If you’re an experienced runner looking for a way to improve your performance, have you considered working on your VO2 max?
It’s an indicator of cardiovascular fitness and a tangible, measurable way to increase your fitness level. Advanced runners who have the means to get the VO2 max test performed and can utilize it in their training and races would benefit from it.
So what’s a good score for runners? How do you get tested? How do you know if your VO2 max is improving?
We’ll answer all these questions and more!
What Does V02 Max Mean?
V stands for volume, and O2 is oxygen. So, VO2 is the volume of oxygen that your body can use when you’re exercising. This is significant, because the more oxygen your muscles get, the better they perform.
The “max” means the number you see is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can take in and use effectively for exercise.
Why Measure VO2 Max?
VO2 max (also known as aerobic capacity) is generally considered to be one of the best ways to measure your cardiovascular fitness.
Understanding how much oxygen your body absorbs and uses when you’re working out can help you tweak your exercise in effective ways to increase your fitness.
Beginners might not need to know their VO2 max in order to have an effective workout. But runners who are advanced and use data (especially running economy) to improve their performance will find VO2 max to be an important metric.
The Main Components of VO2 Max
The two biggest things that play a part in your VO2 max are your heart and your lungs. When you breathe in, oxygen bonds to red blood cells and is taken to the heart, where it’s pumped out to the rest of the body.
It’s easy to understand, then, that the heart, lungs, and red blood cells play a huge role in your VO2 max. If there’s a deficiency in any one of these, your VO2 max will suffer.
If you’re interested in using your VO2 max in your training, it’s wise to visit your doctor for a checkup beforehand to make sure your cardiovascular system is working as it should be.
If all is well but your VO2 max is low, the good news is that it can be improved through consistent training.
How is VO2 max Measured?
There are two common measurements for VO2 max. The more common is ml/kg/min – milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute. The less common is ml/kg/km – milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per kilometer. Remember, a pound is 0.45 kilograms.
It’s not easy to measure this yourself, though. You’ll need to visit a sports performance lab where they can assess how much blood your heart pumps with each beat and how efficiently your muscles extract the oxygen from your blood and put it to good use.
How is the Test Performed?
Your VO2 max is measured in a lab, with you working out on either a treadmill or a stationary bike. You’ll be fitted with both a face mask and a chest strap heart rate monitor. These will measure your heart rate and your respiratory rate.
The test usually takes 10 to 20 minutes, and increases slowly in intensity. When your oxygen consumption remains the same even with an increase in intensity, that’s your VO2 max.
Prior to the Test
When you arrive for the test, you’ll be hooked up to the mask and heart rate monitor. These will be connected to a machine that will measure your breathing rate and how much oxygen you’re taking in, as well as the concentration of both O2 and CO2 in the air you inhale and exhale.
You’ll be positioned either on a treadmill or a fitness bicycle. The instructor will guide you through the test as the intensity increases, so there’s not much for you to do except listen to instructions!
What Do You Need for the Test?
You’ll need to avoid eating, drinking, vaping, or smoking for at least three hours before the test in order to get the best results.
Dress in what you’d normally wear for working out. It’s important that you’re comfortable while you’re performing the test.
It may be hard, but it’s recommended to avoid working out for 24 hours before you take the test. That way, you’re as fresh as you can be and won’t have lingering fatigue from your previous workout.
The Cooper Method
If you want to get an idea of your VO2 max but you can’t get it measured in a sports performance lab, you can try the Cooper Method.
This is a 12-minute running test that’s often used by both coaches and athletes to get a rough but reliable idea of a person’s VO2 max. It was developed by Dr Kenneth Cooper back in 1968, so it’s been around longer than fancy sports lab equipment!
If you want to know how effective it is for measuring VO2 max, it’s still used by the military, so you know it works!
It’s easy to do for just about any runner. Set your timer for 12 minutes. You’ll need a way to measure distance. If your watch has a GPS function, you can use this. If not, running around a track will give you a good idea of the distance you’ve run.
You’ll be aiming to cover as much distance as possible during those 12 minutes. You can run, walk, or a mixture of both, but you want to rack up as many miles as you can.
You can perform the Cooper Test on a treadmill, but it’s a good idea to raise the incline a percent or two to closely simulate running outdoors.
