VO2 Max and how it impacts your Heart Rate Monitor Accuracy

April 11th, 2013 | Posted by Erica House in Fitness | Health

After receiving my Polar Heart Rate Monitor in December I’ve used it for every single workout (and some non-workouts like moving and cleaning!) I love, love, love it but after a few weeks I noticed something that I thought seemed a bit off. On days I did heavy strength training the calories burned reported on the HR monitor was shockingly low. Like, I’d workout for an hour and burn 200 calories. I burn about 70 just laying on the couch for an hour so I felt like something wasn’t right! After doing some research I concluded that the average pre-set VO2 Max of the Polar was lower than mine was and for a more accurate reporting I’d need to adjust that to reflect my specific numbers.


So, what the heck is VO2 Max? In the most basic way I can find to explain it – VO2 max is a number that indicates how efficiently your body uses oxygen. The higher the number the better your body is at using oxygen during exercise. The most accurate way to test your VO2 is via a sports lab and some fancy equipment. I checked locally at UWF does it for just under $200. A free, less accurate, way is to use any number of V02 Tests you can find online. Here are my two favorites:


Not feeling like doing some Math today? You can use these online calculators here (Hey, I think it’s important to see how they are calculated!) For the first test my VO2 Max was 48, and for the second test it was 53. I split the difference and figured my VO2 Max is somewhere around 50. Looking at the table below, that’s pretty good!VO2 Table

 {Table Source}

Although, it’s not unusual for elite athletes to have VO2’s into the 80’s and 90’s!

So – now what? Well, if you have a heart rate monitor you need to bust out the manual and see how to adjust the VO2 max. For the PolarFT40 it was ridiculously easy. I forget what it was preset to but I believe it was about 5-8 points lower than what my VO2 is. Not surprising since the HR monitors are likely pre-programmed to reflect the average VO2’s given your height, weight , age and activity levels (all variables you usually have to put in before you can use the device.)

Since I made the adjustment I’ve noticed that my caloric expenditure is about 10-15% greater than it was before. I feel like it’s a more accurate representation of how many calories I’m burning and it’s important for me to know that so I can be sure to eat enough every day! I also like keeping track of how many calories I burn with each workout I do so I can see which one’s are most efficient.

I think I’ve sufficiently overloaded you with information for today. If you have any questions at all about VO2 Max or how to calculate it, please leave me a comment! If you’d like to check out my overall review of the Polar you can see the original post here.

Has anyone had their VO2 max tested before?
How many of you are going to try to make these adjustments on your HR monitors?

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 Both comments and pings are currently closed.

45 Responses

  • Miz says:

    SHARING as I can never ever ever quite explain it….as well as you do :)

    • Erica House says:

      Thank you! It’s amazing how teaching for 7 years has made it easier for me to break down information so the widest possible audience can benefit from it.

  • Linz says:

    wow SUPER informative post! now i just need a hr monitor! haha

    • Erica House says:

      Thank you! I definitely advocate investing in a good HR monitor if you can – it’s my second favorite piece of exercise equipment (behind my running shoes!)

  • AmyV says:

    I don’t mean to be rude, but as someone with an exercise physiology degree, I do have some issues with this post in particular. In determining your VO2max with a submaximal test, I would not use either of the methods you listed.
    The Rockport Walking Test is usually reserved for deconditioned individuals or those with disease or illness, due to its ease for the subject. And a resting heart rate test to determine VO2 just seems a little silly to me.
    Better submax tests involve things such as a Cooper 12 minute run, 1.5 mile run, or various bike ergometer tests. Again, these submax tests do not need to be done in lab settings. But you should be supervised so that you can really push yourself hard.
    It is also important to again note that the best method is a lab setting. You need to take into account gas exchange and volume, not just heart rate. All of that being said, I would probably say your VO2 max listed is overestimated. I personally have supervised max tests in labs and was very impressed by men in the mid to high 60s who were extremely good runners and triathletes. As in, ran for 1.5 hrs at 75% of their max and then pushed through a 10k time trial in 32 minutes.
    Additionally, 80s and 90s IS unusual for elite athletes. Only a handful of people have gotten them up to that level, 90s in particular, and they are not elite, they are world class. Highest VO2 recordings come from cross country skiiers and cyclists, normally.
    You should also note that VO2 is mainly genetically predetermined and you can improve it some, especially if you are deconditioned but we all have that plateau. Most athletes prefer to train use their lactate threshold measures now, anyway.
    Again, not trying to be rude, but I just needed to point out a few things!

