VO2 Max

What is VO2 Max?

VO2 max is defined as the maximal amount of oxygen (O2) in volume (V) that the body can consume during intense exercise. Thanks for the definition, Milos, but break that down for me.

Our cells need oxygen to create ATP. ATP is a high-energy molecule that our muscles need to function. In times of exercise, we need more energy to move our legs and pump our arms and therefore more ATP. The more oxygen our body consumes, the more ATP our bodies can produce.

There are three main components to VO2 max:
  1. Lungs: Oxygen is breathed in through the lungs with each breath. Larger lung capacities increase the amount of oxygen that enters the body. The lungs use this oxygen to oxygenate (supply oxygen to) the blood.

  2. Heart & Circulatory System: After blood is oxygenated in the lungs, the amount of blood the heart can pump determines how quickly this oxygenated blood can get to the muscles.

  3. Muscle cells: Finally, the blood gets to the muscles and the muscles use the oxygen from the oxygenated blood to create more ATP.

Without oxygen, our cells create pyruvate for energy in anaerobic conditions. Pyruvate does not have as much energy as ATP. After it is used for energy, pyruvate is converted to lactate which at high enough levels can lead to cramps.

Because the lungs, circulatory system, and muscles are all involved in creating your VO2 max, VO2 max is a great metric for understanding your body’s aerobic fitness and can be tracked to show progress.


How is VO2 max measured?

VO2 max is most accurately measured by putting a mask on someone while they work out and seeing how much oxygen they breathe in and how much oxygen they breathe out. The difference is the amount of oxygen that is consumed. In order to find out the maximal amount of oxygen consumed, you have to work out until exhaustion. In controlled settings, this usually means working out on a treadmill or stationary bike at increasing intensity.

Many people don’t have access to this specialized test, so are there ways to estimate VO2 max? Yep!

The two commonly used models to estimate VO2 max are the Rockport 1-mile Walk Test and the Brigham Young University Test.

Firstbeat Technologies (a Garmin-owned company) created a proprietary model to estimate VO2 max. Their study can be found here. They use the relationship between speed and heart rate during an exercise to estimate VO2 max. Most other wearable companies use the same data to estimate VO2 max in addition to assumptions made based on your sex, age, and personal background.

What is a good VO2 max?

There are categories for VO2 max, but we are all different so what is considered a “good” VO2 max will depend on your goals. Endurance athletes may aim for > 50 mL/kg/min, while people starting their fitness journey may aim for > 30 mL/kg/min. In general, aerobic fitness declines with age. There are also physiologic differences between males and females. Therefore, reference ranges were created for males and females depending on their age. Use the tables on page 6 to help you determine what category you fall under.

How to improve VO2 max?

Recall that VO2 max is how much oxygen your body can consume. Knowing this, VO2 max is then directly affected by how much blood your heart can pump or how much oxygen your muscles take up.

The primary way to improve VO2 max is by exercising near your body’s maximum intensity level (thus reaching a maximum oxygen consumption). Research shows short bursts of intense exercise or longer periods of moderate-intensity exercise can both improve VO2 max so do what feels best for your body!

We’ll go into a deeper dive on ways to improve VO2 max in a future blog post!

Which brands and devices measure VO2 max?

Apple:Watch Ultra, Watch 8, and Watch SE

Coros:Apex 2 Pro, Apex 2, Vertix 2, and Pace 2

Fitbit:Sense 2, Versa 4, Charge 5, Versa 2, Inspire 3, and Luxe

Garmin:Enduro 2, Enduro, Fenix 7, MARQ, Epix, Descent G1, Quatix 7, Instinct 2, Forerunner 955, Forerunner 945, Forerunner 745, Forerunner 255, Forerunner 245, Forerunner 55, Forerunner 45, Vivoactive 4, Vivomove, Vivosmart 5, Vivosmart 4, Venu 2, Venu Sq, and Lily

Oura Ring:Ring 3

Polar:Grit X Pro, Grit X, Vantage V2, Pacer Pro, Pacer, Ignite 3https://amzn.to/3CQa33P, Ignite 2, Vantage M2, and Unite

Suunto:9 Peak Pro, 9 Peak, 9 Baro, 7, 5 Peak, and 5

Whoop:Whoop 4

Withings:Scan Watch Horizon, Scan Watch, Steel HR, and Pulse HR

You can find these fitness trackers on the products page or complete the Takeoff quiz to receive personalized recommendations.

With so many options, which one is best at estimating VO2 max?

Firstbeat Technologies (a Garmin company) has published a white paper outlining how accurate their devices are at estimating VO2 max. The result: 95% accuracy.

And according to the University of Delaware, “across the board, there appears to be a high degree of accuracy with Firstbeat’s Fitness Test in estimating VO2 max.” There is limited data on other wearables on the market.

This is for informational purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice. Go to the emergency room if you are experiencing a life-threatening medical emergency. Disclaimer: Takeoff Health may make a small commission from some of the links above.


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