So you want to increase vo2 max. If you’ve read our post about VO2 Max and The Reason to Measure Heart Rate Variability on the Apple Watch you’ll know why measuring VO2max is so important if you’re an athlete or heavy into fitness. In that article, we mentioned that your Apple Watch and other fitness wearables can also provide a good VO2max estimation. The reason why wearables can only give a “predicted” measurement is that these devices can only extrapolate from your heart rate reading.
To measure VO2 max accurately, you’ll need to use a machine that can measure the volume of your oxygen intake vs the carbon dioxide you expel. You’ll usually find this equipment in some gyms and while you can also buy one, it typically only makes sense to do so for professional athletes. People who do not train to compete often find that wearables are able to provide accurate enough data to see if their VO2 max progress. While measuring your VO2 max can be challenging, improving your vo2 max doesn’t have to be.
The gold standard
Maximal aerobic capacity or VO2 max is often referred to as the “gold standard” since it is a good indicator of how efficient your cardiovascular system works. It can also tell if you are at risk for contracting heart disease, diabetes, or even cancer.1
VO2max was first conceptualized by Nobel laureate physiologist Archibald Hill in 1923. He observed that the body’s oxygen requirements increased proportionally to running speed. He also saw that the rate of oxygen used by the body hits a peak even when the running speed is further increased. This peak occurred at different running speeds in different people after which exhaustion closely followed.
This is due to the body’s shift from aerobic to anaerobic energy production where it can no longer use oxygen. In this process, the muscles start to increase production and accumulation of lactic acid. This causes pain, fatigue then muscle failure. Highly conditioned athletes are able to clear lactic acid from their muscles faster
You will frequently come across the word aerobic along with VO2max. It simply means “requiring oxygen”, with anaerobic being the opposite.
VO2max is expressed as mL/kg/min which means milliliters of oxygen used in one minute per kilogram of body weight.
Not everybody is born equal
Your VO2 max level is dependent on factors like age, gender, fitness level and outside factors like altitude. Unfortunately, genetics largely determines your VO2max potential. This means that each person has their own acceptable and ideal VO2max levels and there are people who genetically predisposed to have higher peak levels of VO2max.
For example, retired Olympic skier Bjørn Dæhlie was measured to have 96 ml/kg/min in the 1990s. This was reportedly the highest VO2max levels of all athletes at that time. However, he may have been dethroned by an 18-year-old Norwegian cyclist Oskar Svendsen who reportedly achieved 97.5 ml/min/kg in 2012.
However, there are average values that you can compare your VO2max levels against. These values can give you a rough idea of where your cardiovascular health stands. Below is a chart that shows the lower and upper VO2max levels for adults in different age ranges.
The average person can potentially raise their aerobic capacity around 15 to 20% with sufficient training.2 However, genetics account for so much that some people won’t be able to increase and maintain their VO2max even with training. These individuals are called “low responders” and some have even been observed to have declining VO2max after training.
Weight also makes a big impact on one’s VO2max. More specifically, however, the amount of lean mass to fat that you have. 3 Researchers have found lean mass to be the most appropriate measure of body size or composition for scaling of VO2max. Additionally, it was even suggested that the amount of fat you have will be proportional to how bad you perform on a VOmax test!
Don’t despair though. Not everyone has the genetics to be an elite athlete. What’s important though is how close you come to hitting your peak VO2max levels and making it stay there.
Testing and ideal levels of VO2max
As mentioned earlier, the most accurate way to tell your VO2max levels would be to get on a metabolic gas testing machine which can be found in sports performance labs. This machine can accurately measure a person’s ability to extract oxygen and use it for aerobic performance. It also measures how much carbon dioxide is exhaled since the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body can show how much you can cope with fatigue and what output they are able to compete with.
Before taking the VO2max test, you will need to refrain from exercising or training at least 24 hours prior. You will also have to avoid food, alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine for at least three hours before the test.
In the test, you will be exercising on a treadmill or bike while breathing through a gas analysis device. You will have to go through an increasing amount of activity so the test can see when your body shifts from aerobic to anaerobic metabolism.
Increasing your VO2 max
To increase your VO2max levels, you basically have to push the boundaries of your aerobic metabolism repeatedly through exercise. However, its a bit more complicated than that and not all kinds of training will be efficient in increasing it.
It is well-known in the sports and fitness community that High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)4 brings the best results in increasing one’s VO2 max levels. In fact, there are a number of studies5 that support this.
HIIT essentially pushes your cardiovascular system to its limit, then letting it rest. This follows the principle of “Use it or lose it” meaning that your body will only gain up to what is demanded of it. HIIT allows you to do more of this in a shorter amount of time. This is why it is efficient in raising VO2max levels.
