How To Improve VO2 Max – The Most Efficient VO2 Workouts

How To Improve VO2 Max – The Most Efficient VO2 Workouts

In this article, CARE will dive deep into the spheres of your VO2 max and how to improve it. Especially athletes and sports enthusiasts wish to improve their volume of oxygen, and we’ll let you know how you can achieve this, based on facts and science.

Blog Author Elena Health Coach at CARE
Elena Iagovitina

Health Coach

Published in Activity
9 min read · Sep 29, 2023

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How to Improve VO2 Max With Tailored VO2 Max Workouts

Our VO2 max is considered one of the most important physiological indicators to determine our cardiovascular and aerobic fitness levels. But what exactly does this rather cryptic abbreviation refer to?

VO2 stands for “Volume of Oxygen.” and is sometimes simultaneously called “peak oxygen uptake.” Both terms refer to the maximum oxygen intake that our body can utilize during a specific amount of time, that being usually one minute, while engaged in physical activity or exercise. [1]

A Dream Team – VO2 Max & The Cardiovascular System

There are many reasons why we should strive to increase VO2 max, but at the top of that list stands our cardiovascular health. When we increase VO2 max values, scientific studies state that an improvement in our cardiovascular system and overall health might be a direct result of that. This is due to the fact that our cardiovascular system and our VO2 max are intimately connected since our cardiovascular fitness level plays a central role in determining our VO2 max.

The cardiovascular system is a complex network of organs and vessels. The blood in our body is responsible for the transport of oxygen, nutrients, hormones, and waste products throughout it. As you can imagine, the cardiovascular system, therefore, has a great impact on our overall health.

How much oxygen is utilized by our body is a crucial aspect of our human biology. Since our cardiovascular system is responsible for delivering oxygen to the muscles where it's needed during physical activity, allowing our body to utilize the best-possible amount of oxygen by having a high VO2 max can help us lead a more energetic and active lifestyle. Designated VO2 max workouts can promote overall well-being and even reduce the risk of chronic diseases. [2]

But what is considered a good VO2?

Let’s Talk Numbers – What Does A Good VO2 Look Like?

It is hard for us to improve something if we do not have a clear vision of our starting point and the end goal. So, firstly, we need to know what a desirable VO2 max looks like. To give you a more profound understanding of what a “good” VO2 max value is, we’ll give you an example:

Elite endurance athletes, such as professional cyclists, distance runners, and cross-country skiers, often have VO2 max values that range from 70 to 85 ml/kg/min, and even higher in some cases. These professional athletes have optimized their cardiovascular systems through rigorous and consistent training. But let’s be real, we can’t all be elite athletes. Still, every individual will profit from increasing their VO2 max to their personal maximum.

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The Benefits of VO2 Max Training

The advantages associated with a high VO2 max are numerous. Benefits associated with a high VO2 max include a better quality of life, improved mood, better sleep, reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and even a longer lifespan. [3]

But how come?

VO2 max workouts can improve our cardiovascular fitness, which conclusively increases the efficiency of oxygen delivery to muscles and organs in our body. A strong cardiovascular system increases our endurance and overall stamina.

Furthermore, a high VO2 max can lead to better metabolic health, which is why it can aid in weight management and reduce the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

Lastly, elevated VO2 max levels are linked to better cognitive function and mood regulation.

So, knowing how to improve VO2 max values might be a wise idea. And how exactly can you increase VO2 max?

How to Improve VO2 Max – VO2 Max Training

The amount of oxygen that is consumed by our body during physical activity or exercise is influenced and determined by several factors. We’ll now give you a brief overview of different tips on how to improve VO2 max.

1. Cardiovascular Fitness is Key

As we already know, the heart plays a central role in determining our VO2 max. After all, our heart's primary function is to pump oxygen-rich blood to the muscles and tissues of our body. During exercise, when our muscles require more oxygen to produce energy, our heart must work harder to deliver an increased amount of oxygenated blood. So how could we better increase VO2 max than by strengthening our heart? It’s like they say in the South, “Bless your heart,” – and we should really do so.

Training and strengthening your heart muscle can be achieved by VO2 max training that focuses on exercising at high intensities near our maximum heart rate. Our heart is a muscle, so if it pumps strong and for a longer period of time, it will be trained just like any other muscle in our body. Therefore, exercising near our maximum heart rate strengthens our heart muscles and increases the volume of blood it can pump with each beat. [4]

2. Interval Training – The Epitome of VO2 Max Training

A study found that we have the ability to train our VO2 max very efficiently through interval training [5]. Therefore, if we incorporate high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and VO2 max workouts into our routine by alternating between periods of intense exercise and recovery, we challenge our cardiovascular system and promote enhancing our VO2 max.

And how exactly does HIIT training work? HIIT, one of the best VO2 max training examples, involves short bursts of intense exercise where you push yourself to work at or near your maximum effort. The high-intensity bursts are followed by shorter periods of lower-intensity exercise or complete rest, followed by a recovery phase. During the recovery phase, your heart rate comes down, but not to resting levels, before the next intense interval. This is repeated several times.

3. Know Your Limit – Find Your Functional Threshold Power (FTP)

Knowing our limits when it comes to exercising can seem quite abstract and blurry. But there is one way to shine some light on our physical limitations: the FTP.

If we know our FTP, we can train more efficiently and therefore improve our VO2 max with a clear idea of our physical capabilities. FTP stands for Functional Threshold Power, and it's a common metric used in sports, especially for cyclists, to determine the intensity at which we can sustain a high effort level over an hour. Once we know our FTP, we can use it as a benchmark to set training zones and tailor our workouts to our specific fitness levels.

