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VO2 Max: what it is, how it is calculated and what devices show

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One of the main metrics we can find today on any watch is VO2 Max (or maximum oxygen consumption). Regardless of the brand, everyone shows it in one way or another as an indication of your fitness level.

But as every performance metric, you need to understand what it is and where it comes from, so you can make the most out of it. It won't help you having a lot of data on your watch if you don't know what they mean or how you can benefit from them.

What is VO2 Max

The first thing you need to understand is what the VO2 Max is and what it means for your performance as an athlete. As in the vast majority of the data we handle, it is a way to describe our fitness level quickly and with a single number.

VO2 Max indicates the maximum rate of oxygen consumption that our body is able to absorb, transport and consume. It is expressed in the amount of milliliters of oxygen per kilo consumed by the body per minute.

Suunto 3 Fitness - VO2Max

What does the image above indicate? That the watch has estimated the maximum oxigen that my body is capable of consume, but we will go to that point later.

Generally speaking t is a fairly indicative value of our fitness and what our performance will be. But it should also be borne in mind that it is not a value that can be compared so lightly between different subjects because weight is also a factor to be taken into account (remember, milliliters of oxygen per kilo of body weight).

Likewise, in general the value of VO2 Max is higher in men than in women, and generally the rate decreases with age.

Values above 40ml/kg/min in men and above 35 ml/kg/min in women are generally considered acceptable, but they are far from what a professional athlete can achieve. Here are some examples of the highest VO2max values ever recorded and the sport they practice:

  • Oskar Svendsen: VO2 Max 97,5 ml/kg/min. Cyclist.
  • Espen Harald Bjerke: VO2 Max 96 ml/kg/min. Cross country skiing.
  • Bjørn Dæhlie: VO2 Max 96 ml/kg/min. Cross country skiing.
  • Kurt Asle Arvesen: VO2 Max 93 ml/kg/min. Cyclist.
  • Greg LeMond: VO2 Max 92,5 ml/kg/min. Cyclist.
  • Kilian Jornet: VO2 Max 92 ml/kg/min. Ultra distance runner.
  • Matt Carpenter: VO2 Max 92 ml/kg/min. Ultra distance runner.

Yes, it's funny that the top of the list it's taken by Scandinavian sportsmen.

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Now that you're clear about VO2 Max, let's see how it's calculated in the lab.

How is a VO2 Max test?

When it comes to obtaining a VO2 Max figure we can do it in two different ways: a lab test to obtain the real value, or estimate it through other tests or obtaining it from different data.

In the case of an elite athlete, of course, the only value that will matter will be the one obtained in the lab by direct measurements. Doing such a test is simple, as long as we are not the ones who are performing the test (because yes, such a test is painful...).

In this test the athlete breathes through a spirometer, thus obtaining the maximum oxygen consumption value.

Spirometry is the only way to obtain this measurement directly. Everything else will be indirect estimates.

We can perform a series of tests such as the Course Navette test or the Cooper test. But if we have a watch that will also estimate it... let's say that relying on our device is going to hurt you less.

How to calculate your VO2 Max

Below I will explain what are the main methods you can use, although as I said if you have a GPS watch you will already have it integrated into it and it will be updated regularly in all your workouts. However, it doesn't hurt to know some of the ways you can do the calculation on your own to contrast what the watch says or simply suffer a little bit.

Cooper test

It is the most common and simple way of doing it because of what it entails (not because it's easy to do it). We must run for 12 minutes trying to cover as much distance as possible. To do this, the terrain must be completely flat and without having to make turns that distort the result. So a track is what makes sense for this kind of test.

Once the test has been completed and with the total distance travelled, you can apply the following formula to get the estimated value of your VO2 Max:

VO2 Max = 0,0268 X Distance (m) – 11,3

So imagine that in those twelve minutes you managed to travel 2.450m. The equation would be as follows:

0,0268 X 2400m -11,3 = 53,02

Your estimated VO2 Max would be 53ml/kg/min.

Course Navette test

To perform the Course Navette test you need to do it along with a special audio. I will not dwell long on this test because of the complications it presents when it comes to performing it.

It's a maximum and progressive test. You need 20 meters to be able to run, and we must travel the distance depending on the tone of the audio. The time between the tones will get shorter and shorter, and there will come a time when we will no longer be able to travel the 20 meters in the specified time frame.

