What is your VO2max?

You really should know it. How you determine it is up to you.

One of the most-often discussed variables in endurance performance and exercise science is VO2max. VO2max is simply the maximal amount of oxygen an individual can consume. This represents the ceiling for endurance performance: the more oxygen you can consume, the harder you can work. You’re using that oxygen to make energy to move your muscles.

In a lab, this is measured by calculating the difference in milliliters of oxygen between inspired air and expired air during exercise. Many research environments, hospitals, and sports medicine clinics can do this for you.

Although VO2max will tell you how fit you are, it may not tell you how well you’ll perform in your next race. Other measures like functional threshold power, lactate threshold, or economy are great to compare with your competition.

So, is it really worth it to know your VO2max? Absolutely.

VO2max is the gold standard for cardiorespiratory fitness. There is no better indicator of the ability of your heart to deliver oxygenated blood and your muscles to use that oxygen to make energy.

Perhaps most importantly, your VO2max is likely the single greatest measure of your overall cardiovascular health; better than blood pressure, blood chemistries, and even what the scale tells you. The higher your VO2max, the healthier your heart and blood vessels are. That’s something you want to know.

Does that mean you need to schedule an appointment right away and shell out $100 to get tested? Not necessarily. Unless you are a serious endurance competitor, testing is often impractical due to the need for expensive (and perfectly-calibrated) equipment, along with trained technicians and a ton of motivation to max out. Even under perfect conditions, finding your absolute VO2max is almost never 100% accurate.

Instead, you can predict your VO2max quite accurately using only a heart rate monitor. Two great ways to get your VO2max involve finding your recovery heart rate after a simple 3-minute step test or a mile jog. These predictions are based on the fact that when you are more fit, your heart rate returns to resting values more quickly. Therefore, someone with a high VO2max will have a lower heart rate following either stepping or jogging.

You can check out the table below for a better idea of typical VO2max values.

So take a few minutes to predict your VO2max next time you work out, and get one of the most valuable pieces of information about yourself!

Step Test

  1. Step up and down on a box or bench ~41.3 cm tall (or 16.25 inches) for three minutes. This is actually the height of most chairs!
  2. Men step at a pace of 24 step-ups per minute (set your metronome to 96 beats per minute and move a foot on every beep); women step at a pace of 22 step-ups per minute (88 on the metronome)
  3. Immediately after 3 minutes of stepping, take your recovery heart rate either by feeling a pulse for 15 seconds and multiplying by 4, or by checking your heart rate monitor 10 seconds after you’ve finished stepping.
  4. Plug your heart rate into the right equation below, and see how fit you are!

Men: VO2max = 111.33 – (0.42 x HR)

Women: VO2max = 65.81 – (0.1847 x HR)

1-mile Jog

  1. Jog a mile no faster than 8 minutes (7.5 mph on a treadmill) but no slower than 12 minutes (5 mph)
  2. Note the exact time it took to jog your mile and your recovery heart rate using the technique above.
  3. Plug your values into the equation below and see how fit you are!

VO2max = 100.5 + (8.344 × sex) – (0.0744 × weight) – (1.438 × mile time) – (0.1928 × heart rate)

Where: sex = 1 for male; 0 for female

Weight = pounds

Time = minutes and fraction of minutes (10:15 = 10.25 minutes)


photo credit: Rob Dow Photography

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