VO2 max is the maximum level of oxygen your body can consume. Your body reaches its VO2 max once you physically cannot use any more oxygen, regardless of how much you’re taking in. Your workload rises, but your oxygen consumption does not.
When talking about VO2 max, you should keep a few terms in mind: intake, vital capacity, and uptake. Intake refers to how much oxygen you’re inhaling. The maximum amount of air your lungs can expel after taking the largest breath possible is known as your vital capacity. Uptake refers to how much of that oxygen your body is actually using. Just because you have a large oxygen intake does not mean that you have a large oxygen uptake.
Why? Fresh oxygen is delivered via the cardiovascular system.
The cardiovascular system distributes the oxygen to your muscles which creates energy that drives muscle contraction. While this is happening, your cardiovascular system is also removing excess oxygen. If you take in more oxygen than your body can facilitate, the excess oxygen is released and goes unused.
Your body will use as much oxygen through this process as physically possible. This is known as your maximal aerobic capacity — another term for VO2 max. Any oxygen that you inhaled but did not uptake is released when you exhale.
All this goes to show that there’s more to oxygen uptake than just how much air your lungs can inhale. Therefore, it’s necessary to measure both the oxygen going into your lungs and the oxygen coming out to determine how much oxygen your body is actually using.
To calculate this, we use the Fick Equation: VO2 max = Oxygen Uptake x Cardiac Output
Consider these four factors when striving to achieve a big VO2 max volume:
- A big pumper: One of the benefits of being physically fit is the effect training has on your heart. A strong and healthy heart is able to pump more blood more effectively to your body when you need it.
- Hemoglobin-loaded blood: Hemoglobin is the protein molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues and returns carbon dioxide from the tissues back to the lungs. The more hemoglobin in your blood, the more oxygen your blood cells can facilitate at once.
- A well-developed network of blood vessels: These deliver oxygen-rich blood to the muscles (arteries, arterioles, and eventually capillaries where the actual delivery takes place).
- Aerobically adapted muscles: They consist of lots of mitochondria and aerobic enzymes to take in as much oxygen as possible before involving more and more sugar to produce higher outputs. Aerobically adapted muscles are more efficient at processing oxygen.
Why do I see two different values for VO2 max sometimes?
VO2 max is expressed in two ways: absolute and relative to your body weight.
Absolute VO2 max is expressed as the milliliters of oxygen used every minute. The average is around 2.5L/min for the untrained man, and around 2L/min for the untrained woman.
Relative VO2 max measures the same amount of oxygen, but compared to each kilogram of body weight. Simply, it’s the milliliters of oxygen used per kilogram of bodyweight. On average, the absolute VO2 max of an untrained man is 40-45 mL/kg:min , and closer to 30-35 mL/kg:min for an untrained woman.
What are average, good and great VO2 max values?
In 1994, David L. Costill, Jack H. Wilmore and W. Larry Kenney published the following VO2 max values for Untrained, Trained and Elite athletes:
You probably noticed that the Trained and Elite VO2 max levels overlap. We’ll get to this later, but what’s important to understand now is that having a high VO2 max doesn’t mean you’ll be a great endurance athlete — and vice versa. What matters is less about your VO2 max and more about the level of VO2 max you operate at.
What are the VO2 max values for top athletes?
Top-level endurance athletes can be as high as 6 L/min (men) and 4 L/min (women) putting men into the 80s and women into the 70s when tied to body weight, way up at the world level.
Below are the VO2 max values both for the world’s top athletes:
- Greg Lemond (m): 92-94 mL/kg·min
- Lance Armstrong (m): 84 mL/kg·min
- Miguel Indurain (m): 88 mL/kg·min
- Chris Froome (m): 84.6 mL/kg·min
- Flavia Oliveira (f): 76 mL/kg·min
- Oskar Svendsen (m): 97.5 mL/kg·min
- Joan Benoit (f): 78.6 mL/kg·min
For reference, a thoroughbred horse has 180 mL/kg·min (600 L oxygen per minute), and sled-dog huskies weigh in around 240 mL/kg·min.
Can I raise my VO2 max besides losing weight? If so, how much?
Watch this clip from episode 214 of the Ask a Cycling Coach podcast. I do a deep dive on training your VO2 max.
Losing weight will increase your relative VO2 max. However, weight doesn’t affect your absolute VO2 max.
When you look at the chart above, you’ll notice large differences between the Untrained, Trained, and Elite athlete levels. While genetics play a significant role in VO2 max capacity (approximately 80%), untrained athletes still have room to improve by as much as 20%. That being said, it’s important to know that as you grow more fit, your VO2 max increases will become marginal. A VO2 max increase of even just 3-5% is impressive for an elite athlete.
This is where the importance of raising your power at VO2 max becomes the ultimate goal. As the name suggests, pVO2 max (VO2 max power) is basically just the wattage you can output while riding at VO2 max. It’s your power output when you physically cannot uptake any more oxygen, regardless of your tidal volume.
In comparison to VO2 max, your FTP generally falls between 78-85% pVO2 max, with pVO2 max falling around 118-128% FTP. This is the reason why VO2 max workouts from TrainerRoad use 120% FTP as the basis for short, intense intervals. Erring near the lower end of the spectrum, these workouts allow you to do more work while still at a very high percentage of pVO2 max. That’s what really matters — spending time training at high percentages of pVO2 max.
When you work at high oxygen uptakes, the training stimulus is incredibly strong and potentially really productive if you train consistently, progress your training appropriately, and recover effectively.
By training in this fashion, you can increase your time at pVO2 max, and maybe even increase the actual power you put out when riding at or near VO2 max. But most importantly, you can lift your FTP since greater upper-end power can create more room for increased max steady-state power.
FTP falls at a certain percentage of your pVO2 max. Remember that 78-85% statistic? An athlete whose FTP is currently 78% of their pVO2 max can push their FTP closer to their pVO2 max — maybe even as high as 85%.
However, there comes a point where you simply can’t push your FTP any closer to your VO2 max limit. That’s when it’s time to revisit VO2 max work and try for some of those VO2 max improvements mentioned earlier. Even if you’re a high-level athlete gutting it out for an extra 2-3% improvement, that increase will allow you to lift your FTP a few percentage points.
Let’s be honest, most of us haven’t pushed ourselves to the height of our aerobic capacity often enough to bump up against that VO2 max ceiling which leaves us a fair amount of room for improvement — possibly even greater than 3-5%.
How to improve your power at VO2 max with structured interval training
TrainerRoad offers tons of VO2 max workouts in various formats and progressions for every cycling discipline. Whether you’re training indoors due to time constraints, inclement weather or because you know it’s the most effective way to train, TrainerRoad will help you increase your VO2 max.
Although you can increase your aerobic capacity via slow, long-distance rides, they can’t do all the things that short, intense intervals can. Athletes using VO2 max intervals can achieve nearly all the benefits found in many hours done at lower, aerobic endurance intensities in just a few hours. And for those areas that VO2 max work doesn’t address? They’re taken care of throughout other aspects of TrainerRoad training plans.
For more answers to your cycling training questions, listen to our podcast. The Ask a Cycling Coach — the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.
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