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The Two Things Every Endurance Athlete Should Focus On Improving For Optimal Performance (Part 1)

The first of these two things is VO2 Max.  You’ll have to wait for Part 2 of this article to find out the other. If like me you have the attention span of a 2-year-old on a sugar high and don’t have time to read the full article here are the take-home points:

Key Points:

  • VO2 Max is arguably one of the most important physiological variables that best predicts success for endurance athletes.
  • By strict definition, VO2 Max (maximal oxygen uptake) is the greatest amount of oxygen that can be used at the cellular level for the entire body.
  • An increased VO2 Max can help you go stronger for longer, learn to deal with pain during a race, or make your easy training days feel a lot more comfortable.
  • VO2 Max values in normal, healthy individuals range from 25 to 80 ml/kg/min and depend on a variety of physiological parameters, including age and conditioning levels.
  • There are many ways to test or predict your VO2 Max. One requires going to the lab; the other has you doing specific workouts, while the last method predicts it off a current race time.
  • The best way to improve VO2 Max is through interval training 1-2 times a week.
  • There is another physiological variable that may be more important than VO2 Max that will be discussed in part 2 of this article that will be published Monday 10/9/2017.

 

Every Endurance Athlete Wants To Become Better

VO2 Max Cyclist

Whether you are a beginner, novice, or pro; every endurance athlete has one thing in common.  They all want to improve performance.  Performance for some may entail making their daily runs or rides feel easier while for others it may mean setting new PRs.  We all know that doing endurance exercise at an easy pace more frequently or for longer will lead to huge improvements in a relatively short amount of time, but at some point, a plateau will occur.  When this happens, going into the pain cave one to three times a week will be necessary to improve endurance performance further.  This is especially true as it relates to further improving VO2 Max; arguably one of the most important physiological variables that best predicts success for endurance athletes.

This article will discuss what VO2 Max is, how to test it, how to improve it, and sample workouts.

VO2 Max…The Gold Standard Of Endurance Performance?

Almost every endurance athlete has heard the term VO2 Max, but very few know what it means beyond knowing that the higher you get it, the faster you will become. By strict definition, VO2 Max (maximal oxygen uptake) is the greatest amount of oxygen that can be used at the cellular level for the entire body.  It has been found to correlate well with the degree of physical conditioning and is recognized as the most widely accepted measure of endurance fitness. The capacity to use oxygen is related primarily to the ability of the heart and circulatory system to transport oxygen and the ability of body tissues to use it.  Say what?  In more basic terms VO2 Max is how efficiently oxygen you breath in gets to your working muscles to use it.  The lower it is, the sooner fatigue will set in. The higher it is, the longer and faster you’ll be able to go.

VO2 Max values in normal, healthy individuals range from 25 to 80 ml/kg/min and depend on a variety of physiological parameters, including age and conditioning levels.  Values in elite endurance athletes can go even higher.  The highest VO2 max ever recorded is that of Bjorn Daehlie, a cross-country skier from Norway who won eight gold and four silver medals in three Olympic Games from 1992 to 1998. His VO2 max when he was competing has been reported to be an astounding 93 to 95 ml/kg/min. The chart below illustrates the VO2 norms and rank for men and women based on age.  Please remember though these values can be significantly higher in trained endurance athletes.

VO2 Max Values

The Best Ways To Figure Out Your VO2 Max

There are many ways to test or predict your VO2 Max.  One requires going to the lab; the other has you doing specific workouts, while the last method predicts it off a current race time.

Testing VO2 Max In The Lab:

The absolute best way to get an accurate VO2 Max is to find a lab who tests it and hooks you up to this contraption:

VO2 Max Metabolic Cart

That, my endurance friends, is called a metabolic cart.  It can be used while running on a treadmill or while using a stationary trainer. VO2 max is calculated from measures of ventilation and the oxygen and carbon dioxide in the expired air, and the maximal level is determined at or near test completion.  There are various protocols used to measure VO2 Max when using a metabolic cart but most go like this. 

Step 1: Warm-up for 10 minutes

Step 2: Intensity is increased by going faster, increasing the incline, providing more resistance, or all the above.

Step 3: Step 2 is repeated in gradual increments

Step 4: You continue increasing the intensity until you can’t keep up, your legs fall off, or you puke in the mask (gross).  The point being is to get the most accurate VO2 reading you're going to have to dig deep into the pain cave and give it everything you’ve got.

Expect to spend anywhere from $100 - $250 to have a VO2 Max test conducted in the lab.  If there’s a University where you live check to see if they have an exercise science department.  Chances are they are looking for guinea pigs to do some testing on at no cost to you.

What if you don’t have access to a lab?

Testing VO2 Max Through Specific Workouts

VO2 Max Running Test

Remember these next methods of testing will only provide predictions of VO2 Max.  More than likely they will not be as accurate as a lab test, but they should give you a fairly good idea of where you stand. 

Test #1 – 12 Minute Cooper Run Test

How to Perform the Test:

  • Warm up for 10 minutes with some light jogging or walking.
  • Run or walk as far as possible in 12-minutes.  Try to gauge your pace so that you don’t start off too quickly or too slowly.
  • At the 12-minute mark make a note of your distance.
  • Cool down with some light jogging / walking for 5-10 minutes.
  • Use the formula below to estimate your VO2max.

