What the Heck Is VO2 Max?

running-advice-bugWhen sorting through the features of the latest generation of fitness devices, runners might pause and ask, “Do I need that?” I wondered just that myself this fall, when I noticed that a number of fitness trackers, including the new Microsoft Band, started including VO2 max as a metric.

DSC_0407Fitness devices are intended to improve our health and training performance by giving us useful information such as how fast our hearts are beating and how many calories we burn. But much of this information is only marginally helpful in shaping how we train. For example, although most of us understand the concept of calories, many of us don’t eat solely to replenish the calories we burn in a workout. We may feel better about ourselves if we work off some of what we’ve eaten, but we don’t necessarily stop gulping the sugary morning coffee drink after seeing how many calories we’ve burned.

VO2 max has been used for many years in assessing the aerobic capability of athletes. The test measures the maximum amount of oxygen that an athlete consumes during exercise. Think about the efficiency of a car and the size of its motor. (However, keep in mind that VO2 max is not a measure like maximum horsepower or torque that calculates the engine’s ability to produce raw power.) Rather, VO2 max measures oxygen consumption, which is used in aerobic exercises like distance running. It doesn’t tell us much about our power during anaerobic exercises like a running sprint. So, while VO2 max gives us a picture of the power of our “engines,” it’s not telling us how fast we would be “off the line.”

To test VO2 max, athletes typically hook up to an apparatus that measures how much oxygen they breathe and how much oxygen and carbon dioxide they exhale during exercise. This is a direct measurement of how much oxygen is going in and how much is actually being used when athletes run. VO2 max is reached when oxygen consumption stops rising – even when the workout gets harder. The measurement is helpful because it allows athletes to determine how intense their training should be – and to monitor their VO2 max over time.
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How to Choose the Right Gadget for the Runner on Your Gift List

running-advice-bugIf you’ve got an electronically-inclined runner on your holiday shopping list, you may be wondering how to pick the best running gadget for him or her this year. Loads of electronics out there promise to improve health, track information and even calculate arcane pieces of information such as your VO2 max and “ground contact time.” But, by homing in on what really matters for runners, you can simplify the shopping process. Here’s what to know about the various options before you start your spree:

1. Fitness and Activity Trackers

The Garmin Forerunner 620

The Garmin Forerunner 620

The Fitbit and FuelBand makers of the world would have you wear a device on your wrist that gives you a panacea of health-related information. Most of such fitness trackers use a pedometer to count your steps and integrate with a software application that can display information such as the number of calories you burn each day and how much sleep you’re getting.

While activity trackers are good for general information, many runners find them less useful than purpose-built sports watches. The information from a pedometer is typically based on counting steps, so it’s hard for many of these devices to differentiate between walking, jogging or running – each of which burn progressively more calories. Fitness trackers also won’t work well for tracking information about sports such as swimming or CrossFit, where the feet aren’t moving around that much.

Grade for runners: C

2. Smartwatches

The news this year has been all about the smartwatch, from the Apple Watch to the Samsung Gear to the Moto 360. Most of these devices include fitness-monitoring features, such as heart rate monitoring and step counting.

The primary drawbacks of these gadgets for many runners are twofold. First, to take advantage of the watch’s features, you may have to carry your phone along with you on your run. Many runners don’t want to carry an expensive, potentially large, device with them. Second, some of the devices may not appreciate getting doused in sweat or rain on a daily basis. My own experience with the Moto 360 taught me that wearing a smartwatch with a leather band leads to a very grimy, yucky-looking band in no time flat.

Grade for runners: B-
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Review: Strava Running and Cycling Fitness GPS App

running-advice-bugI love Strava. I just love it. There are many fitness apps out there today, but there are five things that make the Strava Running and Cycling GPS App my number one choice for tracking and comparing running and cycling workouts.

A screen capture from Stava

A screen capture from Stava

First off, I have not been paid, solicited or even approached by the folks at Strava or any other company to write this review. I have been using Strava on my Android smartphone for more than a year. I have used it on both Samsung Galaxy S3 and now LG G2 Pro smartphones. In that time I have recorded about 1,900 miles of rides and almost 1,000 miles of runs. I should also note that I continue to use a Garmin Forerunner GPS watch and a cycling computer on my bike, both for the instant access to data that comes from these devices. But there are a number of reasons that I think Strava is tops for recording and capturing workout data.

Reason 1: It’s easy to use. For an app to really make it with the broadest range of users it has to be super easy to set up, use and navigate. Strava does such a nice job of keeping the interface simple. Say you want to switch between running and cycling? You just click the icon of the bicycle or the shoe at the top. That’s it. (It used to be two different apps.) You simply start a recording and then save it at the end. The app does the rest. The simplicity of Strava extends to the way it compares data to other athletes. It does it automatically. You don’t have to tell Strava to compare you to others or define the routes. Strava users define the routes, leaving this to those that care to do it, and the system makes the comparisons for you. It couldn’t be simpler.

Reason 2: It’s a training history all in one place. I used to be so haphazard about keeping records of my runs and rides. Forget writing them down or inputting them into TrainingPeaks. Since I take my phone with me on my workouts, now I simply hit start and have a record of all of my outdoor runs and rides in once place. This makes it very easy for me to scan back and see what I’ve done over the course of the last month or how long some ride or run might have been.
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