part 4/4 of this series
VO2Max is the maximum rate your body can consume oxygen. The way to test it is by attaching a tube to your face that your breath out is analyzed with fancy sensors by a computer. When you breath in it lets air from the room in. By knowing the amount of oxygen in the air in the room and subtracting the oxygen you breath out, the precise amount consumed by your body is calculated.
There are tests to estimate it, but really there is not much point, they are not accurate. For example one test has you measure the distance covered running for 12 minutes, well that assumes a fixed efficiency which is not even remotely the case. So do the tests and have fun trying to figure out what your number is if you want. But, if you want it tested accurately, then go to a Doctor or a Lab that does this sort of testing and shell out some cash. It is measured as volume per body mass per time (ml/kg/min). The reason the per body mass is added is that then the relative number can be compared accurately between individuals with different size bodies. If the absolute number is calculated it will be volume per minute (l/min). Men and women have slightly different numbers due to the higher percentage body fat to keep those babies safe. If adjusted for lean body mass the numbers will be about the same, but that adds another layer of difficulty so it is not done normally.
There seems to be a big deal made of people that test high numbers, for example the highest tested athlete was some nordic cross country skier. But honestly, if that same guy took up running, then he would still have the same VO2Max and it would be attributed to a runner, so what that person happens to do is rather pointless. Also the number in and of itself probably doesn’t really matter. We all have lungs, and a heart, that deliver oxygen to our bodies, we get that whipped into shape and that’s all there is. You can’t train to improve this number once you are fit to compete in an event, nothing much can be done to improve this number. If you are not fit you can improve it by 20% on average unless you are one of the people who can’t, which implies that you weren’t fit but also not bogged down by an unhealthy cardiovascular system. There is little training you can do to improve this number, other than training that will improve the your lactate threshold. So training, if you are not fit will improve it but only by the amount that you are currently “screwed up” because you are not fit. You just workout and train to improve the lactate threshold and you will improve the VO2Max as much as possible as you keep it up. The sorts of things that are improved through training are the amount of blood, increased red blood cell count, and stronger heart and lung muscles. Remember that the VO2Max is the limit and the lactate threshold is how close you can come to that limit because of your own personal cardiovascular system’s ability to remove lactate from the blood.
So although VO2Max matters if you can compete on a high level with say olympic athletes, there are not going to be normal people that have so little they can’t compete at all. As proof of this I offer you the stats for 2 guys, Frank Shorter, US olympic marathon winner, had a VO2Max of 71.3 ml/kg/min, while the pikes peak marathon record holder, Matt Carpenter, had a Vo2Max of 92.0. Now I don’t know for sure but both these guys line up to the start line in their prime physical condition and I bet they both think they will win. And I bet they come close even though the numbers seem to be way off.
The way the test is done also shows you that this number is not all there is to competition. You get on a treadmill and start running. Then you increase the incline and/or speed every 30 seconds until you get so tired you fall off. You need to get to your maximum before you have so much waste product in your muscles that they burn and you can’t go any more because they fatigue. You are trying to stay out of the fatigue area and just measure how much oxygen you can consume. This means that you have passed your lactate threshold and it is building up, and then you are bumping up against your max oxygen intake long enough to see it flatten out all before the lactate build up so much you fall down and can’t go anymore. What happens is you reach say level 20 of the test and you take in 50 ml/kg/min and then on level 21 you take in the same, then on level 22 your face turns red and you are creating energy as fast as you can to make up for the fact that you cannot get more oxygen into your body and they raise it up to level 23 and you finally call them on it and stop running because you just built up an oxygen debt at the same time your lactate level is getting a bit high and between the two you decide it is no longer any fun. They get a graph of this and it levels off even though your workload increased. You cannot keep going harder and harder when this happens as you are creating an oxygen debt that must be paid back sooner rather than later. One Doctor I read from said this is about 2-3 minutes on the high end. From another source it said this is about 6 minutes and suggests that training at this pace with intervals will improve the numbers. Obviously you wont be at VO2Max for the begining of the interval where your body will use some of the other methods of producing that burst of energy until the cardio system kicks into full gear, which might explain why you can go for 6 minutes at that pace that during a proper VO2Max test would lead you to experiencing VO2Max oxygen uptake levels. I can get outside and go to a dead sprint in several seconds and run for a good 5-10 seconds and then stop without being any more winded than if I jogged around the block. This is an example of what I mean that just going fast doesn’t actually get you to VO2Max levels, you have to do it in a certain way. Running at vVO2Max (velocity @VO2Max) doesn’t mean you are taking in maximal oxygen. Although if you keep it up long enough you should in most cases.
Then again you can buy compression tights that claim to improve your VO2Max, so don’t listen to me when I say not to work on this nujmber at all, just work on the other numbers first and much longer than you work on trying to improve VO2Max. Or to think of it another way, if you work on efficieny and lactate threshold you will be doing all you can to improve your VO2Max.