Discover how to measure VO2max without visiting a professional lab, utilizing field tests, sports watches, or online calculators. This article explains different ways to measure your VO2max without requiring expensive lab equipment. Let’s explore these methods and their precision in calculating your VO2 max.

mobile VO2 analyzers
Image: INSCYD Partner COSMED

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Before delving into how to measure VO2max (at home) outside a lab, it’s important to first understand what is VO2max and how it affects athletic performance. To understand more about what is VO2max, here’s a quick video explaining VO2max and how It affects athlete performance:

Now we know why VO2max matters, we need to know exactly what we are trying to measure. This knowledge is crucial to understand how the alternatives to a lab-based VO2max test operate and assess their accuracy.

VO2max: what are we measuring?

Coaches and athletes who want to know “how is VO2max measured?” aim to understand the effectiveness of the aerobic energy system. This is because the aerobic energy system significantly influences performance in most endurance sports. But why is VO2max a good metric to determine aerobic performance?

The performance of your aerobic energy system is best described in how well it generates energy. After all, this is its main job.

Aerobic energy is produced in the muscle, requiring a certain amount of oxygen. Therefore, the oxygen consumption in the muscle is a good indicator for energy production. This is what a VO2 max measuring device in a lab estimates by observing the oxygen we breathe in and out.

Theoretically, if you want to know exactly how much oxygen your working muscles are using, you need to stick a needle into your muscle mitochondria and measure it. As you can imagine, this is not very practical.

Instead we come up with ways to estimate the oxygen consumption in the muscle. For instance in a VO2max lab test, where a metabolic cart or VO2 analyzer looks at how much oxygen we breathe in minus how much we breathe out, using a face mask.

Lab tests are a way to estimate the oxygen consumption in the muscle. However, there are several alternative ways to measure VO2max, without entering a lab.
Lab tests are a way to estimate the oxygen consumption in the muscle. However, there are several alternative ways to measure VO2max, without entering a lab.

Watch webinar on how get more insights from lab test – using COSMED and INSCYD. We show how combining CPET (lab) data with lactate measurements, enables you to get more insights from your lab test. You can now combine aerobic (VO2) and anaerobic (VLa) data – and easily share it with your athletes. We’ll also dive into topics like: how to accurately measure running economy (spoiler: it’s not like you’ve been told in many textbooks).

The VO2max represents the highest volume of oxygen used during intense exercise. While we can accurately measure this in a lab, there are also several ways to calculate VO2 max (at home) outside a lab. This enables you to easily test whether your training strategy to improve VO2max is effective or not.

Learn how to choose your personal, most effective VO2max interval intensity, regardless of the sport you are in. Click the button, fill in the form and receive an email with a video that explains you how to determine the VO2max interval intensity.

The most obvious alternative to measuring VO2max outside a lab is a field test, using a mobile version of the VO2 lab equipment. Although this is a good way of measuring VO2max, it doesn’t solve the issue of needing expensive (lab) equipment.

mobile VO2 analyzers
You can measure VO2max in a field test, using mobile VO2 analyzers (image: COSMED). However, this equipment is not accessible to everyone.

Other methods that don’t require such equipment include a lactate test or power (cycling) test / GPS (running) test. If you prefer not to test at all, you can estimate VO2max with a smart watch or sports watch. 

Lastly, there are simple VO2 max formulas that use heart rate and age to calculate VO2max.

Since these three methods don’t directly measure oxygen intake, you might wonder how they work and if they are accurate. Let’s find out by starting with the most accurate method: field tests.

If you don’t have a lab, but still want to accurately measure VO2max, INSCYD allows you to create your own virtual lab, using field tests. There are two measurement methods you can use: lactate tests or power (cycling) / GPS (running) tests.

1. Lactate field test to measure VO2max

A lactate field test measures the blood lactate and exercise intensity (power in power-based sports or time and distance in speed-based sports). This VO2max test requires a maximal effort of around 3-4 minutes, ensuring the athlete reaches VO2max.

