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What You Need to Know About VO2max

What is VO2max and why is it important in relation to training and performance?

VO2max, or maximum oxygen absorption, is a factor that can tell about an athlete's ability to perform persistent aerobic work. VO2max is the maximum amount of oxygen that a person can utilize during intense or maximum work. VO2max is measured as "milliliter oxygen used in one minute per kilogram body weight." This measurement is generally considered to be the best indicator of an athlete's fitness and aerobic stamina. Theoretically, the more oxygen you can use during high-intensity work, the more ATP (energy) can be produced (ATP is the body's fuel for aerobic work). This is often the case with elite endurance athletes that typically have very high VO2max values.

How do you measure VO2max?

If you want to measure VO2max accurately, it requires an "all-out effort" (usually on a treadmill or bike) and must be performed after a strict protocol in a laboratory. These protocols ensure certain increases in speed and intensity. The actual measurement is done by collecting and measuring the volume of air inhaled and the oxygen concentration of the exhaled air. It is precisely the difference between the oxygen concentration in the inhalation and exhalation air that determines VO2max.

The oxygen consumption of an athlete rises in a linear curve as the intensity increases to a certain point. After this point, oxygen consumption hits a plateau even though the intensity of exercise increases. This point marks VO2max. It is a painful area in the VO2max test, where the athlete moves from aerobic metabolism to anaerobic metabolism. Once you get over this point, it's not long before muscle fatigue forces the athlete to stop the test / exercise. The test usually takes between 10 and 15 minutes and requires that the test person is fully rested and motivated to endure the pain long enough to find the true VO2 max.

Can you change your VO2max?

Research shows that although VO2max has a genetic component it can also be increased through training. The two methods for increasing VO2max include increases in both exercise amount and intensity. The research also shows that an untrained person will be able to increase their VO2max by up to 20 percent through intelligent training. Athletes who are already in good physical shape are having difficulty increasing their VO2 max, probably because they are already close to their genetic potential.

Disregarding the genetic factors, there are three other components that have a major influence on VO2 max:


Although it varies greatly from individual to individual and depending on exercise condition, VO2max is generally highest at the age of 20 and drops almost 30 percent after age 65.


Many female elite athletes have higher VO2max values than most men. However, due to differences in body size and composition, blood volume and hemoglobin content, women's VO2max generally ends about 20 percent lower than men's VO2 max.


Because there is less oxygen higher up in the atmosphere, an athlete at a test at about 5,000 meters high will have about 5 percent decrease in VO2max

Is a high VO2max equal to better sporting performance?

Most elite athletes have VO2max values far beyond 60ml / kg / min, but it is not the only factor to look for when it comes to succes. A high VO2max can indicate an athlete's potential for aerobic endurance, but many other factors can determine the winner of a particular race. Some of these factors include:

  • Sports-specific training

  • Mental preparation

  • Training at AT

  • Recovery

  • Nutrition

VO2max specific workouts

At www.intelligent-cycling.com we have dedicated workouts with the specific purpose to increase VO2max and they can be very effective as time-efficient training.


McArdle WD, Katch FI and Katch VL. (2000) Essentials of Exercise Physiology: 2nd Edition Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

Wilmore JH and Costill DL. (2005) Physiology of Sport and Exercise: 3rd Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics

Costill, D.L. and Wilmore, J.H. (1994).Cardiorespiratory Function and Performance. Physiology of Sport and Exercise.Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

[1] [1] A maximal cycle exercise protocol to predict maximal oxygen uptake.

Andersen LB. Scand J Med Sci Sports 1995 Jun;5(3):143-6

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