Can VO2 max Indicate Athletic Potential?

Nate Boyle
vo2 max

Fitness testing, which includes lactate thresholdanaerobic power, and VO2 max measurements, has become synonymous with human performance’s outer limits. And the dedication to it has become almost an almost cult-like infatuation with analytics. A desire to quantify and rank all things sports, frequently without understanding all the features required for athletic performance.

The story of Norwegian cyclist Oskar Svendsen reads similar to Mike Mamula’s famous hacking of the NFL Draft Combine, without the predetermined specific football training.

As a competitive skier, Svendsen undertook a regimen mostly focused on strength, balance, and coordination, so you wouldn’t expect he would have outstanding aerobic fitness. But after switching to cycling, he found that he was good at it, very good. So he took a VO 2 max test as part of a local high school cycling program’s selection process.

A breath in, a breath out shows capacity, not performance

When it comes to understanding your VO2 max score, it’s easy to remember that low scores represent low fitness levels, and higher scores indicate greater aerobic capacity.

However, the desire for a performance plateau to signify VO 2 max presents limitations as its occurrence is not universal in all tests. While it is unequivocally reached when oxygen consumption remains at a steady state despite an increase in the workload. That is not always the case.

At the same time that such findings mildly impact a considerable portion of knowledge, they challenge, for instance, the theoretical models to explain VO 2 max limitation/regulation.

Bruno P. C. Smirmaul, et al

Stack with both baseline fitness and trainability has a vital genetic component, and Svendsen appears to have hit the jackpot in both. Despite an inability to use these aerobic gifts with mechanical efficiency.

VO2 max has long been the aerobic standard

VO2 max is an indication of aerobic fitness and should increase as your level of fitness improves. And at its core is a measure of how much and quickly your lungs, heart, and muscles can uptake and process oxygen as aerobic capacity. Quantifying the maximal amount of oxygen your body can consume during top-end aerobic exercise.

Using VO2 max as a guideline for the aerobic training zone, cardiorespiratory fitness, for example, which habitually varies around 50 and 85% of VO max, would have its interval range shifted to the right.

When we debate potential feats of endurance, like world records, two-hour marathons, or the grail that was the four-minute mile, we’re implicitly questioning the contributions VO2 has to the outer limits of sustained human performance.

In addition to baseline fitness, VO2 max is also a predictor of performance success. However, its correlation to endurance sports is estimated at only 30-40%. Other factors, such as sustainable lactate threshold (in particular), motivation, training, etc., play a larger role, as Svendsen’s trials would attest.

How the test is run and cycled at the lab

Your VO2 max score is the key to seeing, understanding, and managing your aerobic capacity. Typically in the past, to find it, you wear a mask and heart rate monitor while on a treadmill or stationary bike. Where you undergo a progressively more difficult step test while critical performance markers are measured to confirm the test is progressive in nature and that VO2 max has been attained.

The increase in VO during activity remains fairly linear until your maximal oxygen consumption level is reached. At this point, the slope of the plotted line will begin to plateau.

The test ends when you reach volitional exhaustion, or one of the following predetermined criteria:

  1. a significant increase in the respiratory exchange ratio (RER ≥ 1.15) of carbon dioxide production to oxygen consumption
  2. a heart rate plateau with increased exercise intensity
  3. another plateau of your VO with increased intensity

And now, the new sensor in the Apple Watch Series 6 uses light to measure the percentage of oxygen in your blood or SpO2. In short, it measures the amount of oxygen that is bound to your blood cells and is carried to your muscles and organs. The new blood oxygen app lets you measure in just 15 seconds.

The gamification of fitness and performance training

With the emergence of algorithms like firstbeat and tech from Garmin Connect and Apple, cardiovascular fitness gamification is well underway. VO 2 max has moved from the lab to the gym and is on its way to the home.

As the gold standard for aerobic fitness become more mainstream, it is crucial to note that interval workouts, running at VO 2 max pace are a great way to improve current fitness.

