Senchyna: Aerobic capacity, the magic number

You may have heard the term V̇O2max applied to an athlete’s performance. What is this measure and how does it apply to athletes?

You may have heard the term V̇O2max applied to an athlete’s performance. What is this measure and how does it apply to athletes? Can you improve it and what are some common values for different groups?

The V stands for volume and the O2 stands for oxygen, so the term is the maximum volume of oxygen that someone can use while exercising at high levels for longer periods. It is essentially a level of one’s overall cardiovascular fitness and ability to maximally process energy. The more oxygen you can use, the more fuel you can burn in order to make the body’s energy molecule, ‘ATP’.

It is usually tested by running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike and usually has a computer interface and blood drawn to measure lactic acid levels as well. When done using this ‘direct’ method of measurement, the person is asked to exercise to exhaustion and so it is not an appropriate method for those who have heart conditions or other problems that may prevent safe maximal effort levels. Instead, one could do an ‘indirect’ sub-maximal method using a treadmill, bike or stairs to increase the level of effort in a gradual, step-wise fashion, to 85% of the person’s maximum ability (for safety’s sake) and from this measurement you can fairly accurately predict what their 100%, all-out V̇O2max value would be. The sub-maximal type of measurement is safer, easier to use and much less expensive.

The number is expressed as the millilitres of oxygen used, per kilogram of body weight each minute. The highest recorded values (90-97 ml/Kg/min) are usually male cross-country skiers or racing cyclists like Greg LeMond. Values between 80 and 90 are sometimes achieved by runners and soccer players. Some other notable values are Lance Armstrong and Steve Prefontaine who have published values of 84-85. Some of the highest published values for women are in the 78-80 range for running, cross-country skiing and cycling. The only reason women’s values are slightly lower than men’s is that men carry more muscle mass per kilogram of body weight, and muscle is the operative tissue involved. Average values for sedentary people are usually in the 20-35 range.

Everyone’s V̇O2max has a limitation that is influenced by age and genetics, but whatever your current value is, you can always improve it. If you are not in good shape, you have plenty of room for potential improvement, whereas elite athletes are closer to their genetic potential so they have to work much harder to make smaller gains. The traditional way to train and improve your V̇O2max was to do long duration exercise at fairly high levels of intensity (75-85% of your maximum). But more recently there has been mounting evidence that shorter duration, very high intensity exercise (90-100% effort) will improve VO2max even more than the traditional method.

Team athletes can benefit by improving their aerobic capacity just as much as cyclists and runners. For example, in soccer it has been shown frequently that maximal aerobic capacity is positively related to performance variables such as sprint frequency, distance covered per run and time with the ball. Aerobic capacity also corresponds to a higher league position, the level of competition, and more starting players compared with non-starting players. In one recent study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise reported that using specific aerobic interval training (4 periods of 4 minutes at 90–95% of maximum heart rate) twice a week for 8 weeks with elite 18 and 19 year old male soccer players resulted in improved aerobic capacity (V̇O2max) from 58 to 64 mL/kg/min., improved the distance covered by 20%, doubled the number of sprints per game, increased the number of contacts with the ball by 24% and improved running economy by 7%.

It should be mentioned that V̇O2max in itself is not the only predictor of sport performance. There are many, many other variables that affect the outcome of races or games including strategy, strength, skill and coordination, stress and psychological states among others. But it is important for most sports and should not be ignored.