To determine your FTP, you can conduct a test using a bike equipped with a power meter. Following your warm-up, push yourself to your maximum effort for a continuous 20-minute ride. To estimate your FTP, subtract 5 percent from the power score you achieve during the test. E voilà, there you have your FTP.

4. Be Consistent With Challenging Yourself

Any type of high-intensity interval training, aerobic exercise, or endurance training is a good way to improve your overall health and increase VO2 max. [5]

As you keep on exercising with VO2 max workouts, you’ll notice improvements in your fitness and capabilities. Every so often, those improvements might be more noticeable than other times, and this can be frustrating, especially for sporty people who exercise regularly, since their progress becomes a little less evident with time than compared to beginners.

Keep in mind, to increase VO2 max, you’ll have to keep challenging yourself by using specific VO2 max workouts and training harder, longer and more frequently.

The Ideal VO2 Max Workouts

We’ll now give you some specific examples of efficient and effective VO2 workouts tailored to increase VO2 max:

1. Running Up That Hill – VO2 Max Training

While you blast Placebo through your headphones, running workouts where you run up a steep hill at a high intensity for 1–2 minutes is an excellent workout to improve your VO2 max.

After you have reached the top of the hill, you can walk or jog back down to allow for a recovery period. Repeat this VO2 max training for 6 – 8 rounds.

2. Life is Not a Journey, but a Treadmill – Treadmill Cycling

Cher said that nothing lifts her out of a bad mood better than a hard workout on her treadmill – and what’s right for Cher can only be right for the rest of us.

Step onto a treadmill, and warm up with easy cycling for 15 minutes. Increase your incline and speed to the extent of still being able to hold a conversation – keep this up for another 15 minutes.

Now, push those pedals and perform six intervals between 3 and 5 minutes at an intensity that raises your heart rate to 90 to 95 percent of your max. After your intervals, recover at an easy pace for another 15 minutes.

3. Fartlek Training

Fartlek Training, not to be confused with Lord Farquaad from the movie Shrek, is a form of interval training that combines continuous exercise with bursts of higher-intensity efforts. In case you wondered, the term “fartlek” is Swedish for “speed play.”

Since there are many possibilities to exercise Fartlek interval workouts, and they are more or less unstructured, we’ll give you an example:

The most straightforward example of a Fartlek workout is running at a steady, medium pace and “sprinkling” in fast and high-intensity sprints for 1 minute before regulating your speed back to your steady run.

Insider Tip: Some people like to focus on specific landmarks, like trees, to mark their next sprinting point.

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How Long Does it Take to Improve VO2 Max?

Generally, it's important to understand that improving your VO2 max is a gradual process that occurs over weeks and months of consistent and appropriate training. Usually, the first improvements can be achieved after a minimum of 2 – 3 weeks of training.

The specific time it takes to improve your VO2 max can vary significantly depending on several factors, like your starting fitness level, the frequency and intensity of your training, your genetics, age, and overall health.

If you are a beginner or someone who does not regularly work out, the improvements in your VO2 max might be more rapid due to initial adaptations. However, as you reach higher fitness levels or if you are already exercising on a regular basis, your rate of improvement tends to slow down.

It's indispensable to understand that improving your VO2 max is a process that takes time. To achieve significant and lasting improvements in VO2 max, a long-term commitment to training, proper recovery, and appropriate progression in workout intensity and duration is essential.

What is the Fastest Way to Increase VO2 Max?

Since there are so many health benefits that come with increasing our VO2 max, most of us can’t wait for the rewarding results. The fastest way to increase your VO2 max is a combination of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and regular aerobic workouts.

HIIT training stimulates rapid cardiovascular adaptations and an increase in heart muscle strength, while regular aerobic exercise enhances oxygen delivery and utilization efficiency.

Those two training techniques collectively lead to quicker improvements in your VO2 max.

Why Won't My VO2 Max Increase?

Do you not notice the desired improvements in your VO2 max? The reasons why your VO2 max might not increase substantially are usually associated with the frequency and consistency of your training, your training level, your overall health, and the VO2 max workouts that you use to improve your VO2 max. Even our genetics do play a role, up to some degree, in how high we can increase our VO2 max.

To make sure you increase VO2 max, consistent and targeted training over an extended period of time is a non-negotiable requirement. If your training frequency, duration, or intensity fluctuates, this can slow down your progress and results.

It might be interesting for you to know that a factor that many people struggle with is the so-called training plateau. Over time, our body adapts to a certain training stimulus, which leads us to a plateau in performance, and we feel like we stagnate.

To overcome a training plateau and keep on improving our VO2 max, we can periodically change our workout routines, increase the intensity of the workouts, or incorporate new challenges.

All in all, you will be rewarded if you keep up the good work and keep on improving your VO2 max – like Serena Williams said, “Overpower. Overtake. Overcome.”

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Blog Author Elena Health Coach at CARE

Elena Iagovitina

Health Coach at CARE Zurich

About the author

Elena is an enthusiastic Health Coach and blog writer at CARE, with a passion for holistic medicine and health. Previously, Elena worked for almost five years as a coach leading retreats, workshops, and seminars. These included mind-body therapy: breath work, meditation, and massage; as well as energy force therapy: reiki, and qi gong; and third expressive therapy: movement, writing and support groups. Elena shares exciting articles on the blog, on the topic of where the alternative and traditional medicine intersect with Western Medicine. Elena is also the driving force behind the CARE community. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, traveling to remote locations and dancing. You might also see her on the lake of Zurich as a coast guard. Join her on her journey to learn more about health and discover the world of preventive medicine! Visit all articles written by Elena!