Vo2 max is a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during exercise. It’s also called peak oxygen uptake, maximal oxygen uptake, or maximal aerobic capacity. Tests that measure Vo2 max are considered the gold standard for measuring cardiovascular fitness.

In the following video, you can see an example of a Vo2 max test performed on a treadmill.

Elite athletes in aerobic sports usually have high Vo2 maxes. Increasing your VO2 improves your potential of performing at a high level in your sport. However, it isn’t the only factor that determines success. Other factors such as lactate threshold and muscular endurance also play an important role in maximizing performance.

Even if you’re not an athlete, improving your Vo2 max can potentially improve your overall health. Low levels of cardiovascular fitness correlate with an increased risk of heart disease. Increasing your overall levels of cardiovascular fitness is associated with benefits such as:

In this article, we’re going to look at how you can improve your Vo2 max. We’ll also provide you with sample workouts to help get you started.

You can increase your Vo2 max in two ways: by increasing the amount of blood your heart can pump and by increasing how much oxygen your muscles can take up. The following tips may help you develop these two components.

1. Exercise at a high intensity

You can train your Vo2 max most efficiently by working at a high intensity. Many running coaches recommend training at around 90 to 95 percent of your maximum heart rate.

Working near your max heart rate helps strengthen the muscles in your heart and increase the volume of blood it can pump with each beat.

You can approximate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220.

2. Train in intervals

A 2013 review of studies found that interval training produces slightly better Vo2 max improvements than continuous aerobic exercise. Interval training consists of alternating short periods of high-intensity activity with periods of rest.

3. Combine interval and continuous training

Incorporating both continuous training and interval training in your workout program may be more effective than only performing one of the two.

Many of the studies that have found the largest increase in Vo2 max have used a 10-week training program consisting of six workouts per week.

In the studies, participants performed intervals and continuous running on alternate days.

On interval days, they performed six 5-minute sessions on a stationary bike at a workload close to their Vo2 max separated by 2 minutes of recovery between each interval.

On continuous running days, participants ran as far as possible for 30 minutes per day the first week, 35 minutes the second week, and for at least 40 minutes during the remaining weeks.

It’s worth noting that this program is quite intense and is only suitable for people who are already fit. In the first study to use this program, participants continued to see increases in Vo2 max at the end of the study, but participants started to drop out because of the difficulty of the training.

4. Keep challenging yourself

When you first start trying to increase your Vo2 max, virtually any type of endurance training will likely have a positive effect. As you get more well-trained, the gains will come slower and you’ll have to train at a higher level to continue improving.

You can make your training harder by increasing how often you work out, the duration of your workout, or how fast you move during the exercise.

5. Find Your 5K and 10K times

If you’re a runner, you may find it helpful to know how fast you can run 5 kilometers and 10 kilometers. The pace that you can run these two distances roughly correlates with the pace you need to run at to achieve 90 to 95 percent of your max heart rate.

6. Learn how to find your functional threshold power (FTP)

If you’re a cyclist, you may find it helpful to find your functional threshold power (FTP). Your FTP is defined as the highest amount of power you can sustain for an hour. You can use it to determine how hard you should be working when trying to improve your Vo2 max.

You can find your FTP by performing a test on a bike that has a power meter. After your warm-up, ride as hard as you can for 20 minutes. You can subtract 5 percent from this power score to find an estimate of your FTP.

Here’s two examples of how you could set up a Vo2 max workout for running or cycling.

Running workout

  1. Start with a warm-up consisting of easy jogging and dynamic mobility.
  2. Run as far as you can in four minutes and record the distance.
  3. Rest for four minutes.
  4. Run the same distance 15 percent slower for your remaining four reps.

For example, if your distance for the first interval was one mile, you would run your remaining four trials in 4 minutes and 36 seconds.

Cycling workout

  1. Start with a warm-up of 15 minutes of easy cycling.
  2. Ride at a harder pace for 15 minutes, but easy enough that you can still hold a conversation.
  3. Perform five intervals between 3 to 5 minutes in duration at an intensity that raises your heart rate to 90 to 95 percent of your max.
  4. Finish with 10 minutes of easy cycling to cool down.

If you’re currently inactive, you’ll likely notice improvements in your aerobic capacity in about four to six weeks after you start training.

The fitter you are, the longer it will take to see an increase in your Vo2 max. To continue making progress, you’ll need to make your workouts harder. To continue challenging yourself, you can increase the intensity, distance, or frequency of your workouts.

According to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements, few supplements directly improve athletic performance. Many supplements marketed to improve Vo2 max or endurance base their claims on inconclusive or conflicting evidence.

Some supplements may help support an otherwise well-structured training plan, but they shouldn’t be used to replace a balanced meal plan.

Some commonly taken supplements for aerobic exercise include:

  • Beetroot juice. Beetroot juice is thought to have the potential to lower blood pressure and increase aerobic exercise performance. However, its effects on VO2 max aren’t clear at this time. A 2019 study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science found that 70 ml of beetroot juice given to 20 recreationally active participants didn’t affect the participants’ VO2 max.
  • Iron. Regular exercise depletes iron levels. Iron is needed for your red blood cells to transport oxygen. If you’re low in iron, taking an iron supplement may help improve your VO2max. If you’re not low in iron, it’s unlikely to improve performance.
  • Beta-Alanine. Some research has found that beta-alanine may be effective at increasing your performance in exercises that last for between one and four minutes. It’s not clear if it can help increase your Vo2 max. A 2018 study found that four weeks of beta-alanine supplementation didn’t significantly increase the Vo2 max of water polo players.

Vo2 max is most accurately measured in a lab. During a Vo2 max test, you wear a special face mask that measures the amount of air you breathe in and breath out while you exercise. You work at progressively harder intervals until you reach your limit.

Typically, the test is performed while you ride a stationary bike or run on a treadmill. But several other variations may be used to replicate sport-specific conditions.

Going to a lab to measure your Vo2 max may not be practical if you’re not a high-performance athlete. You can get a close approximation of your VO2 by looking at your race time for a certain distance. This calculator can approximate your Vo2 max from any distance run over 1.5 kilometers (0.93 miles).

Some fitness watches may provide a Vo2 max estimate based on your heart rate. The accuracy varies by company. The Finnish company Firstbeat conducted a study looking at their technology and found that it’s about 95 percent accurate for calculating Vo2 max.

If you’re an athlete in an aerobic sport, increasing your Vo2 max may help you perform at a higher level. Many sports coaches and personal trainers can help you build a program to optimize your training. Many academic labs or private labs offer Vo2 max testing to get an accurate result.

Even if you’re not an athlete, you may still benefit from working with a trainer or other fitness professional. Many people find working with a trainer helps them stay motivated and makes training more fun.

Your Vo2 max is a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise. The best way to increase your Vo2 max is to exercise near your maximum heart rate.

Elite athletes in endurance sports usually have remarkably high Vo2 maxes. Even if you’re not an athlete, increasing your Vo2 max can help you improve your cardiovascular health.