The goal is to make the maximum number of intervals until we can no longer complete an interval within the time set. At that point you will be able to calculate the VO2 max using a formula, starting from the speed of that last series you have managed to complete. But to do this you have to remember which series you have no longer been able to reach the end and look for speed in a table.

VO2 Max = 5,857 X Speed (km/h) – 19,458

Considering that it's going to hurt as much as the Cooper test, the Course Navette test seems much less practical to me.

Rockport test

Finally, there is the Rockport test, designed for those who are not able to run for 12 minutes. But you need more data to remember, like heart rate.

You will have to travel a mile (1,609m) walking as fast as you can, and note how long it took you to travel it. Once done, you must apply the following formula:

VO2 Max = 132,6 – (0,17 X weight) – (0,39 X age) + (6,31 X gender) – (3,27 x time) – (0,156 x HR)

In the equation you need to enter the values for each calculation, taking into account that when accounting for gender you must replace with 0 if you are a man and 1 if you are a woman.

So, if you're a man weighing 75 kg and 30 years old, and it took you to walk the mile 14 minutes with an average heart rate of 130, the result would be:

132.6 - (0.17X75) - (0.39X30) - (6.31X0) - (3.27X12) - (0.156X130) =

132,6 – 12,75 – 11,7 – 0 – 39,24 – 20,28 = 48,63

Your estimated VO2 Max would be 48ml/kg/min.

 

In short, if I have to choose one of the three, I will choose the Cooper test. It will "hurt", but it is the easiest to perform and calculate of the three options.

How GPS watches and devices estimate VO2 Max

But as I said, the VO2 Max estimation is something that is already present in the vast majority of watches on the market. Regardless of the brand, they all display it in one way or another. Some call it VO2 Max directly (such as Garmin or Suunto), others refer to it as Running Index (Polar). But ultimately they all indicate the same thing.

What you do need to know is how the watch comes to that calculation. It is performed taking into account the values of activity: pace, heart rate and physical values of each person (age, weight, height, etc.). And for those who calculate cycling VO2max, instead of speed they will use power.

But keep in mind that it's an estimation, not your real value. And it also depends on your previous training, because it adjusts and learns from the user over time.

In short, it is an algorithm that determines that if you are able to run at an X pace, with a Y heart rate and with values A, B and C of age, height and weight; then it is because your VO2 Max is of a certain number. And it does so in addition to obtaining that value through the algorithm, comparing it also with known values of other users on equal terms.

So to have an accurate metric, the first thing you need to confirm is that your gender, age, height and weight data is well configured on the watch. You may have lost weight or gained it, or you skipped the part of setting up the profile and it thinks you were born in 1750... It's an important part of the algorithm and must correct.

The next thing to note is that the heart rate data should be correct. Therefore you need that your Heart rate monitor is accurate. If your watch's optical sensor doesn't work well, or you train without heart rate values, a fundamental part of estimating the value will be missing.

Once we have that value of VO2 Max and depending on the watch you have, then it will provide you with a number of additional information. For example, the estimation of times for a given distance.

I hope I was able to clarify a little more about what the VO2 Max is and what and why it is the data you see on your watch. If you have any questions about it, you can use the comments below to resolve it. Thanks for reading!

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18 Comments

  1. That is, if you do race walking as in my case, it calculates it wrong, because it will think that I run too slowly. If we knew the calculation algorithm, we could adapt it approximately taking into account that the 10k world record (37.44) in walking is 1.42 times the 10k time (26.27) in running.
    I don't think it's enough to multiply by 1.42, because it would be 63.9 which is a huge amount (I'm very amateur), but 1TP10We could make an approximation using a Rockport Test, which consists of measuring the time to run one mile (1609 meters) walking as fast as possible (marching?) and taking into account heart rate, age, weight... In my case, it is 50.83 VO2 max.
    Considering that the Garmin tells me I am 44, let's say 1TP10We can adjust the Garmin in running to a walker by multiplying by 1.15.

    1. Garmin uses the Firstbeat algorithm, which calculates VO2 Max for both walking and running, but as you say race walking is something that falls somewhere in between the two... so I wouldn't trust what the automatic algorithm says.

