2013 VO2 Max Test – Part 2

Doran | January 30th, 2014 - 11:37 pm

This post picks up from where Part 1 left off, with me exhausted, dripping with sweat, sitting on top of a cycle ergometer.  The video of the last minute of the test is below.  As you can see, I was pretty gassed at the end.

The system produces a ton of data, but the key points for me was that I maxed out with a VO2 Max of 57.1 (ml/kg/min), riding at 325 watts with a heart rate of 187 beats per minute (probably my max heart rate).  Interestingly, this is similar to my 2008 test, which I had a VO2 Max of 58.6 (ml/kg/min).

2013 vs 2008 VO2 Max Tests

So what does this tell me… well, a few things.  Let’s start with the VO2 Max of 57.  This is pretty good.  In fact, it’s proven that values on the bike are usually about 5%-10% lower than running, so you could say my VO2 Max is closer to 60.  And let’s not forget that body weight is in the denominator and at the time of the test I was 155lbs (77.5 kg), after two months of off-season indulgence (about 2kg’s heavy).  So if we use my “fighting weight” of 148-150lbs, I may also have scored slightly higher.  But regardless, we have a value, so I googled different charts to see the typical range of values, I saw this particular one at a few places around the web so I’ll use it (http://www.topendsports.com).  For a male 26-35, anything over 56 ml/kg/min is “excellent”.

VO2 Max Norms

The guys at endurance corner website break it down a bit more specific to the triathlon and endurance sports community and offer the following rough outline.  This makes sense because triathletes shouldn’t really be lumped in with the normal population.  This measure puts me borderline between middle of the pack and top age grouper, which is about right – “upper-middle pack”.  A few “freakish” endurance athletes have been tested in the 80’s and even 90’s (a few listed here with some interesting discussion), these are guys like marathon and Tour de France champions.

  • Elite: 65-75
  • Top AG: 60-70
  • Middle of Pack: 50-60
  • Back of Pack: 40-50
  • Untrained: 30-40

However, raw VO2 Max doesn’t tell the whole story, another important component to this is your lactate or anaerobic threshold – the point at which lactate begins to accumulate in the blood.  Under this rate you are relying on your aerobic system, which can sustain effort for a long period of time.  Additionally, any byproducts of anaerobic metabolism are cleared from the muscle and from the blood which also negates the accumulation of lactate.  It should be noted that even though we only refer to lactate when speaking of anaerobic metabolism, we should also keep in mind that anaerobic metabolism really results in the production of lactic acid.  Lactic acid quickly dissociates into the lactate ion and the hydrogen ion.  As such, our working muscle as well as our blood becomes more acidic.  This has negative effects within the muscle, and on the nerve that activates the muscle.  This results in ‘fatigue’ and thus, you can’t sustain that pace for very long.  Using the data provided by the VO2 Max test, a fitness professional can also find where your lactate threshold is, in terms of percent of VO2 Max, hearth rate, and pace or power.   This value determines what athletes will target for various race distances – most of us go by power or heart rate for long distance triathlons.  For instance, having a high VO2 Max is great, but if your lactate threshold (LT) is only 50% of that VO2 Max, you can’t take full advantage of the body’s ability to utilize oxygen.  Typical LT values range between 50% and 80% of VO2 Max with less fit individuals having an LT of approximately 50% to 60% of VO2 Max whereas moderately trained individuals are typically between 60 to 70% of VO2 Max.  The good news is that this can be improved through training, and my 2008 test indicated that I could sustain 77% of my VO2 Max.  The more recent test was less conclusive in the estimate of my LT but indicated a value of 70%… still pretty good.  The most accurate way to test this would be to take blood samples during the exercise. However a VO2 Max test also does the trick by measuring the determining the relationship between the volume of expired air (VE) and workload.  Basically VE increases in a linear relation to an increase in workload.  However, there is a point that this relationship becomes exponential.  This point, the ‘ventilatory threshold’ (VT) has been shown to occur at approximately the same workload as the LT.  Using this method one can also determine the heart rate at which the athlete is at lactate threshold, and for me this was around 160 beats per minute (bpm).  Again, heart rate at lactate threshold is slightly higher when running than riding a bike.


So how does all this make someone better as an athlete?   The information obtained from a VO2 Max test is useful both in terms of racing and training.  Let’s start with training, because you can’t race fast without building the fitness in training.  Once you know the bike power or running pace and heart rate associated with your lactate threshold, you can work to raise it.  Any aerobic training helps (all my ironman training in 2008), but the most effective way to do this is through interval training, with the intervals aimed within 5% of your LT.  A bike workout with 3 x 10 minutes at (or just above) LT with 5 or 10 minute rest interval or even just a warm up then riding 20 minutes at LT are examples.  Over time, this will allow you to sustain a higher work rate during a race, without necessarily raising your VO2 Max.  These are the types of workouts helpful to endurance athletes, where top end work rate isn’t as important as the rate you can sustain for a 2-15 hour race.  However, if you are looking to run a fast mile or 5k, improving VO2 Max through higher intensity intervals (less than 5 minutes) is likely an important training goal.  As research seems to indicate with most athletic traits, VO2 Max is partially pre-determined by genetics, but can be improved through specific training.

In terms of racing, knowing these values can help set heart rate or power zones to hold during a race.  This often helps athletes better pace themselves and avoid the tendency to start the swim, bike, or run too fast.  If your lactate threshold heart rate is 160 bpm, then you know you shouldn’t be at 175 when you start the bike leg of a half ironman (which is tough as people are flying by you… but the longer the race the better chance you’ll see them again if you are pacing correctly).  Below is a chart of my heart rate during each stage of the test… which was very consistent when compared with 2008.

2008v2013 HR v Watts

Not everyone has the opportunity to take a VO2 Max test.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out of luck.  There are several methods to approximate your VO2 Max.  Famous running coach Jack Daniels developed what he calls the VDOT calculator.  Using your running time, you can use his calculations to get a VDOT value, which he describes as a VO2 Max that incorporates running economy, efficiency, and mental toughness.  Basically, using what you can actually do in a race to better predict other race distance times and also set training paces (rather than using lab data).  Entering a conservative estimate of my best open 5k time (18:45), I got a VDOT of 54, fairly close to my VO2 Max.  This makes sense, because I really have never fully trained as a runner, the VDOT may not fully reflect my full aerobic capacity because I’m limited by (relatively) poor running economy.

For non-runners out there, the Uth—Sørensen—Overgaard—Pedersen equation is here.  Researchers at the Department of Sport Science at the University of Aarhus, Katrinebjergvej came up with an equation that estimates VO2 MAX using the ratio between ones maximum heart rate and hear rate at rest (here is the abstract on Pubmed). The Uth—Sørensen—Overgaard—Pedersen equation is: VO2 Max = 15 x (Max HR / HR at Rest).  Checking this on myself, I get 15x (187/42) = 67.  A little high maybe, but in the ballpark, given my recent test could be a little higher if I was running or at race weight.

So that’s about it for VO2 Max Testing.  We got a little technical there with the help of Dr. Frank Bosso.   If there are any questions for Dr. B, or if you want to compare VO2 Max, let me know.  I would be interested to see what people get through VDOT or USOP equation.


One Response to “2013 VO2 Max Test – Part 2”

  1. Conor says:

    I completed a pretty grueling VO2 max test myself a couple years ago. Only to find out afterward that the results were inconclusive because the breathing mechanism wasn’t on tight enough. I was pretty pissed and they offered to reschedule but I think it’s cooler to think I was just off the charts and broke the machine.

    Your resting HR is crazy low. I think mine is around 60 or high 50’s at best. You getting any faster these days??

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