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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