It should be noted that HIIT is not just random bursts of exercises. There is such a thing as heart rate zones which we mentioned in Apple Watch Hacks for Health. The idea is that the intensity of your training will depend on how hard your heart is working in each of the 5 zones. This will allow you to tailor a workout program that increases your VO2 max in the most efficient way possible.
Kinds of HIIT
HIIT comes in different forms and can really improve vo2 max if done consistently. It can even be adapted into any sport. Some of the simpler but more popular ones are the following:
- Burpees – This is one of the more challenging forms of HIIT and is a staple of CrossFit workouts.
- Bodyweight exercises – Some examples would be push-ups, squats and bear crawls.
- Sprints – Very basic but effective for your cardio nonetheless. A good way to do HIIT sprints would be to run uphill then rest while walking downhill.
- Stationary bike – This is relatively easier and can give you an accurate measure of your workload and intensity.
Supplements to increase VO2 max
Your lifestyle, which includes your diet, has a great impact on your VO2 max levels. However, food and supplements alone won’t increase it. They can only provide your body with nutrients to help it perform better during training.
- Beetroot – At least one study6 suggests that the nitrates in beetroot helped increase the peak power and VO2max in test subjects, but this still needs to be confirmed in further studies.
- Caffeine/carnitine/choline – A study 7 found that these three supplements allowed the body to use fat for energy more efficiently. While this study used rats as subjects, most recognize that these supplements are also effective in humans.
- Taurine – an ingredient often found in energy drinks. A study8 found that it did increase the performance of the test subjects during their activities. In this way, taurine does have an indirect impact on VO2 max.
- Sodium phosphate – At least one study9 suggests that phosphate salts can make a positive impact on aerobic metabolism.
While it is fairly obvious that exercises that push one’s cardiovascular system to the limit increase VO2 max, your workout routine should also include ample time for rest and recovery. In fact, most runners agree on a 1:1 ratio10, meaning that for a certain amount of training, you should get an equal amount of rest. For example, you should get 3 minutes rest after doing 800 meters for 3 minutes.
In terms of food and supplements, while there are lots of supplements on the market that may claim to increase VO2 max, you should keep in mind that the ingredients in these products only make an indirect impact on your VO2 max levels by nourishing your body so it can train harder. As of now, there’s no way to increase your VO2 max just by taking supplements11 As the saying goes “No pain, no gain” which means there’s really no other way to increase your VO2 max except with proper training.
- Importance of Assessing Cardiorespiratory Fitness in Clinical Practice: A Case for Fitness as a Clinical Vital Sign[AHA Scientific Statement]
- How Much Can You Improve Your V02 Max?[Cathe]
- Tompuri T1,2, Lintu N2, Savonen K1,3, Laitinen T1, Laaksonen D4, Jääskeläinen J5, Lakka TA1,2,3. Measures of cardiorespiratory fitness in relation to measures of body size and composition among children.[PubMed]
- Astorino, Todd A; Allen, Ryan P; Roberson, Daniel W; Jurancich, Matt. Effect of High-Intensity Interval Training on Cardiovascular Function, V̇o2max, and Muscular Force[Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research]
- BORIS GOJANOVIC1,2, REBECCA SHULTZ3 , FRANCOIS FEIHL4 , and GORDON MATHESON1. Overspeed HIIT in Lower-Body Positive Pressure Treadmill Improves Running Performance[Stanford Medicine. Department of Orthopaedic Surgery]
- Vanhatalo A1, Bailey SJ, Blackwell JR, DiMenna FJ, Pavey TG, Wilkerson DP, Benjamin N, Winyard PG, Jones AM. Acute and chronic effects of dietary nitrate supplementation on blood pressure and the physiological responses to moderate-intensity and incremental exercise.[PubMed]
- Sachan DS1, Hongu N. Increases in VO2max and metabolic markers of fat oxidation by caffeine, carnitine, and choline supplementation in rats.[Pubmed]
- Geiß KR1, Jester I, Falke W, Hamm M, Waag KL.The effect of a taurine-containing drink on performance in 10 endurance-athletes.[PubMed]
- Milosz Czuba,1,Adam Zajac,1,Stanislaw Poprzecki,2,Jaroslaw Cholewa,1,and Scott Woska3, Effects of Sodium Phosphate Loading on Aerobic Power and Capacity in off Road Cyclists[PMC]
- How Much Rest Should I Take During Vo2 Max Workouts[Runner’s Connect]
- Michael Huckabee. Can supplements make you a better athlete?[UNMC Newsroom]