athletes, it can be upward of 50 or even 60. (For a more detailed breakdown, Conrad suggests referring to this chart illustrating maximum oxygen uptake.)
How to Measure Maximum Oxygen Uptake
There are a couple of ways to measure your maximum oxygen uptake, each requiring different equipment.
At-Home Maximum Oxygen Uptake Test
- Begin by determining your resting heart rate (RHR)—either by counting how many times your heart beats in 60 seconds or by checking your fitness tracker’s built-in heart-rate monitor.
- Then, calculate your maximum heart rate for your age using the Karvonen Formula: 220 minus your age.
- Divide your maximum heart rate by your resting heart rate.
- Ultimately, take that number and multiply by 15. That’s your VO₂ maximum score in milliliters per kilogram per minute.
- Warm up for at least 5 minutes.
- Then, give your best effort to walk/run as far as possible in twelve minutes. Aim to maintain a consistent pace throughout the test while covering as much distance as you can.
- Cool down for at least 5 minutes.
- Refer to the distance you covered (during the 12-minute test only, not including the warm-up or cool-down) on this chart of test results.
- Once you determine your level of cardiovascular fitness, you can then use the following formula to calculate your VO₂ max: VO₂ Max = (Distance covered in meters – 504.9) ÷ 44.73
- Begin at a warm-up pace on the machine.
- Every few minutes, the intensity will increase (through speed, resistance, etc., depending on the machine).
- It will continue to increase until you reach a peak and can no longer sustain the effort.
12 Minute Walk/Run VO₂ Max Test
All you need for this test is a treadmill. This 12-minute walk/run test, developed by the Cooper Institute, is the most effective way for someone without a coach or personal trainer to determine their VO₂max, according to Austin Johnson, a specialist in fitness nutrition and a fitness expert at Gold’s Gym. Here’s how:
VO₂ Max Mask Test
The most official (and expensive) test involves a lab that specializes in sports performance examinations, a breathing mask, and a heart rate monitor. “The mask monitors and measures the rate and volume of oxygen and carbon dioxide that you inhale and exhale while using a cardio machine (like an elliptical machine, treadmill, or stationary bike),” explains Dr. Sonpal. Here’s how it works:
This point of maximum intensity, determined by the machine and recorded as a number, is when you transition from aerobic respiration to anaerobic respiration. This means you have shifted from efficiently utilizing oxygen to generate energy to using either glycogen or creatine phosphate for energy, as explained by Vince Sant, Lead Trainer and Co-Founder of V Shred. This will provide you with your official VO₂ max.
The machine also measures your heart rate and will record your heart rate when your VO₂ max is reached. This heart rate recording is significant because “it’s the heart rate that correlates with your maximum VO₂,” says Jon de la Torre, a certified personal trainer with DIAKADI in San Francisco. More on that below.
Why Your VO₂ Max is Important
Your maximum oxygen uptake (VO₂ max) is a highly reliable measure of cardiovascular fitness and stamina, states Johnson.
“Athletes engaged in endurance sports and activities would derive the greatest benefits from knowing and caring about their VO₂ max,” says Jey. So if you’re aiming to reduce a few seconds off your 5K race time, complete a marathon in under 4 hours, or achieve a faster Murph time, a high VO₂ max could assist you in reaching those goals.
However, it is just one aspect of fitness among other factors such as muscular strength and endurance, mental resilience, and mobility. Enhancing your VO₂ max won’t aid you in anaerobic endeavors like lifting heavier weights for a single repetition, achieving a higher vertical jump, or sprinting 100 meters.
Even if you’re not training like an athlete, having a good VO₂ max is beneficial for your overall health, according to Conrad. Essentially, the higher your VO₂ max, the less strain your lungs and heart endure to maintain your vitality. (
Is it Possible to Improve Your VO₂ Max?
There are certain factors (aside from training) that contribute to your VO₂ max—such as age, gender, and genetics—which are beyond your control, explains Sant. However, there are others—such as your current level of training, the type of training, the altitude or location where you train, and your overall body mass—that you can manage.
To increase your VO₂ max, “determine your current VO₂ max and the corresponding heart rate, then spend more time training at that particular intensity,” says de la Torre.
Higher VO₂ max scores are linked to endurance sports such as running, cycling, and rowing, as they place greater demands on your cardiovascular system. Therefore, engaging in endurance workouts will also contribute to an increase in your maximum oxygen uptake, says de la Torre. (
Research has found that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can also “significantly enhance” your VO₂ max. “HIIT places heightened demands on the heart and lungs, prompting the body to adapt and increase the amount of oxygen processed,” says Conrad. (Try this lower body HIIT workout to get started, or any of these high-intensity CrossFit WODs.)
Your VO₂ max won’t immediately skyrocket.