You can use this test for any sport.

VO2max field test using blood lactate samples before and after a 3-4 minute all-out effort.
VO2max field test using blood lactate samples before and after a 3-4 minute all-out effort.

Here’s how this simple test measures VO2max. 

After you enter the exercise intensity and duration in the INSCYD performance software, it calculates how much energy the effort costs in total. We know that this total amount of energy is a combination of aerobic and anaerobic energy supply.

Total energy supply = aerobic energy supply + anaerobic energy supply

When you enter the pre- and post lactate values in the software, it understands the lactate accumulation during the effort. We know that lactate is the end product of anaerobic glycolysis, which makes lactate a good marker for (anaerobic) glycolytic activity. As a result, your lactate samples enable the INSCYD software to quantify the anaerobic energy supply. 

Now that we know the anaerobic energy supply, we automatically also know the aerobic energy supply (two sides of the same coin).

Aerobic energy supply = total energy supply – anaerobic energy supply

This allows the INSCYD algorithm to calculate the corresponding VO2max.

INSCYD lactate test Alpecin Fenix
INSCYD partner, Alpecin-Deceuninck Cycling Team, using lactate tests.

To add accuracy, it is highly recommended to do 3 additional submaximal intervals. These efforts also require you to measure lactate, intensity and duration. You can simply enter the measurement results in the INSCYD software.

Although INSCYD users can create their own lactate field test protocol, we also provide you with a lactate test example protocol. Request the lactate test protocol here:

If you’re interested in diving deeper into the practical aspects of lactate testing, don’t miss this comprehensive Free e-learning course – How To Take Blood Samples For Lactate Testing. It covers everything you need to know about taking blood samples for accurate results. 

Accuracy

The accuracy of the INSCYD VO2max field test using lactate samples is comparable to a lab test.

Similar to a lab test, an accurate measurement device (lactate analyzer) and a valid measurement technique are important. But even if the lactate reading is off, INSCYD will tell you that the quality of your data is not good enough by providing you the sum of squared errors of your measurements. This allows you to retest certain parts of the test, if necessary.

INSCYD shows you the sum of squared errors of your lactate measurements. You now know the quality of your own data.
INSCYD shows you the sum of squared errors of your lactate measurements. You now know the quality of your own data.

Are you ready to unlock the full potential of your athletes and gain unprecedented insight into their performance parameters?

INSCYD offers a state-of-the-art performance software, designed to help you create your virtual lab and drive better training decisions based on scientifically proven metrics. Take the first step toward becoming a more informed coach, and book a free call with us. Bring your questions and let’s explore how we can assist you in providing the best for your athletes.

If you’re an athlete looking for the most precise training guidance tailored to your unique physiological profile, we can help. Don’t settle for the average. Click below to find an INSCYD coach near you, and start training with science on your side.

Learn more about this field test that allows you to accurately measure VO2max outside a lab, using the links below. Don’t have a lactate analyzer or prefer remote testing? Continue reading for a power-only or GPS-only test to measure VO2max.

 

2. Power or GPS field test to measure VO2max

During an INSCYD power or GPS field test, you only measure power (cycling) or GPS (running). This VO2max test requires four maximal efforts: 20 sec. – 3 min. – 6 min. – 12 min.

You can simply import the test file (.fit file for example), mark the efforts, and the INSCYD software will calculate the VO2max.

Here’s how this is possible.

Similar to the lactate field test, INSCYD first calculates the total energy cost of the 3 minute all-out interval, using the power or GPS data. We know that this 3 minute interval is long enough to reach VO2max. We also know that the total amount of energy is a combination of aerobic and anaerobic energy supply.

Total energy supply = aerobic energy supply + anaerobic energy supply

If we are able to subtract the anaerobic energy supply, we know the aerobic energy supply. However, this time there are no lactate measurements included. That’s why the INSCYD algorithm uses the 20 sec sprint to understand the (maximal) anaerobic energy supply.

