VO2max is a common term used in the running world – but what exactly does it mean? How much does it matter for you as a runner? This article delves into the definition and applications of VO2max. You will also learn how to calculate your VO2max and find where you rank on a VO2max chart.
What is VO2max?
VO2max is your maximum oxygen consumption rate, typically measured in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute (mL/kg/min). Another term for VO2max is “aerobic capacity.” The higher your VO2max, the more oxygen you intake. The more oxygen you consume per minute, the more energy you can produce in your working muscles. Generally, the higher your VO2max, the faster you run.
VO2max is partially genetic and partially conditioned. Factors such as age, gender, altitude, and doping also influence VO2max. Training can improve VO2max, especially in the initial period of training.
VO2max is one of the key physiological determinants of running performance, along with such lactate threshold (roughly what percentage of VO2max where lactate production exceeds lactate clearance) and running economy (the oxygen cost at any submaximal intensity), fatigue resistance, and muscle fiber typology.
How Much Does VO2max Matter for Runners?
VO2max does matter for runners, to a certain extent. You want to ensure you have optimal aerobic capacity if you want to perform your best. However, VO2max is not the only piece of the training puzzle in long-distance running. As stated above, running economy, fatigue resistance, and lactate threshold also affect performance – and may matter more than VO2max as the race distance gets longer.
While VO2max improves with training, it does not continually improve throughout your athletic career. VO2max often stabilizes at its peak levels within a few years of deliberate training. However, a stabilization in VO2max does not equate to a performance plateau. According to a 2006 case study published in the International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, world-record marathon runner Paula Radcliffe did not improve her VO2max during her career. Her performance improvements came largely due to improvements in her running economy.
According to a 2020 review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, VO2max is a predictive factor for the 5K and 10K. However, it is less significant for performance in the half marathon and beyond. At the half marathon and beyond, training variables and physiological variables such as lactate threshold are better predictors of performance. This finding is echoed in a 2021 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, which found running economy, velocity at aerobic threshold, and velocity at lactate threshold to be the most significant predictors of marathon performance.
How Does Running Improve VO2max?
Aerobic production relies on various contributing factors. Lung ventilation, pulmonary diffusion, arteriovenous oxygen difference, oxygen transport in the blood, stroke volume of the heart, and vasodilation of the blood vessels in muscle tissues all facilitate the uptake of oxygen into the working muscles. These physiological factors all respond to endurance training, improving VO2max.
Endurance training changes the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. In response to endurance training, your body adapts to be able to consume more oxygen. Your ventilatory rate (the number of breaths per minute) changes and tidal volume (amount of air inhaled) increases acutely and chronically to take in more oxygen. These adaptations occur from various neural, chemical, and muscular adaptations.
Additionally, the circulatory system and the heart become more capable of transporting oxygen-rich blood to the working muscles. Cardiac output increases, which means that more oxygen-rich blood is pumped from the heart per minute. Cardiac output is the product of stroke volume and heart rate. Stroke volume drastically improves with consistent training, allowing more blood to be ejected from the heart with each pump.
So, with repeated endurance training, you increase how much air you breathe in, how much of that oxygen makes it into your blood, how much oxygen is sent in your blood to the working muscles, and how efficiently that oxygen is transported. With all those changes, your VO2max improves. VO2max improves as a result of overall weekly mileage, interval workouts, and other training stimuli.
Does VO2max Improve Performance?
If you want to improve your long-distance running performance, you do not want to just train to improve your VO2max. VO2max eventually plateaus in trained athletes; you cannot continually raise when you have been training for years.
While your VO2max may stabilize after a certain point, performance can still improve. Over time, you can train so that your lactate threshold is at a higher percentage of your VO2max. Some runners will hit lactate threshold (roughly the pace you could sustain for one hour if racing) at 83% of their VO2max, while others hit it at 90% of their VO2max.
You can improve your velocity at VO2max (vVO2max) even after your VO2max plateaus. vVO2max is a combination of VO2max and running economy. By improving your running economy, you can improve vVo2max even without changes to your VO2max.
How Do I Calculate VO2max?
The gold standard for Vo2max testing occurs in a laboratory setting. An exercise physiologist will measure how much oxygen you intake and expire while you use a treadmill or exercise bike. Many universities offer these tests for a fee or as part of participation in a research study.
Alternatively, you can estimate your VO2max using field tests. The National Strength and Conditioning Association recommends a 1.5-mile run test as a reliable and valid measure of VO2max. To perform this test, you should use a 400-m track to ensure accuracy. After an adequate warm-up, you run 1.5 miles as fast as you can.
Once you have your time (measured in minutes with seconds accounted for in decimal form), plug your time into one of these formulas:
Men: VO2max = 91.736 – (0.1656 x bodyweight in kg) – (2.67 x 1.5 mile run time in minutes)
Women: VO2max = 88.020 – (0.1656 x bodyweight in kg) – (2.67 x 1.5 mile run time in minutes)
A sample of how you calculate using this formula:
1.5 mile time: = 10:19 (10.32 minutes) (to convert, take seconds divided by 60 to get the decimal – 19/60 = 0.31667 or 0.32)
Using the equation for women: VO2max = 88.020 – (0.1656 x body mass kg) – (2.767 x 1.5 mile run in min)
VO2max = 88.020 – (0.1656 x 63) – (2.767 x 10.32) = 88.020 – (10.432) – (28.56)
VO2max = 49.028 mL/kg/min
VO2max Chart for Runners
A VO2max chart can help you understand where your field-tested VO2max ranks in relation to the general population. Simply take the number you calculated above and find where you rank on this chart. No surprise: most runners will rank relatively high. Top elites rank virtually off the chart since many of them have VO2max in the 80s and 90s. (Keep in mind – most elites are in less than the top 1%tile).
VO2max is a fun piece of information to know. However, it is not vital to know it for your training. Some methodologies prescribe training zones based on percentages of VO2max. However, as renowned coach and exercise scientist Steve Magness explains in his article “The Fallacy of VO2max and %VO2max,” such an approach does not account for individual differences. For example, the more trained athletes are, their lactate threshold occurs at a greater percentage of their VO2max.
Does My Garmin Accurately Predict VO2max?
Unfortunately, Garmin’s VO2max predictions are not highly accurate. Their algorithm uses heart rate data (which is not always accurate when using an optical monitor) to estimate VO2max based on population data. It may give you a sense of your fitness level in relation to the population, but it will not be as accurate as lab or field testing. (Listen to this episode of the Tread Lightly podcast for more information on understanding your watch stats.)
Should I Train at VO2max?
Yes, but not at the expense of other aspects of fitness. Interval training at VO2max has its place in a periodized training program. However, since it is not the only predictor of long-distance running performance, improving VO2max should not be the only goal of your training. A variety of workouts, including interval workouts (at various paces), hill workouts, easy runs, and threshold runs, are optimal for long-term development. (For sample workouts to improve VO2max, see this article.)
Housh, T. J., Housh, D. J., and DeVries, H. A. (2016). Applied Exercise and SportPhysiology With Labs (4th ed.). Holcomb Hathaway.
Haff, G. & Triplett, N. (2016). Essentials of Strength Training & Conditioning. (4th ed.) Human Kinetics.