VO2 Max or Bust

authAthletes live by numbers.

Running sub 4-minute kilometres on the track to break the 40-minute barrier for the 10k.

Keeping the heart rate to 130-150 when training for the marathon

Cycling at 100 revolutions per minute to increase your pedalling efficiency.

Trying to reduce your 25 strokes per length in the pool when working on swimming efficiency.

The numbers assist us in setting objectives, overcoming opponents and racing against The Clock. The Clock never lies. Understanding numbers helps beat The Clock and achieve records. Records invite gold medals, sometimes money, and – almost always – honour and social credit.

Of all the numbers, the one that stands out as the true indicator of the calibre of the athlete – a number determined predominantly by the genes and conveniently the coolest sounding of numbers – is your VO2 max.

Your VO2 max is the maximum rate at which your body consumes oxygen in a given minute. The higher your VO2 max, the higher the athletic pedigree. If you were to litmus-test the VO2 max numbers for the general population, you’d find that women between the ages of 20 – 29 have a VO2 max of 35 to 43, whereas men of the same ages would have a VO2 max of 44 to 51.

So, for example, take a college student, strap a breathing mask to their face linked up to the VO2 max measuring machine and run them on a treadmill to failure. What the figures reveal is a V02 max of probably 46. This means that in a minute, a volume of 46 millilitres of oxygen per kilogram of the student’s body weight, is consumed by the student.

Think of VO2 max as your engine type. The elite athlete may be blessed with a Ferrari engine, whereas your middle-of-the-pack-weekend-warrior may have the engine of a Ford Fiesta. Any engine is an engine nonetheless. And engines can be conditioned. A Ferrari left in the garage for a decade would lose to a fully functional and well maintained Ford Fiesta. Additional factors like mental attitude, training methods and running efficiency should also never be overlooked.

Elite athletes tend to start with VO2 max results in the 70’s. Cross-country skiers hold the record for the highest VO2 max at 94, attributed to healthy exercise at high altitudes spinning copious amounts of oxygenated blood through their Nordic veins. Paula Radcliffe revealed in her 2004 autobiography that her V02 max was in the region of 80. An astonishingly high number. The previously highest recorded female (once again a cross-country skier) was at a comparably trivial 74. What leaves an impression is that, all things constant, the VO2 max in women is equivalent to 10 points more than the VO2 max of men. So Paula’s actual VO2 max may have been closer to 90. Remarkable.

The beauty of the VO2 max is not that it reveals your limitations, but that it sets the bar that you need to overcome. It allows predictions of performance at various distances, especially in running. For example, a 33 year old male with a VO2 max of 61 (above average but certainly not an elite athlete) indicates that the runner should be able to run a 10k time in 35 minutes, and has a marathon potential of 2:45. Not a bad target on which to set his sights.

So with hard work and good habits the rewards are there to be reaped. You may not have a Ferrari engine, but knowing your VO2 max and that there’s plenty of oomph left under the hood should leave you confident that beating The Clock is only a matter of time.

Peace be the journey,