VO2 What?

  • By richard watson
  • 05 Oct, 2016

In the world of endurance VO2 is king

VO2 Max
VO2 MAX Testing

In the world of endurance, it seems that you cannot discuss fitness without discussing VO2 max. Ask any endurance athlete about it, and you will hear epic stories with names like Indurain, and LeMond. Many of you, however, may find yourselves wondering what exactly VO2 max is and why is it so important. To better understand this concept; let’s take a little trip back to school, specifically back to physiology class. According to the Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning textbook, VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen in millilitres one can use in one minute per kilogram of body weight (ml/kg/min). In other words, maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max) is the greatest amount of oxygen that can be used at the cellular level for the entire body. VO2 max has been found to correlate well with an individual’s degree of physical conditioning and has been accepted as an index of total body fitness. Numerous studies show that one can increase his/her VO2 max by working out at an intensity that raises the heart rate to between 65 and 85 percent of its maximum, for at least 20 minutes, three to five times per week. The estimated mean value of VO2 max for male athletes is about 3.5 liters/minute and for female athletes is about 2.7 liters/minute.

Now that we know what VO2 is, we can now answer the question, “Why is it so important?” For the endurance athlete, VO2 has long been considered the Holy Grail of fitness. The common rationale is the better one can utilize oxygen, the higher the level one can perform in endurance events. Is this, however, really the case?

Although VO2 max is an important component of any endurance program, I have both good and bad news for those of us who have may not have chosen the right parents! The bad news is that according to Exercise Physiologist Neal Henderson, Coordinator of Sport Science at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine in Colorado, VO2 is approximately 80 percent genetic. Other estimates put this number anywhere between 30 to 60 percent. Whatever the number is, one thing is certain; there is a genetic ceiling for VO2. The good news is that VO2 is trainable. Unfortunately, if Neal Henderson’s 80 percent estimate is correct, and your VO2 is, for example, at 45ml/kg-/min (average), your best may only be 52 ml/kg-/min after a 20 percent gain (52 ml/kg-/min is considered to be good or just above average).
To put this into perspective, cross country skier Bjorn Daehlie measured at an astounding 96 ml/kg/min. The highest VO2 max ever recorded in a lab was 300 ml/kg/min! This, of course, did not belong to a human but rather a pronghorn antelope. How they got the antelope to run on the treadmill I’ll never know, but I promise I’m not making this up. Thoroughbred horses have a VO2 max of around 180 ml/kg/min, and Siberian dogs running in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race sled race have VO2 values as high as 240 ml/kg/min. To add even more perspective, Olympic marathon winners and elite runners like Jeff Galloway, Alberto Salazar and Frank Shorter check in among the low to mid 70s.

The good news is, like the previously mentioned runners, although you may be at your genetic potential, there are many factors besides VO2 max that can also influence your success in endurance performance. Improving efficiency and economy of movement as well as raising your anaerobic threshold (AT) can lead to performance enhancements in the absence of increases in VO2. These three components can all be addressed through a functional strength training program. Now let’s take a closer look at each of these components.

Cyclist VO2 MAX
Cyclist VO2 Max
Continuing on in our physiology lesson, now would be a good time to talk about lactate threshold (LT) and its relationship to VO2. Dr. Stephen Seiler of Masters Athlete Physiology and Performance says, “For the endurance athlete, a high VO2 max is like having an invitation to the big dance but having an invitation to the dance does not ensure you will dance with the prettiest girl.” If you want to dance with that girl, you are going to have to work on your LT! (And you thought it was big guns and washboard abs that attracted the girls.) LT, as pointed out in one of my previous articles (see Lactic Acid; The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), is the point where the body produces more lactic acid than it can clear. Training LT will result in a decrease in lactate production at any given exercise intensity. Untrained individuals usually reach the LT at about 60 percent of VO2 max. This means that even if my VO2 is 70 ml/kg/min, which is an elite level, I can only use 60 percent of it, or 42 ml/kg/min (average), before my LT shuts me down. With training, however, LT can increase from 60 percent to above 70 percent or even higher. Elite endurance athletes typically have an LT at or above 80 percent of VO2 max. Although most endurance athletes usually train LT in the pool, on the bike or during the run, we have several protocols in the gym designed specifically to improve LT. Furthermore, because specificity of movement is very important when training LT, these protocols address both the lower and upper body (see Table 1 below).

Super Legs




Speed Squats


20 reps in less than 20 seconds to parallel


20 (10 per side)

Alternate legs, knee just off ground

Box shuffle/split jump  

20 (10 per side)  

Use 9” box

Squat jumps


Squat to parallel and no rest between jumps

Complete entire circuit without resting in less than 1:30

Last but not least, we can now tackle efficiency and economy of movement. The difference between efficiency and economy in an exercise setting is that, for a given energy consumption, economy is measured as movement velocity, while efficiency is measured as mechanical power output. What does all that mean? It means that efficiency and economy can be just as important as VO2 or LT. To better understand this concept, just think of the last time you were out for a group ride. Was it easier to pull at the front or sit in? Sit in, of course! Why is that? Because sitting in allows for more efficient movement and less exertion, which in turn will allow you to be more economical. Think of every joint in a given movement as an opportunity to leak power. The more joints involved in a movement, the more opportunity there is to leak power. The more stable the joint, the less power that leaks. The less power that leaks, the more efficiency in a given activity.

