What is VO2 max and why is it important

VO2 max is the threshold of your body's ability to transport and use oxygen during physical activity. For a long time, it was considered to be the primary indicator to determine how good you'd be at aerobic exercise, fitness and sports performance. However, as science advanced, so too did our understanding of other factors that also play a role in fitness. The following article unpacks everything you need to know about VO2 max, from why it's important to how to improve your V02 max and how knowing your VO2 max genetic potential can help improve your workout.

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Why VO2 max is important

VO2 max is important as it can be used as a representation of how much oxygen your body uses during exercise at a maximum effort.

This formula can be used to determine functions of both your central factors (blood, lung, heart), and peripheral (skeletal muscles) factors. In other words, how much oxygen your heart can pump and how much of that oxygen your skeletal muscles can use.

Believe it or not, this used to be the gold standard for predicting endurance performance, but times have changed and so have our thinking patterns. It was believed that if you had a higher VO2 max than another athlete, you were automatically a “better” endurance athlete.

However, we know better now. Although a high VO2 max is required for optimal endurance performance, you don't need the highest VO2 to be the best endurance performer. If two individuals with an identical weight, height, age, muscle mass perform against each other, it’s not unheard of for the athlete with a lower VO2 max to outperform someone with a higher VO2 max. In saying that, however, it’s unlikely that you’d be an elite endurance athlete with a low VO2 max.

VO2 max is only one piece of the puzzle, although you can use your score as a guideline to adjust your training so that you see greater improvement.

How can you improve your VO2 max score

One of the ways to improve your VO2 max score, is to increase the intensity and volume of your training. You can also focus on anaerobic training and improving your biomechanics, such as stride length rate and form.

By implementing the relevant training adaptations, you'll improve your overall performance.

High-intensity interval training

A study proved that high-aerobic intensity endurance interval training is significantly more effective than performing the same total work at either lactate threshold or at 70% HRmax. The changes in VO2 max correspond with changes in stroke volume of the heart, indicating a close link between the two.

More and more, we are seeing people including HIIT (high-intensity interval training) in their weekly exercise routines. If your VO2 max genetic trainability is low, then doing HIIT will help condition your body to use oxygen more efficiently.

You'll also find that you'll become more economical in the way that you train. A low VO2 max genetic trainability isn’t something that's meant to discourage you from undertaking aerobic exercise. Rather, knowing you have a low genetic trainability makes you aware of training smarter, for better results.

Anaerobic training

You can do both cardio and strength training anaerobically. The only stumbling block is that anaerobic exercise is very difficult. It requires you to push yourself beyond your limits for a short period of time. Anaerobic exercise is short-lasting, high-intensity activity, where your body’s demand for oxygen exceeds the oxygen supply available.

VO2 max can be expressed in various ways

VO2 max can sometimes be calculated in absolute terms - which is the amount of oxygen the body can use.  Therefore, an athlete can end up with a value for VO2 max of 5.8 liters of oxygen per minute (5.8L O2/min).

The better way to express VO2 max, is in terms of body weight. You'll be able to see values along the lines of 53 milliliters oxygen per kilogram body weight per minute (or 53ml O2/kg/min). Dividing by body weight lets you scale the absolute value to the weight of the athlete. This can be used to compare athletes' VO2 max values relatively, to their body weight.


The best ever recorded VO2 max is 96 ml/kg/min, attributed to Bjørn Dæhlie, a cross-country skier.

Why is my genetic VO2 max important if it can change?

While your VO2 max score can change, your VO2 max genetic potential (trainability) doesn't change. Understanding your VO2 max trainability allows you to optimise your workout to work with your genes, instead of against them. As with every gene included in DNAFit's DNA test, we wouldn't include this result unless you could make relevant lifestyle adaptations too. Your genetic information is only valuable when it can be translated into actionable advice that can help you achieve better results.

Everything in our body is always in flux - especially as we get older, eat healthier or train more. In terms of a person with a low VO2 max, understanding this can help you to make relevant lifestyle adaptations in order to improve the way that you train.

A person with a low VO2max trainability would likely see smaller improvements, or have these improvements take longer to occur. As such, training that's VO2 max-based in nature would have a lesser effect than it would with someone with a high VO2 max potential.

DNAFit uses your VO2 max trainability to inform your unique training programme design

Those with a low or very low potential should focus on movement efficiency or lactate threshold training if they want to improve their aerobic endurance performance.

Those with high or very high should focus on VO2 max-based training, which is typically intense interval training. Those who are medium should likely have a mix of both.

Why did my genetic results say my VO2 max is low, but when I tested it, it was high?

Remember, you can have a high VO2 max score even though your VO2 max trainability is low.

Your genetic result is determined by your innate response to these specific markers. This is simply the way that your genes express themselves and the way that you are made up.

However, when it comes to VO2 max there are also other environmental factors at play. You can be predisposed to having a lower trainability for VO2 max - but if you do a lot of endurance exercise and cardio, then your body adapts to this, so your score will be higher.

Is my VO2 max normal?

When it comes to DNA test results, many people want to know if they are “normal”. This is a common concern, as we all want to know where we stand in terms of others.

However, it isn’t as simple as yes or no. What we want everyone to understand is that there's no definition of "normal" when it comes to genetics. We're all different. There's no good or bad when it comes to genetics.

What we did do, is analyse the results of 17,000 of our customers to develop a fact-based aggregate as to what a normal (common) VO2 max is, and how VO2max is spread out across a wide range of people.  

When it comes to aerobic potential, the most common score is medium(found in 57.3% of the population). This isn’t a surprise, as it represents the “average” score. The next most common is “high”, with 26% of the samples falling within this category, followed by low (11.8%). "Very high" (<5%) and "very low"(0.04%) were relatively uncommon.

As always, this underscores the importance of personalised training, as a generalised, one-size fits all approach will likely lead to different improvements based on these scores. That’s why, at DNAFit, we’re committed to giving you the information required to make changes to your training, in order to meet your health and fitness goals faster.

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