Understanding how to increase VO2 max is crucial for optimizing cardiovascular fitness. 

Yet, many fitness buffs know little about what VO2 max is, or why it’s important.

If you’re in the dark, this is the article for you.

In it, you’ll learn everything you need to know about VO2 max, including what VO2 max is, why it’s important, how to measure it, how to improve your VO2 max, how long the process takes, and more. 

What Is VO2 Max?

VO2 max, or “volume of oxygen maximum,” is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during intense exercise, measured in milliliters of oxygen used in one minute per kilogram of body weight (mL/kg/min).

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Why Is VO2 Max Important?

Oxygen plays a pivotal role in creating adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy currency of our cells.

During aerobic exercise, our muscles rely on oxygen to convert glucose, glycogen, and stored fat into ATP so that our muscles can function.

The higher your VO2 max, the more oxygenated blood your heart can pump to your muscles and the more ATP you can produce, which translates into better endurance performance. 

A high VO2 max isn’t just an indicator of your cardiovascular fitness level—it’s also linked to longevity.

Research shows an efficient cardiovascular system, signified by a high VO2 max, is associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases and increased longevity.

How to Measure VO2 Max

  • Lab tests: A lab VO2 max test involves running on a treadmill or cycling on a stationary bike at progressively harder intensities until you can’t continue. While you exercise, you wear a mask connected to a “metabolic cart,” a machine that measures the gasses you inhale and exhale. Although precise, this method isn’t the most convenient or accessible.
  • Estimation tests: Tests, including the Rockport walk test, 1.5-mile run/walk test, Cooper VO2 max test, and YMCA cycle test, can help you establish your VO2 max. These tests estimate your VO2 max based on factors such as how long you take to complete the test, your heart rate, the distance you cover, and your power output. 
  • Fitness Watches: Some modern fitness watches use your heart rate, pace, and effort level during workouts to provide an estimate of your VO2 max.

How to Increase Your VO2 Max

Below are three training strategies to boost your VO2 max. 

Each requires you to train at different percentages of your maximum heart rate (the fastest rate your heart can beat in one minute, also called “MHR”).

To use percentages of your MHR in your training, here’s what you need to do:

  1. Determine Your MHR: Estimate your MHR by subtracting your age from 220. For example, if you are 30 years old, your estimated MHR would be 190 beats per minute (bpm).
  2. Calculate Training Intensity: Divide the intensity percentage by 100, then multiply the answer by your MHR. For instance, if the workout requires 80% intensity and your MHR is 190 bpm, do the following math: (80 ÷ 100) x 190 = 152 bpm. 
  3. Monitor Your Heart Rate: Use a heart rate monitor during workouts to stay within the target range.

Now let’s discuss the strategies.

1. Do high-intensity interval training. 

Doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is crucial for improving VO2 max. 

Unlike typical HIIT workouts, where intervals are relatively short (usually measured in seconds), intervals should be slightly longer when training to improve VO2 max (usually 3-to-8 minutes).

For beginners, a “4 x 4” workout is a solid starting point: Do a 4-minute bout of cardio exercise, such as running, swimming, or cycling, at about 90% of MHR, followed by 3 minutes of active recovery at 50-to-70% of MHR. Repeat 4 times for a total of 28 minutes of exercise.

As you get more advanced, lengthen the intervals or increase the number of rounds you complete to continue improving.

Workouts like this are intense, so you should only do them once weekly. 

2. Do low-intensity steady-state workouts.

While many looking to improve VO2 max focus solely on HIIT, experienced running coaches and endurance athletes know that’s just one piece of the puzzle.

To boost VO2 max optimally, you must also do longer workouts at a lower intensity, often referred to as “zone 2” workouts, in which you train at 60-to-70% of MHR.

For best results, do two-to-three 30-to-45-minutes zone 2 workouts weekly. 

3. Incorporate tempo runs.

For trained athletes, tempo, or “threshold,” runs are another effective strategy to improve VO2 max. 

During a tempo run, keep your heart rate at around 80% of MHR for a sustained period. 

This strategy increases your “lactate threshold” (the point during exercise at which lactate begins to accumulate in the blood faster than your body can remove it), enabling your muscles to function effectively even when lactic acid builds up.

An improved lactate threshold often goes hand-in-hand with a better VO2 max since it enables you to maintain high-intensity effort for longer.

Here’s an example tempo run workout:

  • Warm-up: 3 minutes
  • Zone 2 pace: 10 minutes
  • Tempo pace: 20-to-30 minutes
  • Zone 2 pace: 10 minutes

If you’re an experienced endurance athlete, do a tempo run workout every 1-to-3 weeks. 

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How Long Does it Take to Improve VO2 Max?

Having grasped how to improve VO2 max, most people’s minds turn to how long to improve VO2 max.

Unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer—it depends on your current fitness level.

Beginners and those getting back into exercise may see improvements in VO2 max in as little as 4 weeks of regular training. 

On the other hand, if you’re already in good shape, increasing your VO2 max might take longer and require progressively more challenging training over several months or even years.