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VO2max - the size of the engine

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

In the endurance world, there’s always a lot of bragging about personal data, performances and numbers. A classic question that often comes up is “what's your FTP?” Or even geekier: “what is your power-to-weight ratio?” However, both FTP and power-to-weight ratio are highly dependent on another metric, that since the development of FTP has been partly forgotten: the V02max.

VO2max is often quoted and mentioned as the most important measurement for endurance sport. The metric rates the maximum volume of oxygen that an individual can utilize during exercise, and it’s measured in milliliters or oxygen (ml) that the body can use per kilogram of bodyweight (kg) every minute (min). The formula is VO2max = ml/kg/min where V stands for a flux rate, O2 for oxygen and max for “maximum”.

The size of the engine

In other words, VO2max has been described as “the size of the engine”, and that means how much oxygen your body can actually use to produce energy during exercise. The rate at which your muscles use oxygen is proportional to the amount of energy (or power) produced aerobically. Therefore, VO2max is a valid marker of the aerobic energy system performance. A higher VO2max number (a bigger engine) corresponds to a better aerobic metabolism, and that means a better capacity to use oxygen and fat as fuel for the workout.A higher VO2max also results in a higher concentration of mitochondria in the muscle (organelles where nutrients are broke down and turned into energy), an improved blood flow to these muscles .

VO2max in pros and average Joes

The highest VO2max ever recorded in professional sports (and from a list of documented VO2max tests) is of cyclist Oskar Swendsen of Norway, who recorded a mind-blowing 97.5 in September 2012 during a test conducted in Lillehammer.

The second and third are also Norwegian athletes: the cross-country skiers Espen Harald Bjerke and Bjørn Dæhlie (both 96). For reference, the American cyclist Greg Lemond – fourth on the list and the first non-Norwegian in the ranking – reportedly has a score of 92.5; the Spanish ultra runner Kilian Jornet (5th) 92; and the Spanish cyclist Miguel Indurain (11th) 88.

An average male (non-trained) would score between 30 and 40, an average woman (also not trained) from 28 to 35. A good amateur would probably be around 60 and a Category 1 rider (professional level) around 70 and up.

Conventional testing and the training of VO2max

VO2max is measured through a lab or field test that measures O2 consumption during maximum exercise.

During these tests, wearing a face-mask connected to an analyzer that measures the gas exchange within your body is mandatory. Although this test is usually conducted in labs, there are portable systems that can measure your gas exchange rates on field.  It is a brutal test: in 10 minutes the goal is simply to make you reach your own physical limit until you can’t take it anymore and almost collapse. Every minute or every 30’’ the intensity (speed or treadmill incline) is increased up to the point that you can't increase it anymore.

VO2max on INSCYD

With INSCYD, you can either enter a measured VO2max value from a field or lab test, or alternatively, let the software determine it for you from other tests conducted at sub-maximum conditions. The determination of VO2max in INSCYD is not based on accidental correlation of metrics that aren’t really linked to oxygen uptake (like some devices do by estimating VO2 from heart-rate variability).  INSCYD is able to calculate the VO2max in a very simple, but scientifically-proven way: from a tests performed at sub-max conditions, for example, INSCYD calculates the aerobic demand of energy by deducting it from the anaerobic demand that has been calculated in the test.

Although the upper ceiling of an individual’s VO2max seems to be limited by genetics, the common misconception is that it can’t be trained. That is not true, because within an individual range, it is highly trainable through exercise.In general, every type of exercise that triggers the consumption of 02 also provides a stimulus for your body to increase its VO2max. On the other hand, each “detraining phase” (like staying in bed for 2 weeks or not exercising at all during a rest period physical) will decrease the VO2max of an athlete very quickly. One of the reasons for these quick changes in VO2max rate can – among other things – be explained by the short life of mitochondria (which is around 18 to 26 days).  Mitochondria are those parts of the muscles where the oxygen is used as a fuel for energy production and their life-time may also be reduced significantly by strenuous exercise. So even training too hard can actually decrease an athlete’s VO2max.

INSCYD will enable you to compare the effect of high-intensity interval training over endurance workout on VO2max; evaluate the impact of specialized nutrition on your VO2max; understand the impact of VO2max on fat oxidation and carbohydrate combustion; and explain the changes in anaerobic threshold or fat combustion observed in your athletes.

Don't get left behind and start training for real. Because you can't improve what you can't measure.

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