What is VO2max?

Have you ever wondered how you compare to other cyclists? Measure your VO2 max.

Also known as maximal oxygen uptake, VO2 max is widely considered the most accurate measure of cardiovascular fitness. Measuring your VO2max can give you an insight into your current fitness levels, helping you gauge the effectiveness of your training program and make adjustments if needed.

What is VO2max exactly?

VO2 max is a measure of the maximum (max) volume (V) of oxygen (O2) that your body can absorb and use during intense aerobic exercise. It is measured in milliliters of oxygen consumed in one minute per kilogram of body weight (mL/kg/min). You need oxygen to exercise, and the more efficiently you can consume and use it (the higher your VO2 max), the easier exercising at specific intensities will feel.

Oxygen is used to create adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy currency that powers your every move. The more oxygen you can mobilize for ATP production, the more energy you have available to ride your bike.

“It can be helpful to think of your VO2 max like a car engine, but for your body,” says Todd Buckingham, Ph.D., chief exercise physiologist at The Bucking Fit Life. “The bigger your engine, the greater your ability to be a good endurance athlete.”

Keep in mind, though, that just because you have a high VO2 max doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be the fastest rider. There are other factors that play into performance, such as eating properly, training different energy systems, and how hard you can exercise before lactate (a byproduct of exercise) builds up in your blood (also known as the lactate threshold), says Garrett Seacat, CSCS, cycling coach and owner of Absolute Endurance.

That said, “having a higher VO2max will increase the likelihood of having a better running performance,” says Dr. Buckingham.

As a bonus, research suggests that higher VO2 max levels are associated with greater longevity, so it’s not just your performance that improves with higher VO2 max.

How is VO2 max measured?

To get the most accurate measurement of your VO2 max, you should visit a gym that offers VO2 max testing.

A VO2 max test is considered the gold standard measure of endurance, notes Johns Hopkins Medicine. The test usually lasts only 12 to 15 minutes and involves walking, running, or cycling while you breathe into a mouthpiece that collects exhaled air and sends it to a machine (also known as a “metabolic cart”) through attached tubes.

You’ll start pedaling at low power and a skilled technician will gradually increase the power until you burn out. But rest assured, it’s only the last few minutes of the test that are really difficult, says Buckingham.

The machine is also working hard. As you exercise, analyze and record how much oxygen you’re using. With this information, the technician will be able to calculate your VO2 max.

While the VO2max test can be done on a treadmill or a bicycle, you’ll get the most accurate measurement on a bicycle. “Having a cyclist do a race-based test can underestimate their VO2 max, as they are engaging muscles that they may not be used to using,” says Avi Silverberg, MS, CSCS, a strength coach and Conditioning that works with competitive indoor and outdoor. outdoor cyclists. Many labs even allow cyclists to bring their bike and set it up on an indoor bike trainer.

For cyclists who can’t get to a lab, there are more accessible ways to estimate VO2max. However, none will be as accurate as a laboratory test. So take any alternative method estimates with a grain of salt.

The easiest method to estimate VO2 max. it’s letting your watch or fitness tracker do it for you. Some models use heart rate data and exercise data (such as pace) to calculate your VO2 max. However, research published in Cardiovascular Diagnosis and Therapy in 2019 shows that wrist-worn devices become less accurate in measuring heart rate as runners pick up their pace. Having darker skin also reduces accuracy. Less accurate heart rate measurements can mean less accurate VO2 max estimates.

There is no perfect VO2 max number. However, you can compare your number to the averages to get an idea of ​​how you’re doing. Active men between the ages of 18 and 45 typically get between 45.5 and 46.4 mL/kg/min, while very active men often reach 85 mL/kg/min or higher, according to the Cleveland Clinic . Active women within the same age group typically fall between 33 and 36.9 ml/kg/min, with very active women reaching 77 ml/kg/min or more.

Why should cyclists know their VO2 max?

Measuring your VO2max can give you an idea of ​​how you compare to other cyclists. You can compare your numbers with riders who share characteristics like age, gender, and experience level. But you can also use measurement as a way to see your own progress over time. Monitoring your VO2 max can help you assess how your fitness is improving (or not) with training. Again, the higher your VO2 max, the easier it will be for you to exercise at a specific intensity, so you’ll be able to perform harder workouts without feeling like you’re working harder—a big advantage of training to improve this measure.

According to Buckingham, many professional athletes track progress by assessing their VO2 max at the beginning of each training block, that is, six or more times per season. For non-professionals, two tests per year is enough. “Start with one at the beginning of your season and re-evaluate halfway through to make sure your training is having the desired effect,” says Buckingham.

If your VO2 max isn’t improving the way you’d hoped, it may be time to tweak your program (and maybe hire a coach).

How can you improve your VO2 max?

UC Davis Health notes that there are many factors that can affect VO2max, including age, body composition, gender, genetics, and of course training. While you can’t control your genetics or age, you can manipulate your workouts to raise your VO2max.

Cycling at lower intensities (between 50 and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate) is essential. “Training at low intensity helps increase the number of mitochondria and capillaries in our muscles,” says Buckingham.

Mitochondria are the cellular structures where oxygen is converted into energy for working muscles, while capillaries are the tiny blood vessels that exchange waste products like carbon dioxide for nutrients like oxygen. More mitochondria means more places where oxygen can be turned into energy. Similarly, having more capillaries means getting more oxygen to the mitochondria and more carbon dioxide from the muscles.

However, some studies suggest that high-intensity training (between 80 and 100 percent of your maximum heart rate) provides the best method of improving your VO2 max. Some science also suggests that you can train at higher intensities at lower training doses to achieve improvements in VO2 max, making it an efficient way to improve fitness.

Higher intensity workouts increase the size and function of mitochondria. “That’s why it’s important to vary your training and not just train at the same intensity for every workout,” says Buckingham. He recommends doing most (about 80 percent) of your cycling workouts at a lower intensity and some (about 20 percent) at a higher intensity.

Try this high-intensity cycling workout to improve VO2 max, courtesy of Seacat. After heating for 10 minutes at low intensity:

  • Pedal for 2 minutes at a maximum effort that you can maintain throughout the interval
  • Pedal for 2 minutes at an easy recovery pace.
  • Repeat until you have completed four rounds total.
  • Recover 5 to 10 minutes
  • Complete another four rounds of 2 minutes, 2 minutes rest

      Seacat recommends doing this exercise on the road with a steady climb or a headwind. However, it can also be done indoors if needed. Aim for a pedaling cadence between 75 and 90 rotations per minute.

      Note that improvements in VO2 max. they will not happen overnight; it takes time to see this number change. So stick with your workouts and keep them consistent, and that’s when you’ll see results.

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