Excuse me while I go on a brief seemingly anti-science rant. Which might be a bit surprising given the name of this blog and my background, but since the topic is VO2max, it might be expected.

You see, I have a long history with VO2max, as evidenced by this article here. It’s not that I think the parameter is useless, it’s just that it’s overemphasized. We can measure it and have been able to measure it for almost a century. Therefore, it must be important.

Even now, it’s the cornerstone of what people perceive to be endurance in the exercise science world. It’s reach extends far outside of that though, as you’ll hear soccer players, weekend warriors, crossfit gurus, and so forth all talking about and asking about how to increase Vo2max. It’s not how to increase endurance. It’s how to improve their VO2max.
As if it matters.

A Brief History:

In the scientific community, we’re still inundated by it’s performance in undergrad and grad school so we send minions of supposed trained exercise science experts out in the world to be coaches, trainers, PTs, whatever who think that it matters. Now, if you get a good professor, they’ll rightly point out that things like Lactate Threshold better correlate with performance and so forth, which helps, but certainly doesn’t dissuade the obsession.

This was demonstrated to be quite brilliantly when some student, after watching one of my runners running pretty quick around the track, asked me what his Vo2max was.  Now bear in mind, this was a kid who was a low 4 minutemiler with quite impressive PRs. But she asked, what is VO2max was, not how fast he ran. That might not seem significant, or maybe like I’m lowing that single question out of proportion and generalizing, but the questions people ask give you a window into a person’s frame of mind. You get to see what is important to them.

To counter the findings in the scientific community that VO2max isn’t the predictor of performance that they once thought, most researchers have pulled the trick of shifting the emphasis. They now readily acknowledge that the test itself isn’t a great predictor and beyond telling us that ‘you’re in the club’ of well trained athletes, it doesn’t tell you much. So instead of scrapping the test, perhaps for historical reasons, they’ve figured out a way to make it seem useful.

The concept of vVo2max (or velocity of Vo2max) has saved the day.  You see, vVo2max is a simple concept, it’s the speed at which a person is running once they get to their VO2max on the treadmill test.

And guess what? It correlates pretty darn well with performance! So the faster one gets on the treadmill before getting to exhaustion, the faster they are out on the track.

At first glance this seems wonderful. It gives us a reason to do a VO2max test again. Not only do we get some fancy number at the end that presumably tells us something important because it sounds complex, but we also get something that correlates really well with performance. The VO2max test is saved.

But is it really?

Let’s take a step back and look at what we are really saying.

Asking the right question:

A VO2max test is one that takes you from a relatively comfortable speed and ramps you up at a given time frame (for ex: once every 2 minutes the speed increases) so that you go faster and faster until you hit exhaustion. They used to think that your VO2max would plateau and you could increase your speed with that number staying the same, but recent research suggests that doesn’t happen in the majority of people. So what we’re left with is a progressive test where you run faster and faster until you can’t anymore. You stop and during that last stage you get your VO2max and the vVO2max.

And what we’re saying is that the speed you are running at that last stage really correlates with performance, so therefore the test matters.

But wait, does that make the test important? I mean all we did was some sort of weird time trial where we just made people run faster and faster to exhaustion. Doesn’t it make complete and utter sense that the better racing/performing runners would last longer and get to a faster speed?

Of course it does. If I asked you to take your team of runners and have them do 400m repeats starting at 75 seconds and getting 1 second faster each one, it seems pretty obvious that the person who did the most 400m repeats and got to the fastest speed would most likely be one of your better runners, right? Put even simpler, if we lined up everyone on your team and did a 10 minute time trial, the faster ones would certainly correlate pretty well to the faster ones during their next 2 mile race.

It’s a no brainer. Of course it does. And that’s what I’m trying to get at. Yes, vVO2 sounds pretty cool. And one might say, well it gives us a velocity to train at, so it’s important. But does it really? Is it any different than doing a 2 or 1 mile time trial (or race) and saying one of these speeds is a good speed to train at? There’s nothing magical at training at VO2max, other than it’s another good pace to train at, just like around mile pace or around 5k pace or any spectrum of paces in between/above/below is.

What does this all mean?

The point is, just because the test correlates to performance, doesn’t mean it’s valuable or even interesting. It SHOULD correlate to performance. It’s a freaking test to exhaustion. You know what else correlates to performance? Doing a time trial, or how fast you do mile repeats, a tempo run, etc. Basically anything that tests the limits of exhaustion and speed in your domain.

The point is not to rail on VO2max or vVO2max. It’s to point out a way of thinking. You see, as coaches, scientist, and endurance athletes, we have a long history with the VO2max test. And there’s something to be said for that, as it allows comparison from a big data base of historical tests, which gives us some good information in its own right. But because of this long history it creates this sense or need to justify why we do it and continue to perform it. Yes, it has some inherent value, but as our understanding has shifted, that value has shifted to.

And recently, in scientific works, I’ve heard it justified so many times by talking about the vVO2max value. To me that represents adding a nice complex sciency sounding name to a really simple concept. vVO2max is no different than a time trial or a workout to exhaustion. It’s not any more special than doing mile repeats and seeing who runs the fastest the last rep. That probably gives you more, and better, information than a vVo2max test.

So I’ll end my rant here with saying there are lessons in understanding why we still use certain concepts, the history of those concepts, and the shifting emphasis in them. Instead of accepting something because it sounds right, take a step back and ask what is that concept really doing?

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    1. John Heenan on March 20, 2015 at 9:57 pm

      No need to rant. You have stated in a link VO2max is not altered by training. Hence VO2max is about as relevant as any other physiological constant (such as height) to coaching and training. Why not move on.

      Also VO2max is not a concept. It is a measurement made under well defined conditions.

      While you might conceptualise on the relevance or irrelevance of VO2max, this still does not alter that VO2max of itself is not a concept.

    2. Steve Magness on March 20, 2015 at 11:40 pm

      Thanks for the comment John.

      The reason I use concept with VO2max, because for the most part a true VO2max is debated. If we get into technical terms, it's more commonly being referred to as a VO2peak, or the highest number we get during that test in those conditions.

      It's a lot more nebulous than one would think when you're doing a test. Thus why I said concept. It's a measurement but what's being measured, how to define it, and what it means is debatable.

    3. TJ on March 28, 2015 at 1:53 pm

      Steve could you do a blog on Sara Hall from her Marathon week til World XC? She did a great job and would be interesting to see what she did and the thought etc behind it. She impressed me with her performance and im sure she did to others to.

    4. Measure what matters – HillRunner.com on September 8, 2017 at 1:06 pm

      […] This was inspired by a post written by Steve Magness at his great blog. I thought it was a topic very much worth bringing up […]

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