Photo courtesy of Herkie.
If you’ve spent time among endurance sporting folk, you may have heard the term VO2 Max.
VO2 Max is a sporting jargon term. It is a popular measure of an athlete’s performance, but what does it mean and how is it relevant to your own performance and fitness program?
VO2 Max is defined as the maximum capacity of an individual’s body to transport and utilize oxygen during intense or maximal exercise.
It is commonly used as a benchmark of an athlete’s capacity to perform sustained exercise and is linked to aerobic endurance.
In scientific VO2 Max is measured as milliliters of oxygen used in one minute per kilogram of body weight. In simple terms it is essentially:
How fast you’re sucking in air when running full speed!
To measure VO2 Max accurately, an athlete is usually tested on a treadmill wearing a special mouth-piece that measures the volume of air inhaled. The speed of the treadmill is increased gradually and as intensity increases so do does oxygen consumption until a point is reached at which increased intensity does not result in greater oxygen consumption.
The rate of air intake at this point is an athlete’s VO2 Max.
This measurement is considered the best indicator of an athlete’s cardiovascular fitness and aerobic endurance. The theory goes, the more energy you use when running hard, the more ATP energy you can produce. ATP being Adenosine Triphosphate, a chemical compound that breaks down to release energy responsible for muscle contraction.
Endurance athletes typically have very high VO2 Max values, so if you participate in any type of endurance sport: running, riding, skiing, chances are, your VO2 Max will be much higher than the average person’s.
To get an idea of where an individual stands in the grand scheme of things, here are some comparisons:
- Average young untrained male: 45
- Average young untrained female: 38
- Competitive club athlete: 70
- World class male athletes, cyclists and cross-country skiers typically exceed 75
- Five time Tour de France Winner Lance Armstrong: 85
- Three time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond: 92.5 (reportedly at his peak)
- Cross-country skier Bjørn Dæhlie 96
- A Thoroughbred horse: 180
- A Siberian sled dog: 240
All values are measured in ml/kg/min
How to Change Your VO2 Max
VO2 Max has a genetic component, but can also be increased through training by increasing both training volume and intensity. This will be harder if you’re already quite fit because you may already be close to your genetic potential. You may also not be genetically disposed to increases in VO2 Max in which case no amount of training will make any difference.
What Other Factors Affect VO2 Max?
Your VO2 Max will generally decrease past the age of 20, decreasing nearly 30% by age 65. This can be offset by training. Your gender is also a factor, the average male generally have a higher VO2 Max than the average female.
Your VO2 Max will also be slightly lower at a higher altitude because there is less oxygen.
VO2 Max and Athletic Performance
VO2 Max is not a guarantee of elite performance, but an indicator of an athlete’s potential for aerobic endurance. In terms of performance and especially winning a race, many other factors come into play such as training load, biomechanics, muscle fibre types, lactate threshold, mental strength, tactics, preparation and intelligence.
VO2 Max Treadmill Test
How to Find Your VO2 Max
As we have touched upon, measuring your VO2 Max accurately requires an all-out effort (usually on a treadmill or bicycle) performed under a strict protocol in a sports performance lab. These protocols involve specific increases in speed and intensity of the exercise and collection and measurement of the volume and oxygen concentration of inhaled and exhaled air. This determines how much oxygen the athlete is using.
An athlete’s oxygen consumption rises linearly in relation to exercise intensity to a point where the aerobic threshold is reached. After this occurs, consumption plateaus out, even if the intensity is increased. This plateau marks the VO2 Max.
There are a variety of alternative methods used to estimate VO2 Max, but none are as accurate as direct testing.