    • Erica House says:

      I selected the two V02 Tests based on the fact that most of my readers are deconditioned athletes or of average athletic ability. I did not want to suggest a more strenuous method like the Cooper or 1.5 mile as I’m not comfortable that most of my readers could (1) do them at all or (2) preform them correctly without supervision. I realized that by definition V02 Max should push the person to their maximum level, but that is why I did clearly state in the post that the most accurate measuring could only be done in a lab. Given that most people cannot afford to do so I found numerous research articles online that found the 2 tests I shared as being good general indicators of V02 Max. Also, when I stated it’s not unusual for elite athletes to have VO2 max over 80 that statement can be questioned only on semantics – what you define as ‘unusual’ is likely different from mine. If 10-15% of elite athletes have V02’s over 80 (and I just made up that statistic) I would say it’s not unusual (unusual, from my background in quantitative analysis, typically indicating anything under 3-5% of the population.)

    • KC Kahn says:

      I am an endurance cyclist. At 56 my VO2 max is 60. At least it was when I was 55. I was tested in a lab situation on a treadmill. the “fit test” on my old Polar S210 was slightly lower at 56.

  • AmyV says:

    I guess I don’t agree that VO2 max should be that important to someone if they cannot run 1.5 miles or 12 minutes at one shot. I feel it becomes more valuable for those in actual training for something, such as in endurance or other athletes Deconditioned adults should be more focused on other factors. That is my opinion though.
    Additionally, I have tried to find numbers on people with that high of a VO2 and have not had a whole lot of luck. The lists are small, and granted not everyone gets tested, I get that. But, I have yet to find a woman with a VO2 over 80.

    • Erica House says:

      Now I agree with you 100% that for most people V02 should be low on their list of variables to worry about when it comes to getting healthy! I figured since I benefited from knowing more about it and seeing how it was calculated that a portion of my readers who may have heard of the term V02 before but not really understood what it was would appreciate the post. I gender stereotyped my phrase ‘not unusual for elite athletes to have over 80’ when, in fact, I’ve also not seen any women score that high. Here is a list of top athletes of both genders with their V02 scores: http://www.topendsports.com/testing/records/vo2max.htm

  • Nellie says:

    Thank you for this info! It just reminds me not to get obsessed with “burning calories” and the numbers on machines but rather to listen to my body and whether I feel like I’m working out (I can “burn” an insane amount of calories on the step machine compared to the treadmill but I know which one actually makes me sweat and kicks my butt…running!) There are just too many factors to consider.

    Kind of related (but pretty off topic) – I’ve been wanting a hrm and although they’re not exorbitantly priced I don’t want to spend money on something that’s not very good. I’ve looked online for reviews and there are just SO MANY different opinions (naturally). How do you find your polar as it’s top of my list – would you recommend it? Have you used any others? (I know you did that post last week or so on the Withings body scale which linked to the Bodymedia monitor but I’m based in the UK and can’t get the bodymedia yet).

    Thank you!

    • Nellie says:

      ooops! I just opened the link for the polar in a new tab and saw the review once I had submitted that comment, sorry!

      • Erica House says:

        No problem! Let me know if you have any questions at all about the Polar. I really am so happy with it!

        • KC Kahn says:

          I love my Polar s210. I wish they still made it. My original one broke after 15 years, but I was lucky enough to find one on ebay! It has everything I need and I can’t find another newer model with the exact same “goodies” without having too many!
          Thanks for the “beast” comment. I’m not really, just a hardcore endurance cyclist! I am a “beast” about The Chopped. I would love for you to take a look at my website for some healthful, nutritious Chopped meals. I’ve been eating this way for 15 years and getting stronger and leaner all the time.

  • misszippy1 says:

    I think HR training is really great. My only dispute would be that old 208 minus age rule…it can really be off for some people. So I think it’s great you included alternatives to it.

    • Erica House says:

      I’ve found the the max HR formula I included is much more accurate (for me at least!)

