Does VO2 Max Make Sense For You?

Chances are when I say VO2 max, you think fitness, athletics and performance.

Legends score high on the high tech aerobic endurance measurement. Lance Armstrong had a VO2 max of 84 and was a legend (a legend tarnished by doping, but a legend nonetheless). Steve Prefontaine had a VO2 max of 84.4 in 1970 and held records in seven different track events.

Most athletes at the elite level at least have a ballpark estimate of their VO2 max. It’s fair to wonder if all athletes or gym enthusiasts would see fitness gains by knowing it. Is VO2 max something we should measure regularly and work to improve? Or should we leave that the pros?

First, what is VO2 max?

In A Brief History of Endurance Testing In Athletes, sports science professor Stephen Seiler describes VO2 max as a measurement of the maximum volume of oxygen your body can process when you are exercising. It gauges how efficiently and effectively an individual takes in oxygen and delivers it from the lungs to the bloodstream where it fuels active muscles. The faster your body can process oxygen, the faster you will be able to run, swim, bike, ski, skip or jump. High-level athletes perform well at relatively low heart rates in large part because of the enormous volume of blood, which transfers oxygen, their hearts can pump to their muscles with each stride.

Is VO2 worth testing?

Although a high VO2 max can indicates athletic potential, it is by no means indicative of performance or execution. In fact, Seiler suggests that it can actually be a poor predictor of performance in most sports, including running. Aerobic efficiency is meaningless without the physiological and psychological tools to tap into it. For example, in running, form, strength and efficiency play huge roles in performance regardless of VO2.

That being said, knowing your VO2 is an invaluable tool in monitoring progression in your aerobic capacity and can also be used to determine optimum heart rate for your different training days. When left to our own devices, athletes often struggle with training at the intensities they need to meet their goals. Calculating your VO2 max and monitoring heart rate during exercise makes sure you’re at the right intensity level.

In his book 80/20 Running, Matt Fitzgerald says that to become a faster, stronger and less prone to injury, we should be spending 70-80 percent of our training sessions in the aerobic zone and only about 10 percent in an anaerobic zone. In other words, to maximize aerobic gains and avoid injury, most of our training should be at an easy effort. But training easy is easier said than done.

How to test VO2 max

By far the most accurate way of measuring your VO2 max is getting a professional test in a lab where you measure how much oxygen you consume while running on a treadmill. During this test, the speed of the treadmill will slowly increase about every ten minutes. As it speeds up, the amount of oxygen you consume will also increase. However, shortly before exhaustion, your oxygen intake will begin to plateau, giving you your VO2 max AKA the maximum amount of O2 you can process during exercise.

However, if you don’t have the time, money or interest to seek out a lab, some GPS watches can test VO2 max while using a heart rate monitor. There are also programs on the internet that will estimate VO2 max based on age, resting heart rate and daily activity.

Have I had my aerobic capacity tested?

Although interested in the prospect, I’ve never had any aerobic testing done. To be honest, I’ve been nervous to do it because I didn’t want a number on a spreadsheet to determine my athletic ability above actual performance. Putting too much weight in numbers can be extremely detrimental to athletes who are susceptible to pre-race doubt. That said, using knowledge of my VO2 max to help me chill out on my easy training sessions could be the difference between longevity and burn out.

Is it worth it? I say if you have the means, go for it.