VO2 Max Part II: What it is not and why that matters

How to increase your VO2 Max, and why you can’t

I am amazed at how so many coaches contradict and confuse VO2 Max and power at VO2 Max (PMax), and try to convince you that you need to increase your max with certain types of intervals, most typically those in the 5 min range at or just below power. This method has done little to improve lactate threshold, and ignores the body of evidence supporting shorter intervals (see HIT). Chris Carmichael is one of the most notorious for perpetuating this myth. The fact is that if you have been training very intensely for 2 – 3 years your max will not increase in any meaningful way. This is not to say that it won’t creep up after many years, but no interval will move that number much. Fortunately, VO2 Max values are not all that, and there’s plenty to work on.

VO2 Max: Why the size of your engine really doesn’t matter

Among a group of similar level athletes, VO2 Max can vary as much as 10 ml/kg/min, with many lower values put performing the high max values. Why? Lactate threshold and/or economy (efficiency). Case in point, Alberto Salazar was widely known to have a relatively low VO2 Max for a runner of his caliber (~70), but was able to run at a pace very close to his max for 26.2 miles. Not surprisingly, he ran very fast. More recently, though, African runners, many of whom possess max values in the low 70’s, have dominated running. One possible reason is their high efficiency. While their absolute oxygen consumption at max is lower than other Western runners, the speed at which they achieve that value is far higher than most other runners; put another way, for each ml of oxygen then deliver, they produce a lot more power/speed. This last point brings us back to Tim Noakes, who has pointed out this flaw in the logic of dictating pace and grade changes in max testing. It is not oxygen use that dictates pace, rather it is pace that demands a certain amount of oxygen use. It is for many reasons that VO2 Max is not something you need to worry about. First, you cannot do much to change it. Second, many other factors influence performance more. And third, some of those are other factors are very trainable.

To test or not to test?

The short answer is, skip the test. The more thoughtful answer, however, is to measure max during a sustained, self paced effort, or a test that utilizes longer stages and provides more information regarding your overall performance characteristics than just maximum oxygen delivery. Specifically, a test that increases incrementally, using stages of 6-10 min can provide a far better profile of overall performance. Finding someone to do such a test may be difficult, however, as many test facilities only offer specific test methods, often charging extra in the process, and poorly interpreting the results. I do offer to evaluate test results for a nominal fee, and will also provide specific training recommendations.

If you would still prefer to know what your estimated max is, you can simply run your own treadmill test and calculate it; based on my own lab data on several subjects, the calculations come very close. Choose a speed that is slightly faster than comfortable at a grade of 1%. Increase the grade I have posted the running equation below:

VO2= 3.5 + (0.2 * (MPH*26.8)) + (0.9* (MPH*26.8)*(% Grade/100) (ACSM 2013)

At the end of the day, knowing VO2 Max does little to help me as a coach. If I’ve never met you and you aspire to be a Pro with a VO2 Max of 50 ml/kg/min I’ll know it will not happen, while someone who say they were tested at 80 ml/kg/min has a very good shot. However, it would not change my training approach much. Which is why I recommend you save your money (testing runs between $150-$200) for more important things, like training tools and coaching, because you just cannot change max much.

FOOTNOTES:

    1. The use of the 8-12 min test is a short and interesting story. Essentially, it was used and reported in one paper from the early 1980’s. As outlined in a 2008 Review by Midgley et al., there is no substantive reason why tests should last 8-12 min. In fact, highly trained populations are capable and may benefit from longer staged protocols.
    2. VO2 Max is a strong determinant for all-cause mortality. In a 2009 review discussed in our HIT series, Wisloff notes that not only does the risk of death go down as VO2 Max goes up, but very low VO2 Max values are indicative of poor health and prognosis. This makes sense, since VO2 Max represents not only the cardiac delivery capacity, but also the oxygen use as well.
    3. The idea of determining when Max is truly MAX is not easy. Under textbook conditions, oxygen consumption should plateau without further increase even if workload increases. In practice this is difficult to achieve, particularly when using the 8-12 min protocol with 2 min stages. When a plateau is not present, a series of criteria needs to be met to be considered VO2 Max, otherwise it is called PEAK. The terminology can be reviewed in this paper by Howley, Basset and Welch (Criteria for VO2max). Of note is that the respiratory exchange ratio (ratio of oxygen used and carbon dioxide produced) must exceed 1.15. This means that you are expiring more CO2 than O2 used, indicative of glycolysis (in old fashioned terms, you be going anaerobic). This again suggests that in order to get a VO2 Max value you must exceed max.

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