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VO2 Max for Cyclists: What Is It and How to Improve

Boosting your body’s oxygen availability, or VO2 max, is critical in improving cycling performance, endurance, and speed. You’ve probably heard other advanced cyclists mention VO2 max before but may not know what it is. To help you learn how to ride harder and longer, we’ll explain what VO2 max is, how it affects your cycling performance, and how you can improve it.

What is VO2 max?

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VO2 max refers to the maximum amount of oxygen your body can take in and use during intense exercise. This measurement is a good indicator of your cardiovascular fitness and aerobic endurance.1

Your VO2 max is the gold standard for determining your overall cardio-respiratory fitness level. It’s measured in milliliters of oxygen consumed in one minute per kilogram of body weight (ml/kg/min).

What is a good VO2 max for cyclists?

Female cyclists smiling into the camera with the sunset.

There’s no one “good” VO2 max for cyclists. Your VO2 max will vary depending on factors like your age, weight, and gender. However, the average sedentary male has a VO2 max of about 35 to 40 ml/kg/min. For females, it’s about 27 to 30 ml/kg/min.2

In contrast, advanced male and female cyclists tend to have much higher VO2 max measures of 80 to 90ml/kg/min and 60 to 70ml/kg/min, respectively.

How does VO2 max affect cycling performance?

A view of a group of cyclists riding thru a city.

The higher your VO2 max, the longer you’ll be able to sustain intense exercise. Here’s why:

When you exercise, your body uses oxygen to break down the carbs, fats, and protein in your body for energy. The more oxygen available, the more energy you’ll have to burn.

Aerobic exercises like cycling use up your body’s oxygen stores more quickly. If you’re cycling harder than usual and your body doesn’t have enough oxygen, it breaks down glycogen into a substance that’s converted to lactic acid. This process leads to a feeling of muscle exhaustion, which slows you down and decreases your cycling performance.

Although you won’t automatically cycle faster or harder if you improve your VO2 max, it will feel easier to ride faster and sustain any biking pace if your VO2 max is higher.

How to measure VO2 max

A man wearing a V02 mask in a sports facility talking to a women.

The most accurate way to measure VO2 max is by wearing a respiratory mask and heart rate monitor while you bike or run at a gradually increasing intensity. The mask measures the composition of the air you inhale and exhale. Professional athletes typically use this method, but it’s not the most convenient way to measure VO2 max for the average cyclist.

If you don’t want to do this kind of test at a sports medical facility or lab, you can use a fitness tracker to estimate your VO2 max. Note that not all fitness devices provide VO2 max readings. Some do, but they may use different terms for VO2 max, which can be confusing.

Alternatively, you can also use an online calculator to get a rough estimation of your VO2 max. This calculator from the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology is a reliable source of information. All you have to do is answer a few questions, and it will give you an age-adjusted fitness score and your VO2 max.

How to improve your VO2 max

A female cyclists on the road next to a corn field.

Once you know your VO2 max, you can use that information to improve your fitness. If you’re new to cycling, training consistently will automatically improve your VO2 max. Otherwise, if you’re a more experienced cyclist, you’ll need to hone in on specific workouts to see improvement.

High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, is one of the best ways to increase your cardio-respiratory fitness and VO2 max. Here’s an example of a cycling training session that can help you boost your VO2 max:

  • Warm up with a 15-minute ride at an easy pace.
  • Bike for 15 minutes in zone 2 or 3. This is a slightly more challenging pace, but you should still be able to have a conversation.
  • Cycle five intervals of 3 minutes each at 110 to 120% of your FTP (Functional Threshold Power). Include a 3-minute recovery period (zone 2) between each interval.
  • Cool down with a 10-minute ride at an easy pace.

Once this workout starts feeling easy, challenge yourself by increasing the number of intervals you do, making your intervals longer, or reducing the length of your recovery periods.

VO2 max training sessions are hard work and can be physically and mentally draining. Try to limit these sessions to once or twice a week and don’t do them back-to-back.

Need a quick review of training zones and FTP? Check out this Vingo article: What is FTP and How Can Cyclists Improve It?

Other factors that affect cycling performance

A male cyclists holding his bike over his head on top of a mountain.

Although completing specific training sessions can improve your VO2 max, other factors will also affect your overall cycling performance, such as:

  • Recovery: The physical stress of overtraining will eventually catch up with you and negatively affect your cycling performance. Recovery rides are very important, as is taking the time to rest away from your bike.
  • How much sleep you get: Cycling while groggy and tired from a poor night’s rest is a recipe for disaster. Get enough high-quality sleep to help your body recover from your training sessions. Good sleep is also essential for your mental recovery. 
  • Your riding position: If your bike doesn’t fit you properly or hasn’t been fitted to your body, your riding position could harm your cycling performance. Take your bike to a bike shop to have it fitted to your body. In doing so, you’ll get the most comfortable and efficient ride possible.
  • Genetics: There’s an ongoing argument that your genetics primarily influences VO2 max, but the issue isn’t so black and white. Of course, your genetics do play a role in your VO2 max measurement, but tailored training can still help you improve it.

Key Takeaways:

Your VO2 max is an excellent measure of cardiovascular fitness and aerobic endurance. With consistent training and specific, targeted cycling workouts, you can increase your VO2 max and improve your cycling performance and overall fitness level.

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References:

  1. VO2 Max Testing. (2021, October 6). Exercise Physiology Core Laboratory. https://med.virginia.edu/exercise-physiology-core-laboratory/fitness-assessment-for-community-members/vo2-max-testing/ 
  2. Capritto, A. (2019, July 27). VO2 max: Everything you need to know. CNET. https://www.cnet.com/health/your-vo2-max-explained/ 

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