Don’t forget to warm up first!
Once you have your final distance, use the appropriate formula to find your result.
Kilometers: (22.351 x your distance in km) – 11.288
Miles: (35.97 x your distance in miles) – 11.29
If mathematics isn’t really your thing, you can always get a rough estimate of your performance using a chart like this one.
VO2 Max on GPS Watches
Many GPS watches offer VO2 as a running metric. This is a good thing to keep an eye on, but the numbers are estimates based on a variety of other factors and should not be considered accurate.
If you don’t have the means to take the test in a sports performance lab, you should perform the Cooper Test on a fairly regular basis. Compare your results there to what your watch tells you.
There will naturally be some difference, but you can use the numbers on the watch to check if your VO2 max is improving over time.
Factors that Impact VO2 Max
A variety of genetic and lifestyle factors can impact your VO2 max. Some of these include:
- Body Composition
- Training Methods
- Activity Levels
For comparison purposes, men who are sedentary (don’t move a lot during the day) score around 35 to 40 mL/kg/min. Women of the same activity levels tend to score between 26 and 30 mL/kg/min.
The average male runner who runs simply for fitness purposes should have a VO2 max level of 50 to 55 mL/kg/min. Women in the same position should score 45 to 50 mL/kg/min.
Men who run competitively can expect a VO2 max of 60 to 65 mL/kg/min, while women are likely to have a score of 55 to 60 mL/kg/min.
Elite athletes can have a VO2 max of up 70, 80, or higher!
How Can VO2 Max Help a Runner?
Improving your VO2 max can have a significant impact on your running performance. When you increase it, you’re training your body to absorb as much oxygen as possible.
This leads to more oxygen in muscle fibers, which means an increased output in terms of speed or endurance. More oxygen also slows down the build-up of waste products (lactic acid, amongst others) in the body.
It’s a slow process, so you shouldn’t expect drastic improvements to your performance. But if you keep focusing on improving your VO2 max, over time you should notice a definite improvement in your speed and distance.
How Do You Increase Your VO2 Max?
This is probably the biggest question on your mind right now! It’s great that VO2 max improves performance, but how do I improve my VO2 max?
Increasing the intensity or magnitude of your workouts is the best way to increase your VO2 max. Run more miles, run your usual distance faster, incorporate HIIT training, and stay consistent!
Consistency is a super important factor when it comes to improving your VO2 max. Taking a break will have a noticeable effect on your VO2 max, but if your fitness level is high you’ll bounce back quickly when you begin again.
What’s a Good VO2 Max for Elite Athletes?
This depends very much on the athlete and the conditions in which they train and race. Anything above 70 ml/kg/min is normal for an elite athlete.
Some of the highest VO2 max scores have been in the 90s! Ultrarunner Kilian Jornet reportedly had a score of 92 at his peak. Cross country skier Espen Harald Bjerke apparently scored a 96!
What’s a Good to Very Good VO2 Max for Athletes or Runners?
Everyday athletes and runners, whether running for fitness or competition, won’t have a VO2 max as high as that, though!
Here’s a rough guide to what you can expect. We’ve split it into men and women, so you can easily find your category and see what your expected VO2 max is.
Find your age below. The figures listed correspond to a good/very good/excellent VO2 max.
- 18 to 25 years: 47 to 51 / 52 to 60 / 61+
- 26 to 35 years: 43 to 48 / 49 to 56 / 57+
- 36 to 45 years: 39 to 42 / 43 to 51 / 52+
- 46 to 55 years: 36 to 38 / 39 to 45 / 46+
- 56 to 65 years: 32 to 35 / 36 to 41 / 42+
- Over 65 years: 29 to 32 / 33 to 37 / 38+
Find your age below. The figures listed correspond to a good/very good/excellent VO2 max.
- 18 to 25 years: 42 to 46 / 47 to 56 / 57+
- 26 to 35 years: 39 to 44 / 45 to 52 / 53+
- 36 to 45 years: 34 to 37 / 38 to 45 / 46+
- 46 to 55 years: 31 to 33 / 34 to 40 / 41+
- 56 to 65 years: 28 to 31 / 32 to 37 / 38+
- Over 65 years: 25 to 27 / 28 to 32 / 33+