    • KC Kahn says:

      The number is actually 220 minus your age. But it’s still inaccurate. I’ve seen my max lately and it’s 189. At 56 that would means my Max should be 164. I cruise at 164 :). This formula was devised for college students in their early 20’s many years ago. It is much more accurate for younger athletic people.

  • Helen says:

    I calculate dmy v02 max in my ap bio class using this weird machine I forgot the name of. lol. But, I like this method too. =)

  • Traci B says:

    This is so interesting. I have tendonitis in my ankle & haven’t been able to run or do my usual workouts. I’ve just been doing weights for upper body & leg lift type stuff. I have a relatively inexpensive Timex HRM & during these “easy” workouts my calorie burn for close to an hour has been close to 200. Dealing with an injury, trying to watch what I eat because I can’t workout like I was & then seeing a lousy 200 calories burned has been depressing!!! I’m going to get my manual out but I’m not sure my HRM has the v02 option. Thanks for the info

    • Erica House says:

      It can be disheartening to see such ‘little’ calorie burn with strength workouts, but remember that you actually burn more calories every day for three days after strength and you don’t get that with cardio!

  • dotsie924 says:

    I’ve never gotten a VO2 max test, but I’ve seen them done in labs.

    I stopped using a HR when I started CrossFit. I used one for years and years! I mainly wanted to know cals burned, but it was deemed pretty useless (to ME) once I started CrossFit :)

    • Erica House says:

      I didn’t know you drank the CrossFit Kool-aid!

      • dotsie924 says:

        Haha!!! Yes and No. I DO CrossFit…but I don’t LIVE CrossFit. Moves I don’t do…hand stand push ups, toes to bar, rope climbing, kipping, butterflies, most of the gymnastics moves…and there are others, I’m sure. I also don’t eat Paleo…definitely don’t eat Paleo. My gym ( we don’t even call it a “box”) also offer powerlifting and olympic lifting, and I prefer to lift weights v. cardio. Before CrossFit I had a trainer for 2.5 years, way longer than anyone should have a trainer. My gym bill cost more than my truck note. I was getting bored…and eventually my dad stopped paying for the trainer. I had to try something new–regular gym stuff bored me. Enter…CrossFit. I was getting personal training in a small group, basically. I even had a knee injury and went to a PT who said I should continue to workout, and even CrossFit if the instructors would work with me and modify movements. So I kept CrossFitting and the coaches helped me with my knees. No problems anymore! When I first started classes were like, maybe 5 people…always less than 10. Now, the gym has grown and even has two locations…much bigger. CrossFit has boosted my self-esteem and confidence, aleviates gym boredom and having to program my own workouts…and I’ve made lasting friendships and I have fun there. Now, there are douchebags there–but they’re everywhere, right? So yeah, if one wants to say I drank the Kool-aid, I’m OK with that. I’ve done enough outdoors in and regular gyms to know that I’m doing the right thing for me, at this time in my life. I still have my regular gym membership and use it, since I get it free through my employer. Don’t throw out an pro-CrossFitter names at me or try to talk to me about the games, because I don’t care/not into it that much ;) hehe!

        • Erica House says:

          I would absolutely love to try CrossFit someday – it’s just so damn expensive! I definitely wouldn’t do the ‘lifestyle’ associated with it. I read this hilarious article once that debated if crossfit turned people into assholes, or assholes were just naturally drawn to crossfit lol.

  • Just trying to clarify – is the VO2 test on the Polar FT40 what you found to be off compared to the manual calculation that you did? When I first got my Polar I did the VO2 test and then repeated it after it about 8 weeks of working out. My output changed and accordingly, my calories burned increased, but I guess my brain froze with our midwest snow storm and I’m not sure if you bypassed the test on your HRM.

    • Erica House says:

      I actually have not done the V02 test on the Polar. I’m going to do it after I’m back at full strength from the half marathon and see if it’s the same as what these equations gave!

  • pdh775 says:

    This is a great tool – thank you!

  • Oh, I’m obsessed with VO2 max and I’m not ashamed. We’re learning about it (I mean ALL about it…) in phys right now and I can’t get enough. Unfortunately I wasn’t the volunteer to be tested so I don’t know mine but I really want to go through testing! These are good calculation tools though. Awesome post!