And if that stokes your curiosity, then imagine what a few weeks of high-intensity interval training can do for your aerobic endurance. Again be sure to warm up to meet the increased demands properly.

Researchers believe your training plan should aim at a minimum:

Interval training consists of six 5 minute sessions on a cycle ergometer at a work rate approaching the subjects’ VO2max.

Andrew P. Bacon, et al

and performance capacity improves with:

The findings from these studies, along with the data reported in our paper, indicate that some of the peripheral metabolic adaptations to training require can be elicited by very short periods of high intensity exercise, but that longer intervals are required to see large changes in cardiac output and VO 2 max.

Andrew P. Bacon, et al

What should my VO 2 max be?

Trainability is specificity toward a specific power output, so it is no surprise that higher VO2 max scores are associated with certain endurance sports, most explicitly cycling, rowing, distance running, and cross-country skiing.

For instance, Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain’s VO 2 max was reported at 78 mL/kg/min at his peak physical condition. In comparison, cross-country skier Bjørn Dæhlie was once the upper limit (before Svendsen) of VO2 max at 96 mL/kg/min. Limits are defined not only by an individual athlete’s genetic makeup and training; but also by sport-specific requirements, ages, and genders.

VO 2 maxes distributions for several athletic groups

  1. Male elite runners as high as 85 mL/kg/min
  2. Female elite runners as high as 77 mL/kg/min.
  3. Fit 25-year-old male ~42.5-46.4 mL/kg/min,
  4. Fit 25-year-old female ~33.0-36.9 mL/kg/min.

And ~30% overall loss in VO 2 max by the time we reach 60 years old.

Likewise, it would be necessary to review the indirect equations to estimate VO 2 max, as they make use of VO 2 max reference values that are, according to the new findings (Beltrami et al., 2012; Mauger and Sculthorpe, 2012 ), submaximal.

Bruno P. C. Smirmaul, et al

Athletes typically do not account for the practical implications of parameters set by clinicians and scientists. And instead, establish their version of testing to satisfy a competitive streak based upon a digital community of aerobic fitness levels.

Effect of intensive prior exercise on muscle fiber activation, oxygen uptake kinetics, and oxygen uptake plateau occurrence.

Megan N Hawkins, et al

Whatever path forward, the ongoing sharing of information can only help communities improve overall health and well being.

Recovery matters to, estimates work for, and stress hurts a training program

VO 2 max values are not directly linked to sports excellence. They are not a panacea for magical recovery. And the term “overtraining” is broadly used to describe the state of mismanaging the training process to the point of negatively impacting performance. The demand that maximal exercise has on recovery can be detrimental when not adequately planned into a training plan.

Digital leaderboards should be viewed as a community to engage around fitness “x” times per week. Not a mountain to climb. If the digital world has you down, there are other methods of VO estimation.

One such incremental exercise test is the Cooper 12-minute run test to estimate VO 2 max. Designed to measure aerobic fitness levels for the U.S. Air Force in the 1960s, there are variations like:

The total duration of the latter was 10 min, distributed in 5 stages of 2 min each, in which individuals controlled the exercise intensity at each moment in order to achieve individual perceptions of effort of 11, 13, 15, 17, and 20, respectively, in the 15-points Borg scale.

Bruno P. C. Smirmaul, et al

And the Uth-Sørensen-Overgaard-Pedersen estimation, which factors in your resting heart rate (RHR) and maximum heart rate (MHR) to calculate VO 2max – the Heart Rate Ratio Method. A precursor to understanding Heart Rate Variability (HRV).

Where fluctuations in HRV indicate moderate amounts of stress compared to very low, which assist programming interval days with recovery.

VO2 max is the gold standard for athletes and coaches. An excellent marker of your fitness level is correlated (though not linearly) with race performance, sports performance, and endurance. Use it wisely.

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