The metric for what makes someone a high-performance athlete is tricky to analyze. Physical fitness relies on speed, strength, stamina, and numerous other characteristics which relate both dependent and independent of others. One of the more complex metrics for evaluating your physical fitness level is your Vo2 max. The higher up you go in the field of athletics, the more this parameter matters.
Vo2 max refers to your maximum rate of oxygen consumption. The name is derived from the terms for volume, oxygen as an element, and maximum. It is also referred to as maximal oxygen consumption and maximal oxygen uptake, among other names. For the sake of this article, this expression of aerobic capacity will be referred to by the humble name Vo2 max.
Vo2 Max: Summary and Review
Vo2 max is the maximum rate at which your body can consume oxygen during high-intensity exercises. Oxygen consumption and the way it produces energy is key in all exercises, but some more than others. It is especially vital in exercises with a high reliance on cardiovascular performance, like swimming and running.
The amount of oxygen the body consumes, as well as the overarching heart rate, relies on a variety of factors. Not all these factors immediately relate to personal fitness or workout regimen but can be altered by external attributes.
Your body weight and age group both have an impact on Vo2 max. Men generally have a higher Vo2 max than women, and body fat has an inverse relationship to this attribute. It also begins to decline with age, as do many fitness parameters, after age 30.
Vo2 max is a critical concept in sports medicine, whose discoverer is an integral figure in science as a whole. A.V. Hill, who first coined the term, would later win the Nobel Prize in Medicine. His contribution was “for the discovery relating to the production of heat in the muscle.” Further research in the 1950s and 1960s solidified the weight of Hill's discovery.
Hill’s findings were that the maximum rate of oxygen consumption was universally positively correlated with overall improved fitness. This included both health and performance metrics. This unequivocally positive nature makes Vo2 max the gold standard in analyzing personal health.
Unfortunately, despite its benefits, actually measuring Vo2 is somewhat complicated. Measuring it either requires scientific equipment or a willingness to do some math on your part.
How To Measure Vo2 MAX
Performing a Vo2 max test is relatively early to do if you have the right equipment and calculators. Most other parameters for health can be logged by fitness trackers like watches. Your maximum rate of oxygen consumption is closely but not entirely correlated to your maximum heart rate.
Your max heart rate is an indicator that you are reaching close to your maximum physical performance. This means your Vo2 should also be near its maximum. The efficiency allows red blood cells to be oxygenated and pumped but does not guarantee oxygenation.
To directly analyze your Vo2 max, you will need to be hooked up to a mask and heart rate monitor. Then, you will be placed on a cardio-based exercise machine like a stationary bike that slowly ramps up in intensity. Once the intensity of your performance increases while your oxygen intake remains the same, your Vo2 max is revealed.
These types of aerobic fitness devices aren’t exactly common, but they aren’t rare either. You can usually find practitioners offering this service by searching online where to find Vo2 max testing. Sports medicine physicians, nutritionists, and exercise physiologists are likely to have such machines available. Some gyms even have Vo2 max testing machines available.
If you don’t have time or access to machines, then it will be difficult to find your exact Vo2 max. However, you should still be able to easily estimate your maximum.
To begin, find your resting and maximum heart rate. These can be estimated by practiced formulas or found through fitness trackers. From there, multiply 15 by the dividend of your maximum heart rate divided by your resting heart rate. The result is your Vo2 Max, in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute.
When Does Vo2 Max Matter?
We’ve previously stated a bit as to why a high Vo2 max matters. This level of potential oxygen consumption can serve as a general benchmark for overall physical fitness. However, there are exact scenarios where it matters more than usual.
Michael Phelps is arguably one of the strongest living male swimmers. It should come as no surprise that, by the metrics, he also has an exceptional Vo2 max. Vo2 max is what separates good athletes from elite athletes. It’s not the sole factor behind gold medals (which are more impacted by training and complex skills).
Overall oxygen consumption is most important for cardio-reliant and endurance athletes. Runners, swimmers, and cyclists rely on oxygen consumption for performance more directly than strength-based athletes. When a minute interval can influence the outcome, it matters all the more.
Vo2 max also has implications for the effectiveness of one's heart and other vital organs. This makes it an essential function to maintain late-life health.
How To Increase Vo2 Max
A lot goes into identifying what your Vo2 max is, but more important than identification is improvement. While the upper limits for Vo2 max do exist per person, reaching that upper limit is still an important goal.
There is no one exercise that singularly tackles your Vo2 max. Cardio-influencing exercises as a whole can be beneficial and will make up many of the practices below.
Different Types of Training Sessions That Target Vo2 Max
Let’s first discuss high-intensity interval training. HIIT workouts target various muscle groups depending on the particular exercises but always result in elevated heart rates. Vo2 max is often best trained at around 90 to 95 percent of your maximum heart rate. Any exercise that gets to this limit of pushing your anaerobic threshold can be helpful.
Interval training has also been shown to be slightly better than continuous workouts. For this reason, HIIT is a common first suggestion. These interval workouts tackle cardio in a way that high-intensity strength training doesn’t quite reach.
Any sort of endurance training can be helpful, even at a low intensity. Your body will have natural adaptations as you push yourself further, making expanding your Vo2 max all the more challenging.
Pushing through your lactate threshold may make your oxygen consumption seem higher post-workout. This measurement is not your Vo2 max but something else entirely.
If you hit a plateau, consider integrating both continuous and interval training. Challenging yourself in this way forces your breathing patterns to adapt to new stimuli. This can be helpful in training for complex endurance sports as well as triathlons.
Exercise isn’t the only way to improve your general fitness. The question is: Can other elements help boost your max Vo2?
Can Non-Exercise Methods Boost Vo2 Max?
We won’t leave you in suspense: No, supplements and other healthy practices will not by themselves help boost your Vo2 max. Some claim to do so, but the end results are inconclusive at best. The only way to reliably boost or maintain your Vo2 Max is through exercises that push your cardiovascular capabilities.
This is not to say that proper nutrition and other details can’t boost your workout results — and consequently — other metrics. Foods that boost testosterone or are high in protein and other vital nutrients can bolster workout results and muscle growth.
Including Variety in a Training Program
Your workouts also don’t necessarily have to be confined to every other day in the gym; exercising outdoors has lasting physical and mental health benefits.
On your primary days, you should be performing high-intensity workouts of some kind in general. These should be flanked by your usual cool-down and warm-up methods.
On your off days, you can still work out, so long as you do so delicately. Active recovery workouts blend in recovery periods and off-days with light exercises. These keep your body in motion while reducing the long-term risks of injury overwork can have.
Non-exercise methods won’t boost your Vo2 max. But these methods, and the way you work out, can have a positive effect on overall fitness.
Vo2 Max: The Be-All and End-All
You would think that such an essential standard for overall health would be easier to monitor and train. The truth is that Vo2 max is only difficult to monitor if you want constant, exact numbers. It is only difficult to train if it is the sole fitness goal rather than improving in every aspect.
Vo2 max exists as the result of a training regimen dedicated to overall physical fitness. Continue your routine with better efficiency, and watch the results blossom.