    • Erica House says:

      I’m jealous you get to learn about this stuff in class! Have you found that these equations give an accurate measurement of V02?

  • runnyc1024 says:

    Looks like I need to check my V02 Max…. love this post!

  • KC Kahn says:

    I have an old S210 Polar that I’ve used for years. I’ve had my VO2 tested the “fancy” way and it’s 60. Not too bad for a 56 yr ol’ lady! I’m an endurance cyclist and weight trainer. Also a personal trainer. My HR is so low during regular lifting…not circut or cross, that it rarely goes over 100. So I don’t consider weight training a big calorie burner, but maintaining lots of muscle on my 11% BF,116 lb frame ensures big calorie burn after lifting! Thanks for this enlightening article.

    • Erica House says:

      You are a BEAST!! My HR stays around 100 when I’m doing strength at home (which includes a decent amount of cardio bursts.) I also love the after-burn from strength training, as well as the shape it gives me. As much as I love running it’s not going to cut up my arms like I want! Your 11% BF is incredible – I’m hoping to get down to 16-17 this Summer (I’m at 19-20 now.)

  • Hi Erica, I’m the owner of ShapeSense.com. Thanks for linking to my site. I just wanted to point out that for Option 2 of the “How to Calculate your VO2max” image above, “H = number of heartbeats in 10 seconds at the end of the walk” is incorrect. It should actually be “H = Heart rate at test completion (beats/minute).” This is an error that I just noticed and corrected on my site two days ago.

    Don’t worry though, the calculator itself has always worked correctly, it was just the explanation of the equations that needed correction.

  • I am so glad I read this post! I have the polarFT4 too…but I was wondering how you change it? I see how to change the max heart rate…is that the same thing?
    Thanks for the info!!

  • Curlygirl910 says:

    Thank you so much!! I have been having a similar experience to the one you described. Now I finally know how to fix it!

  • mark says:

    I have to agree with AmyV here. I’m a fairly active individual, run approx. 50km/week. I have a low resting heart-rate, somewhere around 39-41 bpm (which is ok, I’ve always had a fairly low heart-rate, doctor’s checked me out) and according to some of the above estimates, based on resting heart rate, I should have a VO2Max in the range of 67 ml/kg/min. However, having done the Cooper Test, max I could run is 3000m in 12 minutes, which would equal a VO2Max of 55.77 mk/kg/min. Not bad for someone who is 39 but nevertheless way off the estimates given by the above formulas.

  • 10xZen says:

    Bought a pricey JABRA pulse (145-200 price) with a hr monitor, I like it except the hr monitor is wireless and easily disconnects during exercise (if it keeps disconnecting I might return it). It synchs with an app from JABRA on my iPhone and has cool tests like Rockport vo2 1 mi walk and the cooper 12 min run built in so I tried the Rockport it gave me a 58 pt score, I found this site in searching for more meaning to the number and I suppose it means I’m pretty fit :) I’m running a 5k (gasparilla in Tampa) on Sat and I am currently doing it in 26 mins not world class lol but I only started running every other day in the past 2 weeks after a run layoff of almost a year. I do strength train 3-4x a week and have consistently for most of my life (I’m 43, 5’7 158 12%body fat) which I think helps shorten the time it takes to prepare for a 5k. My next is the Cooper test and see how much ground I can cover for 12 mins (hopefully 1.5). Thanks for the great easy to understand non-technical post on vo2 max. The lady who “didn’t mean to be rude” gave way too much info, the layperson approach is what your audience looks for, after all there are caveats to everything – and not everyone has the big $ to put the mask on and run on a treadmill with an exercise physiologist. Some of us just want to know our hearts are fit for the fun of staying fit!

  • nicky basu says:

    Great Info. Thank you so much!!!
    It exactly happened to me as you have indicated, but slightly different way. In excitement I didn’t read the manual and started wearing Polar A300 as soon as it arrived. But kept wondering why I was burning so less compared to F7. Again, didn’t have time to read the manual, which prompted me to find some info over the Internet. I was lucky to read your experience, then took my fitness test when I got up from bed. Then went to the gym and to my surprise I recorded for 1 hour Elliptical = 560 Cal (it was 275-300 before). That’s a great feeling…Once again, thank you!!