CLINIC: Your VO2 Max is a Number Worth Knowing

Wed, 22 Aug. 2012 - 10:06 p.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

 I’m a 47-year-old male middle distance runner. I train about 30 miles per week, and race about once or twice a month. Should I go through the trouble of determining my VO2 max?
Kevin Munsey
Levittown, NY
 VO2 max—defined as the maximal amount of oxygen that a person can take in (respiration), transport (cardiac output), and use (cellular respiration) during maximal exhaustive aerobic exercise—is considered by most exercise physiologists to be the best measure of cardiorespiratory capacity. It can therefore be very beneficial to your training to know and keep track of this number. It is also, however, an excellent predictor of surgery outcomes, transplant outcomes, and other procedures.
One of the best reasons for knowing your VO2 max, then, is for health status. For example, in one study 100 percent of cardiac patients with a VO2 max greater than 32 mls/kg/min were alive after three years, whereas 70 percent of those with a VO2 max of less than 22 mls/kg/min had expired. In another study in Toronto, similar results were found among 12,000 cardiac patients.
With regard to training, VO2 max is one of four or so parameters that predict performance among homogenous populations (such as elite runners). The other parameters are running efficiency, anaerobic or lactate thresholds, and blood status. Knowing your baseline VO2 max can give you an idea of your personal genetic limit. In the Heritage Study, among previously sedentary twins, after 16 weeks of training, VO2 max increased from  about 5 percent to 50 percent, with an average of around 25 to 30 percent; thus it is presumed that VO2 max can be increased from baseline by 25 to 30 percent. Note that this assumes optimal nutrition and bodyweight. Since VO2 max is expressed in milliliters per kilogram per minute, bodyweight becomes critical to optimization of the value.
Half of VO2 max is determined by the ability of the heart to pump blood, and the other half by the ability of the exercising tissues to use oxygen. The formula for VO2 max is HR x Stroke Volume x A-V Oxygen difference. VO2 max is typically highest on the treadmill (or cross-country skiing) with the highest value recorded to my knowledge being 92 mls/kg/min (typical expression in order to correct for differences in bodyweight, referred to as “relative VO2 max”).
Interestingly, Lance Armstrong was measured at 84 mls/kg/min and Jim Ryun at 82 mls/kg/min. Ryun's VO2 max was 65 mls/kg/min after a year without training. This suggests his VO2 max (82) increased from his baseline (65) by 25 percent.
A VO2 max of less than 85 percent of the VO2 max predicted for your age, gender, height, and weight suggests cardiac dysfunction. In men and women who do not have coronary artery disease, VO2 max is an excellent predictor of longevity and survival.
For a variety of reasons, then, VO2 max is worth determining. It is an excellent measure to predict both performance and health outcomes.
Tom LaFontaine, PhD, FACSM
Columbia, MO
(RUNNING & FITNEWS® September / October 2010 • Volume 28, Number 5)
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