      1. Hi, Eduardo:
        Interesting article, congratulations.
        Which one uses Polar (I have the Vantage M and 36 years old) or is it the same Firstbeat? Before the forties, I had a rather unstable training time, i.e. seasons of more training and others of little or nothing (all at amateur level and without great pretensions). The most striking thing is that I always kept my VO2 max 45 (?).
        Thank you very much for your time, lots of temperance these days and a cordial greeting with the corresponding safety distance 😉.

  2. Indeed Eduardo, but the Firstbeat algorithm is not public, so we cannot use it....
    But back to walking, to try to refine VO2max for people like me who do it without pretensions, another way to try to approximate it is to use firstbeat's race prediction tables that you can see in their public document about their method (https://assets.firstbeat.com/firstbeat/uploads/2017/06/white_paper_VO2max_30.6.2017.pdf).
    Making a ratio of time in 10k running to race (using as reference the world records of both specialties) 1TP10We can see what would be our estimation of 10k in race. In my case, I do the 10k in 1:02 h, which taken to race would be 43:30 or so, which taken to the firstbeat table would be equivalent to about 47 VO2max. Since Garmin tells me 44, it would be equivalent to 1.07 times.
    Averaging this equivalence with that of the Rockport test, the "real" value for the gait would be that given by Garmin (and others) multiplied by 1.11, in my case from 44 to 48.84.
    All alleged 😉

  3. The Garmin one does not work well at all.
    To me it predicts to date (I had two months with the watch, before it was even worse, now it has been adjusted more), for example, a time in 5k of 18'43", when I have already done a training in 18' and I have competed in 17'36". And in 10k it predicts 40'03" and the same thing happens, in several races I have run around 38'. But the worst thing is that if I go to the "View personal records" screen, it recognizes them as such.
    How is it possible that your predictions are worse than what has already been done and recorded with the watch itself?

  4. It is perfectly explained. Thank you Eduardo. I am a physicist and the formulas are correct.
    Thanks for the clarification ????????????

  5. Hello Eduardo, first of all thank you for your work. It is a great help a website like this. I have a doubt when you say that in other brands the VO2 is the same as the running index. I usually train with Polar (M430) and my Runnig Index is 51 (according to my last session on 12/03) and in the Fitness Test (on 28/03) it tells me that my VO2 is 58.

    Thank you and a greeting!

    Manuel

    1. There are two ways of measuring. The Fitness Test should tell you your theoretical VO2Max, while the Running Index tells you your estimated VO2Max for that training session.

  6. Hi, Eduardo,

    Do you know if it is normal that my VO2max has dropped a lot after changing the Garmin 820 for the 1030? From that day on, both running and cycling my VO2max has dropped a lot and the recovery times indicated by Garmin are very high: before the normal was 15-22 hours and now I get 3-4 days.
    I haven't changed anything else, the bpm hasn't changed either.
    Something may need to be adjusted on the new device or it may require some time to store information.
    Thank you very much in advance for your help.
    Greetings.

    1. If you have just changed device it is normal, it has to collect the data and "get to know you". With the heat these days it is normal that the performance is not the same. You need a period of about a month to have accurate data, doing varied workouts.

  7. I have a FR245 (your Black Friday offer from Germany), as I have seen for cycling you need a power sensor that I do not have and that apparently is not compatible either. Do sports profiles calculate Vo2max directly with the watch? I don't run, but I see that it shows 46, I understand that it could be because of the walks.
    Another doubt that maybe this is not its place, maybe in the podcast, what would you recommend as a "starter kit" to start running from scratch? (Shoes, clothes, ...).

    1. The VO2Max on the FR245 is only for running (even if in your case I estimated it through some walking). If you wanted to have a value in cycling, you would indeed need both: power meter and a device that supports it.

      As for running from scratch, certainly in the podcast 1TP10We could talk more about it, so I encourage you to send your question from https://www.correrunamaraton.com/podcastis something that 1TP10We will address in some episode.

      1. For the time being I will be satisfied with the value I get from walking, until I decide on the issue of running.
        I have already launched the proposal for the podcast, along with a consultation.

  8. Hi, very good note on Vo2max, I use polar vantage v watch with polar h10 band pulsometer, before the pandemic my vo2max was 82 vo2max and I stopped for a whole year, and now I am back since october 2020 starting with 48 vo2max and now I am with 67 vo2max, very good system and little margin of errors. Regards

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