This 20 sec sprint starts after a full 100 sec. rest to ensure limited aerobic energy supply. Since the sprint is so short, the aerobic energy supply will remain limited, which means it is a good marker for anaerobic (glycolytic) energy supply. 

This maximal anaerobic energy supply in the sprint allows the INSCYD algorithm to understand the anaerobic energy contribution in the 3 minute all-out. So instead of looking at the aerobic side of the coin (lower part, image below), it now looks at the anaerobic side of the coin (upper part, image below). Everything that is left must be aerobic energy supply, which allows for VO2max calculations.

Instead of looking at the aerobic part to measure VO2max, INSCYD looks at the anaerobic part and the total amount of energy. Everything that is left must be aerobic.
Instead of looking at the aerobic part to measure VO2max, INSCYD looks at the anaerobic part and the total amount of energy. Everything that is left must be aerobic.

To make sure the VO2max measurement is accurate, INSCYD uses a self-auditing mechanism that cross validates the test results:

 

  1. The 20 sec. effort measures the maximal (anaerobic) glycolytic energy production, VLamax
  2. The 3 min. effort measures the maximal aerobic energy production, VO2max
  3. The 3, 6 and 12 min. efforts together measure the anaerobic threshold (AT)

We know that VLamax, VO2max and AT are connected: when you know two of them, you can calculate the third. This allows for a cross validation of the test results.

INSCYD cross validates the test results to make sure you have accurate data. This is possible because VO2max, VLamax and Anaerobic Threshold are connected: when you know two of them, you can calculate the third.

This shows whether you have outliers in your power or GPS tests. For instance when the measurement device is off, or when an athlete was not going all-out during one of the efforts. If so, you can decide to retest certain parts of the test.

Accuracy

Scientific research in the Journal of Science & Cycling shows that the above described power only test (INSCYD Power-Performance Decoder) is very accurate in measuring VO2max. Here’s the conclusion form the researchers:

“No significant differences were found between laboratory and INSCYD athletic performance software derived V̇O2max values for absolute and relative. Correlation between laboratory and INSCYD athletic performance software derived V̇O2max was very strong for both absolute (r=0.945 p<0.001) and relative (r=0.954 p<0.01) values.”

Correlation between laboratory test and INSCYD power-only test to derive VO2max: very strong (r=0.954 p
Correlation between laboratory test and INSCYD power-only test to derive VO2max: very strong (r=0.954 p<0.01).

As you would expect, the INSCYD power-only test also strongly correlates with the previous mentioned INSCYD lactate field test.

Strong correlation between the VO2max derived from the INSCYD lactate test vs the INSCYD power only test.

Strong correlation between the VO2max derived from the INSCYD lactate test vs the INSCYD power only test.

Wondering how the power of INSCYD’s field tests for VO2max can revolutionize your coaching approach?

Don’t hesitate to book a free call with us. See how our advanced software can enhance your training strategies. Get all your questions answered and see firsthand how our software can give you the edge in training your athletes.

As an athlete, achieving your best performance requires training based on personalized, scientifically accurate data. Find an INSCYD coach near you and take the first step towards a more informed, data-driven training regimen. Start pushing your limits with science on your side.

But what if you don’t like to test VO2max? Is it possible to accurately estimate VO2max using a sports watch?

Can a smart watch measure VO2max?

smart watch measure VO2max

Whether a smart watch can measure VO2max depends on what you consider a measurement. As mentioned, even a VO2max lab test doesn’t directly measure muscle oxygen consumption. Many sports watches do estimate VO2max.

Wearables often measure VO2max using heart rate data. The better the heart rate sensor is, the better the VO2max estimation can be. Therefore, chest straps are preferred over optical wrist sensors.

The exact way how smart watches measure VO2max depends on the brand, product and type of activity (sport). For instance, some Garmin watches require you to run 10+ minutes or bike 20+ minutes at a minimal heart rate of 70% of your maximum heart rate, while other Garmins estimate VO2 max from all-day heart rate without any exercise required.

