VO2 max is the most talked about measure of physical fitness. Even our watches can estimate it. However, if VO2 max was the only factor effecting fitness then every race would be won by the person with the highest VO2 max (which it’s not).
Furthermore, a runners peak VO2 max is determined mostly by their genetics. Despite this, it is good to know your baseline VO2 max so you can use this as a basic measure of fitness and watch it change over time.
What is VO2 max?
It can be a very complex topic which we won’t go into too much depth here. Basically, VO2 Max is the highest rate of oxygen that can be utilised by an individual during intense exercise. It is measured as millilitres of oxygen used in one minute per kiloof body weight (mL/kg/min). It is based on the idea that the more oxygen your muscle can use, the better the muscles work, as muscles turn oxygen into fuel.
What is the average VO2 max?
If you ask 30 sports scientists you will get 30 different answers to this question. However, below are the commonly cited “normal value”. This data is adapted form The Cooper Institute’s data.
Age Specific VO2 Max Normal Values (MALE)
|Excellent||> 60||> 56||> 51||> 45||> 41||> 37|
|Very poor||< 30||< 30||< 26||< 25||< 22||< 20|
Age Specific VO2 Max Normal Values (FEMALE)
|Excellent||> 56||> 52||> 45||> 40||> 37||> 32|
|Very poor||< 28||< 26||< 22||< 20||< 18||< 17|
It is also important to remember that VO2 Max is just a measure of potential for endurance. The ultimate measure of endurance will always be performance on race day!
How to increase VO2 max
The best and quickest way to increase VO2 Max is to include High Intensity Interval Training to your regular training program. HIIT has been shown to increase VO2 Max significantly quicker and to a higher degree than high volume low intensity training (Helgerud et al. 2007). A combination of the two will bring about the greatest benefits, as discussed in our 80/20 Method for Performance article.
Can running watches predict VO2 max?
Most running watches feature a VO2 max prediction. Many watch brands including Garmin use the FIRST-BEAT method of VO2max prediction. However, the first-beat method can only rely on heart rate data. This can easily be effected by external factors including recent caffeine intake, recent meals and anxiety/stress. Furthermore, most wrist heart rate monitors are relatively inaccurate and a chest strap heart rate monitor is needed. First-beat state their prediction is usually within 3.5 ml/kg/min, which is relatively accurate.
A recent study looked at the accuracy of watch VO2 prediction vs. actual VO2 max in 28 random individuals. They found that for low fitness individuals, the watch prediction was mostly accurate. However, in high fitness participants, the difference between watch predicted VO2 max and actual VO2 max was on average 7.6 ml/kg/min. This is a very significant difference!
Given the above data, we suggest using your watch predicted VO2max with caution. VO2 max can be a good value to monitor general progress. However, your race performance and how you feel during each run will always be the best predictor of fitness.
Helgerud, J., Høydal, K., Wang, E., Karlsen, T., Berg, P., Bjerkaas, M., … & Hoff, J. (2007). Aerobic high-intensity intervals improve VO2max more than moderate training. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 39(4), 665-671.
The Cooper Institute (2009). Physical fitness assessments for
adults and law enforcement. Dallas, Texas