So how do these concepts apply to strength training? Frequently, I am asked to watch someone run on the treadmill and look at his gait. Instead, I ask him to perform 10 anterior reaches on a single leg. If this is difficult, that tells me his hips are not as stable as they could be, and his gait could not possibly be as good as it should be. The same goes for the shoulder joint. If you cannot manage a set of t-stabilization push ups with good form, then your swim stroke is not as efficient and economical as it could be.

Testing a runners VO2 Max
Testing a runners VO2 MAX

Now for all of you skeptics out there, all I ask is for you to just try it out. Perhaps before you go to test your VO2 (no fun, by any means), you might first try taking a look at your anterior reaches or t-stab push ups. These alternatives I have presented are not meant to point out your shortcomings or embarrass you but rather to empower you. Rather than whining about genetics (though I still do), try testing your limits in some of the ways mentioned earlier. I assure you that you will find what my most successful clients have found, that through a comprehensive functional strength training program, economy, efficiency and lactate threshold can be improved, making maximal VO2 less important.
Some famous and not so famous athletes and their corresponding VO2 numbers:


Greg LeMond

Professional Cyclist


Matt Carpenter

Pikes Peak Marathon Course Record Holder


Harri Kirvesniem

Finnish Cross Country Skier


Miguel Indurain

Professional Cyclist


Kip Keino

Olympic 1500 Champion


Sebastian Coe

WR mile, 1500


Bruce Fordyce



Jeff Galloway

Running Expert


Ingrid Kristiansen

ex-Marathon World Record Holder


Rosa Mota




  1. Baechle, Thomas and Earle, Roger. "Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning." Human Kinetics Publishers; 2 edition (August 2000)
Sports Therapist Richard Watson

Richard Watson

Sports Therapist

Richard is a leading sports therapist in the Coventry and Warwickshire area, he has worked at the Olympic and Paralympic games 2012 treating the many athletes competing. Richard has been involved in many major sporting projects including treating and training a team that took on an accent of Everest. He currently runs his own Sports Therapy company providing local athletes with sports massage and personal training.

In The Zone

By richard watson 29 Nov, 2017

The weekend is the time when we all get relaxed, and maybe a little too relaxed with our diets, but it's important to realize that you can still enjoy yourself and keep on track by making a few slight adjustments.

During the week, it is much easier to maintain a healthier lifestyle because you slip into a routine that you get used to and many of us are on autopilot – gym, work, eat, sleep, repeat; but the weekend is a different animal altogether.

The problem is that on the weekend, the textbook simply goes out the window.  It’s the weekend!

You’ve been waiting all week to cheat, but what you need to realize is that you’re doing more harm than good.

Being proactive about your health and making every day count means that you need to iron out all of the creases, and when it comes to your diet and training that normally means prioritizing the weekend and stopping yourself from bingeing.

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If you have plateaued and you're not  seeing results any more; this will lead you to frustration and in the end you will start having negative results and thoughts.

But it doesn’t have to be that way…

Strength training comes in all shapes and sizes, and if you have slight adjustments to your gym workouts you’ll find that it’ll be both rewarding and beneficial. We have listed 7 different ways in which you can alter your training workout to suit your needs and the needs of your body, which will help you adapt and in turn you will start to see gains in your training.

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A DNA Kit test will look at four genetic inflammatory markers - IL6, IL6R, CRP and TNF. Variations in these genes give us a clue if you are predisposed to suffer significantly higher levels or slightly lower levels of inflammation. Knowing your predisposition of this biological phenomenon can make big alteration to your training and even more so to your recovery strategies which dictate your training schedule and ultimately your goals.


Acute inflammation is important for healing; however excessive inflammation can result in prolonged feelings of soreness, tenderness, swelling, and also in a loss of function (reduces ROM or range of motion) and could even result in allergies and chronic diseases. There are various strategies that can be used to help decrease acute and chronic inflammation like sports massage therapy , but for the purpose of today's blog we will be looking at foods that can help in the role of decreasing inflammation in our body:

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As a sports person you are always looking for that extra legal edge, that extra bit that will gain you a few seconds off your personal best or just be able to train and diet better for a healthier lifestyle. So I felt that taking the DNA Diet Fitness Pro test was really worthwhile.


The reports included an abundance of manageable and easily understandable information about my DNA and also provided focused and implementable advice, which wasn’t just based on eating less and exercising more. I was particularly impressed with the strength of the connections DNAFit made between my genetics and the practical implications the results might have in terms of my diet and fitness.


I would recommend this test to anyone interested in improving their health and fitness, regardless of whether you’re a complete beginner or training for a marathon.

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Good bacteria can help you lose weight

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Probiotics, which are available as yoghurts, drinks and pills, contain so called ‘good’ bacteria that manufacturers claim aid digestive health and boost the immune system.

But the jury remained out – until now when a study has found that they do have many health benefits, including proving effective medicines and helping to control weight.

But you need to need to use the probiotics every day to see any benefits and you should be mindful of the sugar content (it’s best to opt for a pill over yoghurt) which will negate any of the benefits.

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Figure 1: The 9 Most Common Causes of Cancer Death in 2014

Number of Deaths per Year, All Ages, UK

Cancer Site                Male           Female       Persons
Lung (C33-C34)       19,563       16,332         35,895
Bowel (C18-C20)       8,566          7,337         15,903
Breast (C50)                       73        11,360        11,433
Prostate (C61)          11,287                               11,287
Pancreas (C25)           4,426          4,391           8,817
Oesophagus (C15)   5,213          2,577          7,790
Bladder (C67)              3,614          1,755          5,369
Brain                                2,881          2,342          5,223
Liver (C22)                    3,055          2,036          5,091
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