VO2 Max Test – Not Reaching Athletic Potential

Most endurance athletes are familiar with VO2 max testing, but for anyone who isn’t, VO2 simply means “volume of oxygen” and one’s VO2 max is the maximum volume of oxygen that a person can use. It is measured in milliliters per kilogram of body weight per minute (ml/kg/min).I’ve had my VO2 max tested four times in the past 6 years and when I heard of an opportunity to be part of a study and get a free test done, I jumped at it! Not only would I have the VO2 testing done, I would also get a DEXA scan done which is a very accurate measurement of one’s body density and is useful for things such as body composition and bone density. Having these two tests done on my own would easily run in the neighborhood of $200 or more.

The DEXA scan was done first, it was actually my second one done this year and is pretty non eventful. It involves lying completely still on a bench while an X-ray arm makes several passes over your body. The end result was to learn I am currently at 14% body fat and have very dense bones. The dense bones part was encouraging to hear as cyclists tend to have lower bone density, one of the big advantages of triathlons over strictly bike racing. If I had lower bone density I would probably have much more titanium in my body now than just my jaw!

Next was the VO2 Max test. Having done these before, I knew what to expect and was not looking forward to it. In preparation for the test, 4 electrodes are attached to my chest and stomach. Then a bulky hose is attached to a large helmet like contraption which is placed on my head. The end of the hose has a snorkel like end which I place into my mouth and bite down on. A clip is placed on my nose forcing all breathing to take place through the hose. This whole contraption presents the greatest flaw in the accuracy of the test as once I’m fully exerting myself, the amount of air I’m able to use is limited not by my lungs but by the inability to suck more air in fast enough due to the limitations of the hose.

The test begins with a very slow walk on a treadmill with a slight incline. Every three minutes the speed is increased slightly and the incline is increased more significantly. After the first three increases, I was still walking, albeit fast, but the incline was up to 10%. By the time I actually was able to start running, we were already about 10 minutes into the test and I was working hard! It wasn’t too long before I threw in the towel and since I still wasn’t running all that fast I was convinced my results were going to be very disappointing. In the past, my tests have all come out around 69 ml/kg/min; I was expecting it to be lower. The study I was participating in needed participants with VO2’s over 60, so my main concern was that I was at least above that magic number. My friend Ted had suggested I would be right at 60 ml/kg/min or perhaps a 58 ml/kg/min, but I doubted that I could have lost that much since my last test. However, based upon my time from my last 5k, my suggested VO2 max should be around 48 ml/kg/min, of course that 5k was anything but flat!

Once I had the tube out of my mouth and clip off my nose, I asked Colin one of the researchers how I had done. He told me I had made it to 45 ml/kg/min! I was shocked and trying to wrap my mind around how that had happened, he laughed and then told me I had actually reached 63 ml/kg/min. Once I had made it home after stopping to pick up some Chipotle, I did some calculations and determined that just by lowering my weight from the 163 I am currently at, my VO2 Max would reach 68 ml/kg/min without any further work. However, since in the process of loosing that weight I could also do some VO2 Max specific work, I should be able to raise it even slightly further.

Then I started doing a little googling and found this site: http://www.runningforfitness.org/calc/equiv.php Here I could put in my current VO2 Max or my target VO2 Max once I’m in racing shape. Using 69 ml/kg/min because I’ve been there, it predicts that I should be able to run a 15:07 5k, a 1:09:15 half marathon, and a 2:24:59 marathon. Even using my current VO2 Max of 63 ml/kg/min generates times that are currently way out of my reach! The first few numbers I can do, :32 for a 200, I could do that tonight. 1:05 for a 400 I could do if I had on spikes and had some competition. A 2:14 800 would hurt and might be out of reach right now, but it isn’t outside the realm of reality for me. As the distances increase, the times become a distant and seemingly unachievable goal.

I’m still analyzing all this in my head and trying to decide what if anything to take from all this. Am I a remarkable underachiever when it comes to running? Am I falling way short of my true potential? I need to tell myself that in reality VO2 Max is only one of several limiting factors, others include lactate threshold, running efficiency, muscular efficiency, and others. However, most if not all of these limiting factors can be improved. A more structured, methodic, and comprehensive training program should yield dividends. I haven’t set a PR in a few years and for that I have one less excuse…

posted at 10:48:17 on 11/06/08 by Tony Rigdon – Category: General


Adam wrote:

I had a test done this summer and was 64 on a bicycle (so hopefully around 70 on a treadmill) and a dunk tank at 11% weighing in at 171 pounds. The calculator you linked are my super goals or if I was the right weight and really training and eating correctly. They do get worse as they get higher though. About 2 min at the 10k and 4 at the 1/2 marathon. These are for the 64 reading and the 70 is out of bounds. I think this is for runners who have been only runners for at least a couple years. I could totally see you hitting those if you could lay off the bike and swim and run ALL year. Esp for the higher up ones. So I think it is about potential and yes you can do better and you are going to have to when I come back to the Midwest! bestonadventures.googlepages.com
11/07/08 19:51:24

Brad Earnest wrote:

Nice read Tony – keep up the good work! I strive for balance which means I can slack (training) sometimes to keep everything else in prespective (: I have not done my VO2 in several years but was tested in the low 60’s by Tom Lafontaine. My body comp is not pretty right now at 15 – 16% but looking forward to leaning down to the 10 – 12% range for faster times!!!
12/01/08 12:31:17