VO2max is a measure that indicates the maximum capacity at which the heart, lungs and muscles can absorb oxygen. This is measured in liters per minute or, in the case of weight-bearing activities such as cycling, in milliliters per kilogram of body weight per minute.
The concept of VO2max is shortened to “V,” which stands for volume, “O2,” which stands for oxygen, and “Max,” which stands for maximum. So it indicates the maximum volume a person can take in oxygen within a given time interval. It is a crucial detail to understand that this is the maximum amount of oxygen that can be used for energy-generating processes in the muscles. It is not the maximum amount of oxygen that can be inhaled or transported, but rather the maximum amount of oxygen that can ultimately be used by the muscles after uptake.
It is important to note that while VO2max can be a useful measure of athletic performance, it is only part of the story. VO2max focuses specifically on the ability to take in and use oxygen, but does not take into account other important aspects of athletic ability, such as muscle strength, endurance, technique, tactics and mental toughness.
VO2max is an important indicator of a cyclist’s physiological capacity, but you cannot take it as the sole measure of success. In practice, there are examples of riders with very high VO2max values who did not necessarily become top cyclists. This highlights that while VO2max is a crucial component, cycling performance does not rely solely on physiological factors.
Is your VO2max trainable?
The VO2max can indeed be trained contrary to what exercise physiologists used to think. Because humans are very trainable aerobically and the VO2max says something about the maximum aerobic capacity, this is actually quite logical. That is why we also see in the research literature that the VO2max is not only trainable with high-intensity blocks around the VO2max, but also with long easy endurance rides. In the end, the right combination of the two will cause the most progression.
It is also important to note that while virtually all people are aerobically trainable, the degree to which VO2max can be improved is, in many ways, determined by the individual’s genetic predisposition. Thus, some people may see greater improvements than others, but practically speaking, any form of regular physical activity that is challenging to the cardiovascular system will lead to some improvement in VO2max.
What is a high VO2max?
Although VO2max can vary based on several factors including age, gender, athletic background and general physical fitness, the following values are generally accepted in the sports world as indicative of a high VO2max:
Average male cyclists typically have a VO2max of about 50-80 ml/kg/min. For elite professionals, VO2max is often found much higher, with values closer to 70-85 ml/kg/min and reportedly even higher than 90 ml/kg/min in some notable cases. Below is a overview of rather exceptional values. We do not vouch for the quality of these values. Perhaps also important to note is that high values from people who have once achieved otherwise athletic feats are likely to go unnoticed by the general public. This is also known as publication bias.
How to measure VO2max
Measuring a VO2max is usually performed in a controlled environment such as a sports laboratory. During this test, the load is rapidly increased in a so-called ramp protocol. The goal is to reach a point within a short time, usually between 5 to 8 minutes, where the participant can no longer continue. This involves measuring oxygen intake and output through a breathing mask and breath analysis equipment.
At the beginning of the test, the tester makes an assessment of the person’s abilities to correctly set the rate of load increase. If the effort is increased too slowly, there is a chance that the participant will become fatigued before the true VO2max is reached.
What makes the measurement specific is that one measures the concentration of inhaled and exhaled gases, namely oxygen and carbon dioxide. This is done by analyzing the participant’s breath each moment. This gives insight into how much oxygen is taken up and used for energy-generating processes in the muscles.
Percentage of men by age group VO2max in (ml.kg-1.min-1) (1)
Percentage of women by age group VO2max in (ml.kg-1.min-1) (1)
What good is knowing what your VO2max is?
Actually, not much. With a very low VO2max you will not be able to become a professional cyclist, but with a very high VO2max it is not said that you will become a successful cyclist or athlete. In fact, it is just one of many conditions that determine how good a person is athletically. In addition, if you do regular VO2max tests in a laboratory, you could measure whether your training approach is working. At least if the goal of those workouts is to increase your VO2max. Beyond the fact that this would be a rather limited training goal, there is also the question of what sport this is important for. More interesting in cycling, for example, is how well you are able to convert that Vo2max into power and ultimately speed. So it is actually the world upside down to convert power or running speed to VO2max, so that VO2max can then say something about one’s athletic performance.
If you still want to calculate what your VO2max should be approximately then we explain everything about it on this page including a few tools to get started right away.
Reference values VO2max
- Kaminsky, Leonard A.; Arena, Ross; Myers, Jonathan; Peterman, James E.; Bonikowske, Amanda R.; Harber, Matthew P.; Medina Inojosa, Jose R.; Lavie, Carl J.; Squires, Ray W. (2022). “Updated Reference Standards for Cardiorespiratory Fitness Measured with Cardiopulmonary Exercise Testing”. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 97 (2): 285–293. doi:10.1016/j.mayocp. 2021.08.020. PMI 34809986.