Both Fitbit and Apple watches estimate VO2max based on heart rate and motion sensors during a walk/run. They also take into account parameters like age, sex, weight and height.

Interestingly, the VO2max range of an Apple watch has an upper ceiling of 65 ml/kg/min, which might be one of the reasons why athletes often wonder why their VO2max is so low on an Apple watch.

Polar gives you several ways to estimate VO2max. For instance during a 5-minute rest “test” that looks at your resting heart rate and heart rate variability.

Accuracy

On a group level, smart watches can accurately measure VO2max. However, as an athlete you’re not interested in whether a watch that measures the VO2max of 100 athletes is accurate on average. You want to know whether it’s accurate for you.

A recent scientific review that looked at 14 validation studies revealed that wearables using resting condition information (e.g. resting heart rate) significantly overestimate VO2max. So make sure your watch uses exercise-based information instead. 

Exercise-based estimations turn out to work at a population level, but still have large errors on an individual level. Even when using a chest strap during an exercise-based test, VO2max can easily be ± 10 ml/kg/min off when using a smart watch. That’s why the researchers conclude that, for sport purposes these technologies need improvement.

This is in line with another scientific publication on VO2 wearables, that concludes: the current wrist-worn activity trackers are most likely not accurate enough to be used for purposes in sports.

Calculate VO2max with this formula

Want to calculate your VO2max at home, right now? You can measure your VO2max with a simple VO2max calculation. This doesn’t need any measurement. It calculates VO2max based on your resting heart rate and maximal heart rate.

 

  1. Count your resting heart rate (beats per minute)
  2. Measure your maximum heart rate (beats per minute) or use an oversimplified formula like: maximum heart rate = 220 – age.
  3. Now calculate VO2max using the following formula:

VO2max = 15.3 * (maximum heart rate ÷ resting heart rate)

Fun fact: research shows that this simple calculation can be more accurate than VO2max estimations from smart watches.

Summary: measuring VO2max outside a lab

We’ve seen that you can accurately estimate VO2max on a group level, with smart watches or simple formulas. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work when you want to track your individual VO2max, since results can easily be ± 10 ml/kg/min off.

Field tests on the other hand, are accurate ways to measure VO2max outside a lab. We’ve mentioned three possibilities:

 

  1. Use mobile lab equipment, like a mobile VO2 analyzer. The results are accurate, but the measurement devices are not accessible to everyone.
  2. Use a lactate analyzer and perform a lactate test. When combined with INSCYD software, the results are lab-level accurate.
  3. Use a power meter (cycling) or GPS watch (running) and perform 4 all-out efforts. Scientific literature shows that the INSCYD software is able to give you a lab-level accurate VO2max based on these efforts. Additional benefit: coaches can test their athletes remotely.

Schedule your VO2max with one of our INSCYD coaches, using the button below. Coaches and teams can start measuring their athletes’ VO2max using INSCYD software. Simply schedule free introduction call, so you can ask all your questions:

Teams and Federation that use INSCYD 

Literature

Molina-Garcia, P., Notbohm, H. L., Schumann, M., Argent, R., Hetherington-Rauth, M., Stang, J., Bloch, W., Cheng, S., Ekelund, U., Sardinha, L. B., Caulfield, B., Brønd, J. C., Grøntved, A., & Ortega, F. B. (2022). Validity of Estimating the Maximal Oxygen Consumption by Consumer Wearables: A Systematic Review with Meta-analysis and Expert Statement of the INTERLIVE Network. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 52(7), 1577–1597.

 

Molina-Garcia, P., Notbohm, H.L., Schumann, M. et al. Validity of Estimating the Maximal Oxygen Consumption by Consumer Wearables: A Systematic Review with Meta-analysis and Expert Statement of the INTERLIVE Network. Sports Med 52, 1577–1597 (2022).

 

Uth, N., Sørensen, H., Overgaard, K., & Pedersen, P. K. (2004). Estimation of VO2max from the ratio between HRmax and HRrest–the Heart Rate Ratio Method. European journal of applied physiology, 91(1), 111–115.

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