Drop in VO2max Over the Years
My first VO2max test was in 1982. I went to an exercise physiology lab at the university in my hometown, and a friend who worked there did the testing. I ran on a treadmill with a standard 3-minute step protocol. The results showed my VO2max to be 65 (ml O2/kg/min). Now, in 2021, my TrainingPeaks WKO software estimates my VO2max on a bike as 41. If we accept WKO’s data as being as accurate as the testing I did decades earlier in the lab (which is certainly debatable), that’s a drop of 24 points—a 37% drop in 39 years.
Since running typically produces about a 10% higher VO2max than cycling (more on this below), if we allow for the sport difference, the drop is closer to 30%. That’s about a 7.7% loss every decade. Not a lot of difference, but every little bit helps your self-esteem as you have birthdays. And I can certainly tell there’s been a falling off. Forty years ago I could kick butt. Now I’m the kickee.
VO2max and Running
As you probably know, VO2max (also called “aerobic capacity”) plays a key role in endurance performance. In fact, it’s so telling of one’s fitness that we can somewhat closely predict race performances based on it, especially for time trial–type events such as running races. The following table extrapolates running race times based on VO2max. You can also use this table, if you are a runner, to work backwards in predicting your VO2max from known, recent race times. (The table is based on 5km times, which is why the “5km” column has all even numbers.)
Other Performance Determiners
Of course, you should realize that there are additional physiological determiners of endurance performance and fitness besides VO2max. Other commonly accepted markers are lactate threshold and economy. Your endurance race performances are determined by some combination of these three—so the table above may not be exactly right for you. You may have one or two of these performance determiners at a high level while a third is much more moderate. A good example is VO2max and economy. It’s been shown that these two are usually opposites: Being excellent in one frequently means the other is somewhat lacking. (For a description of VO2max and lactate threshold, read “Common But Confusing Training Terms.” For more on economy, read “How to Optimize Your Economy, Part 1.”)
VO2max and Other Sports
So what if you’re not a runner? Is there a quick and easy way to estimate your VO2max? In the early 2000s some Danish sport scientists came up with a formula for predicting VO2max based on known heart rates.1 It’s a very rough way of estimating your aerobic capacity. It’s likely to give you a number that’s off a bit—perhaps quite a bit. But it’s remarkably close for some:
VO2max = 15 (HRmax / HRrest)
Be sure to use your known max heart rate (not the highly inaccurate 220 minus age), the highest you’ve seen recently when rested and going fast. Divide that by your recently known resting heart rate. Multiply the result by 15. That’s a rough estimate of your VO2max for the sport from which you came up with HRmax.
Other Performance Determiners
VO2max varies between sports based largely on how much muscle is used to propel the body during exercise and other variables such as the effect of gravity. Running, in regards to muscle, is more “whole body” than cycling so VO2max is a bit higher for runners. Perhaps as much as 10%, as mentioned above. The most whole-body muscle use in endurance sport is probably Nordic skiing. That’s why some of the highest aerobic capacities ever tested have been with elite cross-country skiers.
The Effects of Age
But even elite athletes, regardless of sport, suffer similar ravages of aging. VO2max declines as we get older regardless of how high it was at its lifetime peak. And that happens to everyone. Everyone! You can slow or even temporarily reverse the decline, but in the long term every one of us sees the number get lower over time.
VO2max in Aging Nonathletes
How much lower? The following table is based on nonathletic males and females and gives some idea of what can be expected as you age up.
VO2max by Age Group for Nonathletic Males and Females2
Realize that the subjects for the study that produced the above table were not athletes. They were classified by the authors as in “good” shape, which generally means something like healthy and physically active. They didn’t “train.” So we could expect their aerobic capacities to be well below what yours is by at least 10% or perhaps even as much as 50%.
What the table does is give you an indication of your aerobic fitness as compared with “normal” people—the vast majority who do little in the way of exercise. It also gives you an idea of your comparative “physiological” age. If your VO2max is higher than that of the age group you are in then you are “younger” than your age-related peers. And, of course, the reverse is also true.
As your VO2max declines with aging, or even simply because of reduced activity, your lifespan may also decrease. There is some disagreement among researchers on this topic. Some say there is a direct relationship while others say there is insufficient evidence. But both agree that quality of life is improved with a VO2max higher than what is predicted by your age cohort in the above table.
Maintaining and Improving Your VO2max
There’s simply no doubt that a decline in VO2max happens with aging over several years. Currently there is no known way to stop the long-term decline. But you can temporarily maintain or even briefly improve your aerobic capacity regardless of your age. The best way is to incorporate intense training (check out “Aging: High-Intensity Training” for more on this).
An example of improving VO2max while aging is a Frenchman by the name of Robert Marchand.3 He was an avid cyclist with a remarkable story. At age 101 he set an age group hour record of 24.25km (15 miles) and had a VO2max of 31. Then he got serious about training. Two years later—at age 103—he broke his own record by going 26.92km (16.74 miles) in an hour. At that age his VO2max had risen to 35 (check that out in the above table). Monsieur Marchand eventually moved into a nursing home where he rode a stationary bike for 20 minutes or so a day. He died at age 109 this past May.
The bottom line is that your VO2max is not only critical to your racing performance but also plays an important role in your life. The key to maintaining it is staying active regardless of age.
- Niels Uth et al., “Estimation of VO2max from the Ratio Between HRmax and HRrest—the Heart Rate Ratio Method,” abstract, European Journal of Applied Physiology 91, no. 1 (2004): 111–15.
- Jack H. Wilmore and David L. Costill, Physiology of Sport and Exercise, 3rd Edition (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2005).
- Véronique Billat V et al., “Case Studies in Physiology: Maximal Oxygen Consumption and Performance in a Centenarian Cyclist,” abstract, Journal of Applied Physiology122, no. 3 (2017): 430–34.