VO2max is the key measure of cardio fitness. The higher your VO2max, the fitter and healthier you are. VO2max stands for volume, oxygen, maximum—it’s the max rate of oxygen consumption measured during exercise.
Why is VO2max important?
When exercising, there are 2 main energy systems that your body can use—aerobic and anaerobic. Whereas your aerobic energy system can deliver fuel for hours, your anaerobic system can deliver fuel for only a few minutes.
Any training that lasts more than a few minutes is an aerobic activity, during which the oxygen your muscles receive from your cardiovascular system becomes the main fuel. If your muscles don’t receive enough oxygen, your body switches to an anaerobic energy system and can no longer sustain the same level of effort for longer periods.
This means that if you want to increase the length of your training and improve your performance, the maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) is the metric you should start tracking.
In addition to boosting performance, research shows that high VO2max can increase longevity along with additional health benefits. In fact, improving your VO2max by just 12% is like turning your body clock back 10 years.
How to measure VO2max
Your VO2max is a measure of how fit you are, and it depends on a number of factors including age, gender, and fitness level.
To get an accurate measure of your VO2max, you’ve got to get on a treadmill or a stationary bike in a laboratory setting. Typically, you’ll wear a mask over your face to record your oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production while engaging in cardiovascular exercise.
The challenge with VO2max is that there’s no way to accurately track it outside the lab, so you can’t actually use this data to develop your daily training plan based on it. However, some home fitness equipment, such as CAROL Bike, have built-in fitness trackers so you can evaluate your progress after each session.
Accurately tack your VO2max with CAROL Bike's built-in fitness trackers.
What you need to know before increasing your VO2 max
Your VO2max improves when your heart muscle becomes stronger and is able to deliver larger amounts of oxygenated blood to your muscles with every heartbeat. Generally, the less fit you are, the more easily and quickly you will see improvement. If you’re just a beginner, you’ll likely notice improvements in your aerobic capacity in about 4–6 weeks after you start training. A 2017 study showed that VO2max is 50% defined by our genetics. Elite athletes often hit their physiological and genetic limits, making it very hard for them to progress further. Regardless of your efforts, VO2max declines by about 10% every decade after the age of 30.
Here are 7 actionable steps to improve your VO2max:
1. High-intensity interval training
A 2013 study found that interval workouts improve VO2max faster than continuous aerobic exercise. Interval training consists of alternating short periods of high-intensity exercise with periods of rest that better train your heart muscle. Although there are many different types of interval training, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is one of the most efficient approaches to increase VO2max. With HIIT, you work out at 90–95% of your max heart rate capacity during short periods, usually under 2 minutes. Training at the limit of your capacity strengthens your heart muscle and increases blood oxygen delivery, contributing to a better result.
2. Reduced exertion HIIT
Reduced exertion HIIT (REHIT) is the next-level HIIT workout—it gives you double the health benefits compared to regular exercise in just 10% of the time. REHIT is the most effective way to improve your cardiovascular fitness—you can increase your VO2max by 12% in just 8 weeks. CAROL Bike is the only home REHIT exercise bike, with AI-personalization and Instant Resistance. Offering the shortest, most effective workouts, CAROL Bike lets you pack a 45-minute cycling session into just 5 minutes. Read more about the science behind CAROL here.
REHIT is the most effective way to improve your cardiovascular fitness.
CAROL Bike can increase your VO2max by 12% in just 8 weeks.
3. Diversify your training
Although the HIIT and REHIT protocols show the most efficient results in terms of improving your aerobic fitness, it is important to include other types of training in your workout routine as well. First of all, in order to improve VO2max, it’s important to exercise regularly. While best practice is 2–3 REHIT sessions per week, on other days you can focus on strength and long endurance training. Some studies found that the greatest VO2max increase happened during a program of 6 workouts per week. Long endurance training may not sound exciting, but it’s an important base to protect you from overtraining during your HIIT and REHIT practice. Don’t forget about resistance workouts. Building muscle mass is crucial to improve performance during endurance training. Research published in the European Review of Aging and Physical Activity finds a direct correlation between resistance training and an increase in VO2max in young and older subjects alike.
4. Challenge yourself with fitness goals
As we already mentioned, the easiest way to keep track of your VO2max outside of the lab is to measure the time and pace of your training. If you are a runner, you can halve your personal best time for running a mile and run this amount of time at 95% of your aerobic capacity. Alternatively, you can learn how fast you can run 5 or 10 kilometers and use this pace as a target metric for training at your maximum oxygen consumption level. If you are a cyclist, you are probably familiar with the FTP metric. FTP stands for Functional Threshold Power, which is the highest average power you can sustain for approximately an hour. FTP is useful for determining how hard you should be working when trying to increase your VO2max. You can find your FTP by performing a test on a bike with a power meter. After your warm-up, ride as hard as you can for 20 minutes and then subtract 5% from this power score to get your FTP result. CAROL Bike’s AI technology personalizes your workouts for you, so you can hit your maximum intensity every time. It also offers a range of fitness tests for calculating your FTP.
5. Give yourself time to recover
When you have a goal in mind, it can be tempting to skip rest. But overtraining can increase your risk of injury and negatively impact performance, so it’s important to allow your muscles enough time to recover. Physiological changes that improve your VO2max happen only during the recovery time between the workouts. If you start your next workout too soon, you won’t see any significant progress. The results may even get worse if your body doesn’t have enough energy. After a relatively light workout, your muscles may be able to recover in 24 hours, but it can take up to 72 hours for more challenging workouts. Taking regular rest days is a critical part of your progress. The good news is that research shows that the higher your VO2max gets, the less time you need for a proper recovery. Your sleep quality is an important part of rest, too. A good night’s sleep is the base of your performance, so aim for at least 7–8 hours per night. You can improve the quality of your sleep by sticking to the best practices in your sleeping routine: go to bed around the same time every night and wake up around the same time every morning, stop using screens 30 minutes before bedtime, and avoid caffeinated beverages after midday.
Don't forget: taking regular rest days is a critical part of your progress.
6. Get rid of excess body weight
The negative correlation between VO2max and body weight is confirmed by multiple studies: the more extra weight participants had, the lower their VO2max. Getting rid of extra weight will increase your body’s ability to perform endurance exercise and achieve better results.
Although regular training contributes to keeping you in shape, it is not enough on its own. To lose weight, you will need to focus on a holistic approach to weight loss.
7. Switch to a healthier lifestyle
To run such an intense workout program in the long term, your body needs to get a quality source of fuel and be well rested. Incorporating healthier habits into your daily lifestyle will give you more energy for your fitness goals.
Make sure these meals exclude sugar, simple carbs, and trans fats while incorporating more fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. Some research has found that a high-fat diet is the most efficient type of diet to increase VO2max, so you may consider adding more unsaturated fats from olive oil, nuts, and avocado to your meals. Drink water throughout the day to stay well hydrated, too.
Supplements that can help you improve your VO2max faster are omega-3, beetroot powder, iron, and beta-alanine.
VO2max is the gold standard for measuring your maximum aerobic capacity. It has a great effect not only on your endurance and performance but also on your cardiovascular health. The best way to increase VO2max is to exercise near your maximum heart rate, and the easiest way to do this is with CAROL Bike’s signature REHIT workouts.