 

VO2 Max = (35.97 * distance you covered in 12-minutes in miles) – 11.29

For example, if I covered 2 miles in 12 minutes the equation would look like this:

VO2 Max = (35.97 x 2) – 11.29

VO2 Max = 71.94 – 11.29

VO2 max = 60.65 ml/kg/min

 

Test # 2 -Cycling Field Test

How to Perform The Test:

  • Ride at a low intensity -- with a cadence of about 70 to 80 rpm -- for 10 minutes to loosen up your legs and to slightly elevate your breathing and heart rate. Next, complete two 30-second sprints at whatever gear lets you reach 100 bpm. Recover for three minutes between each sprint. Finish your warm-up with a five-minute easy spin. Rest five minutes before starting the field test.
  • Next, Pedal for 20 minutes at a maximum yet sustainable effort. Monitor your power meter to stay at a consistent intensity and gradually increase your wattage during the first three minutes until you feel you have reached a power output that you can maintain for the duration of the test. Aim for a wattage that is close to previous high-intensity rides or races. While level ground is ideal, hills can be used as long as you can maintain the intensity on the downhill portions. You may need multiple attempts at the field test to determine a steady pace that you can maintain for 20 minutes without easing up on the intensity before you complete the ride. Wait two or three days between tests to allow your body time to recover adequately. Once field testing is over, ride for 15 minutes at an easy pace as a warm-down.
  • Multiply your average wattage from the field test by 10.8. Divide that number by your weight in kilograms. Add seven to that number to calculate your VO2 max. For example, if you averaged 300 watts during the field test and weighed 80 kg, your VO2 max would be 47.5 mL/(kg x min).

Predicting VO2 Max Based On Current Race Performance

This way of predicting VO2 is based on the chart below and only applies to runners. It was developed by the running coach Jack Daniels and taken from his book Daniel’s Running Formula, which I highly recommend. In this chart VDOT and VO2 Max are one in the same:

VO2 Max Prediction Chart

Improving Your VO2 Max

VO2 Max Interval Training

Now that we know what VO2 Max is and how to test it; what is the best way to improve it? The short answer is through interval training one to two times a week.

Interval training involves endurance exercise at an intensity close to VO2 Max or ~90-100% of maximum heart rate (220 – age will give you an estimate of your maximum heart rate) depending on the length of the interval.  The work intervals should last between 3 and five minutes, although they can be as short as 30 seconds. The rest intervals (easy jogging/riding, walking, or inactive recovery) for 3 to 5-minute work intervals should be equal to the work interval, thereby keeping the work:rest ratio at 1:1.

Interval training permits the endurance athlete to train at intensities close to VO2 Max for a greater amount of time than would be possible in a single exercise session at a continuous high intensity. Interval training should not be performed until a firm base of aerobic endurance training has been attained.

Interval training is very stressful on the endurance athlete and should be used sparingly (1-2 times a week). The benefits derived from interval training include an increased VO2 Max and enhanced anaerobic metabolism.

Below are sample workouts to improve VO2 Max.  One for those who run and the other for individuals who cycle. It is best to use a heart rate monitor for these workouts but if one is not available make sure the effort level is an 8-9 on a scale of 10.

VO2 Max Workout For Runners (Main Focus On Improving 5k & 10k times):

  1. Warm up with an easy 10-15 minute jog.
  2. Do three to five 100-meter strides starting out at 50% speed and ending at 100% speed.
  3. Next, perform five repetitions of 1 kilometer (.62 miles) at 90% maximum heart rate with a 1:1 work/rest ratio between reps (e., if it takes me 3 minutes to perform one rep I would rest 3 minutes before performing the next rep).
  4. Cool down with a 5-10 minute jog.

VO2 Max Workout For Cyclists:

  1. Warm up with 10-15 minutes of easy riding.
  2. Do three to five sprints lasting 15-20 seconds.
  3. Next, perform three reps of 3 minutes at 95% maximum heart rate with a 1:1 work/rest ratio between reps.
  4. Ride easy for 5 minutes.
  5. Repeat steps 3 & 4 two more times (27 total minutes of intervals).
  6. Cool down with 10-15 minutes of easy riding.

The Bottom Line On VO2 Max In Endurance Athletes

Improving VO2 Max should be a top priority of every endurance athlete from beginner to pro and is one of the best predictors of success.  An increased VO2 can help you go stronger for longer, learn to deal with pain during a race, or make your easy training days feel a lot more comfortable.  First and foremost, you should test your VO2 max to establish a baseline and retest every 4-6 weeks to measure improvements.  Intervals should be performed 1-2 times a week after sufficient base training and should last anywhere from 3-5 minutes at 90-100% maximum heart rate and use a 1:1 work to rest ratio.

While VO2 Max is very important as it relates to endurance training, there is one other thing endurance athletes should focus on improving for maximal performance.  Part 2 of this article will discuss this and be published this Friday.

 

 

 



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