The Tour de France, known to be one of the most rigorous displays of physical endurance on earth is currently well into its final stages of competition. As I sat watching the cyclists trek up the hills of Mont Ventoux with what looks like little to no effort, I sat in amazement at how these athletes can withstand these conditions for so long. This got me thinking; what makes these athletes perform the way that they do? One factor that may help determine an athlete’s capacity to perform sustained exercise is known as VO2 Max.
VO2 Max, or maximal oxygen uptake, is associated with aerobic endurance or cardiorespiratory fitness and is used by many athletes to determine their overall fitness level. VO2 Max is defined as the maximum volume of oxygen per unit time that an individual uses at maximum exertion. It is measured as milliliters of oxygen used in one minute per kilogram of body weight (ml/kg/min). Simply put it is the body’s ability to use oxygen during exercise.
Theoretically, the more oxygen you can use during exercise, the more energy or ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) you can produce in your cells. Giving you the ability to withstand extended amounts of exertion without fatigue. We see this most often in elite endurance athletes such as, cyclist, cross country skiers and marathon runners, who typically have very high VO2 Max values. Some of the best values recorded push into the 90 ml/kg/min range with Lance Armstrong, one of the most famous cyclists, being recorded at an 85 ml/kg/min at his peak conditioning. The average for a sedentary individual varies person to person, however you can see this being around 35 ml/kg/min.
VO2 Max depends greatly on genetics and represents your innate ability to do constant exercise; some people really do just have good genes! You may have seen this first hand in individuals who can run for hours without tire or possibly in the person who can out perform others with little to no training what’s so ever. Yes, these people do have an upper hand, however there is good news for the rest of us. Research shows that although VO2 max has a genetic component, it can also be increased through training and weight loss. The two methods for increasing VO2 Max include increasing both training volume and intensity; meaning you workout more often and train harder. In fact, it has been shown one can increase their VO2 Max as high as 15-20% through proper training.Aside from genetic factors, other components have a large influence on VO2 Max including age, gender, medical history, current health and level of physical activity. These should also be taken into consideration when one is determining their level of physical fitness.
- Quinn, E. VO2 Max and How It Is Measured in Athletes. Vol. 2018 (very well fit, 2018).
- Kenney WL, W.J., Costill DL. Physiology of Sport and Exercise, (Human Kinetics Publishers, 2012).
- Science Learning Lab. Energy for Exercise. (June 21, 2007).