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VO2 Max - Men vs. Women and Influencing Factors

Yuri Elkaim, BPHE, CK, RHN


VO2 max (also known as your maximal oxygen consumption, maximal oxygen uptake or aerobic capacity) is the maximum capacity of your body to uptake, transport, and utilize oxygen during incremental exercise. It is the gold standard measure that reflects your cardiovascular or aerobic fitness of the individual.

The name VO2 max is derived from V - volume per time, O2 - oxygen, max - maximum.

VO2 max can be expressed either as an absolute rate in litres of oxygen per minute (l/min) or as a relative rate in millilitres of oxygen per kilogram of bodyweight per minute (ml/kg/min).

Relative VO2 max is often used to compare runners/athletes of varying bodyweights because using the absolute number would show that heavier athletes have a great absolute VO2.


VO2 max - Men vs. Women

Absolute values of VO2max are typically 40-60% higher in men than in women. Obviously, this difference is most notably due to the variance in bodyweight and lean body mass between men and women. A more accurate comparison of maximal oxygen uptake between men and women would use the relative measure.

Research has shown that the average young untrained male will have a VO2 max of approximately 3.5 litres/minute (absolute) and 45 ml/kg/min (relative).

The average young untrained female will score a VO2 max of approximately 2.0 litres/minute and 38 ml/kg/min.

Here are some more relative VO2 max scores (measured in ml/kg/min) for men and women:

Cross-country skiiers
Distance runners
Sedentary: young
Sedentary: middle-aged
Post heart attack patients
Severe pulmonary disease patients

Notice how the activities like cross country skiing and running, which involve a large muscle mass moving the body dynamically, have the highest VO2 scores. In sports where endurance is an important component in performance, such as cycling, rowing, cross-country skiing, swimming and running, VO2 max scores tend to be the highest.

For example, 3-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond is reported to have had a VO2 max of 92.5 at his peak - one of the highest ever recorded, while cross-country skier Bjørn Dæhlie measured at an astounding 96 ml/kg/min.

To put this into perspective, thoroughbred horses have a VO2 max of around 180 ml/kg/min. Siberian dogs running in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race sled race have VO2 values as high as 240 ml/kg/min


Factors Affecting VO2 max

The main physiological factors affecting your aerobic capacity include the following:

  1. the maximum ability of your cardiovascular system to deliver oxygen to the working muscles.
  2. the muscle's abitlity to extract the oxygen from the blood and produce ATP aerobically.

Both of these factors are influenced by training and genetics. But in general, VO2 max scores can improve with training and decrease with age. Unfortunately, after the age of 30, VO2 max declines by 1% per year. That doesn't mean that a great training program can't get you fitter than you ever were in your life.


Aerobic Training Improves Your VO2 max

It's not surprise that endurance training will better your aerobic capacity. But let's have a look at why this happens. Let's take a sneak peak at some of the physiological changes that occur in your body with consistent aerobic or running training.

Studies have shown that, in general, endurance training programs that involve large amounts of muscle in a dynamic fashion for 20-60 minutes per session, 3-5 times per week, at an intensity of 50% to 85% VO2 max will elicit the greatest VO2 max improvements.

These changes come about because of:

  1. Improved cardiac output - the heart's ability to pump out blood each minute.
  2. Improved arteriovenous difference - the muscle's abitilty to extract oxygen from the blood.
  3. Increased capillarization - more capillaries serving the muscles means that more blood and, thus, oxygen can reach the cells.
  4. Increased number of mitochondria - these are your cells' energy powerhouses which produce ATP.

Each of these changes can be further broken down and explained in detail but we'll save that for another article.

For now....

=> CLICK HERE to skyrocket your VO2 max!


Thomas E. Hyde and Marianne S. Gengenbach, Conservative Management of Sports Injuries (2nd ed; Sudbury, Mass.: Jones & Bartlett, 2007), 845.

Geddes, Linda (2007-07-28). "Superhuman". New Scientist. pp. 35-41.

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