Once upon a time, people ran to get away from hungry, annoyed lions and hungry, annoyed mothers. They also ran to catch food so their mothers wouldn’t be hungry or (as) annoyed.
Then the Greeks discovered that even without lions or mothers in the immediate vicinity, people could run long distances to deliver messages. The runners sometimes died at the end, but that was ok because they invented the marathon and that’s something to be proud of.
The modern fitness movement was born when people discovered that by running you got to wear skimpy little outfits and look at other runners in skimpy little outfits. Also, you didn’t go too far so if you really had to take a cab home at the end it wasn’t too expensive.
Since running is boring (as my son would say, that is a fact not an opinion), people decided to get competitive about it. One way was by wearing cuter and more expensive outfits and shoes. Another was running 5Ks, 10Ks, and the Boston Marathon. Still another approach was to get tested and brag about test numbers at the Apres Run Adult Beverage Gathering.
Enter the VO2 max test, generally considered the Big Kahuna of fitness testing.
VO2 max (also maximal oxygen consumption, maximal oxygen uptake, peak oxygen uptake or maximal aerobic capacity) is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption as measured during incremental exercise. It is measured as “milliliters of oxygen used in one minute per kilogram of body weight.”
Basic, Easy to Understand Explanation
During exercise, an athlete needs oxygen. As the intensity of exercise goes up, athletes use more oxygen–up to a point. There is a point at which oxygen consumption plateaus even if the exercise intensity increases. This plateau is the VO2 max. The longer it takes to get there (the higher your VO2 number), the more fit you are. (More or less.)
Why don’t we all get tested?
First of all, true VO2 tests are expensive.
Secondly, it hurts. Not in the I-just-got-a-boo-boo-now-it’s-all-better way, more like please-shoot-me-now-and-remind-me-to-never-ever-do-this-again way. Somewhere around the point you get close your max, your body begins to object (and you can’t pay attention or you’ll mess up the whole test). Then your body goes from aerobic metabolism to anaerobic metabolism at which point everything goes south muscularly speaking. Muscle fatigue and failure, build up of lactic acid, feeling that your lungs are going to explode, and other (less joyful) experiences. Yum. You’ve got to really want it.
- The average untrained healthy male will have a VO2 max of approximately 35–40 mL. The average untrained healthy female will score a VO2 max of approximately 27–31 mL.
- Training may double VO2 max in some individuals, and will never improve it in others. Since having a bigger heart significantly increases VO2 max, the Grinch became much more fit when his heart grew three sizes. (Never thought of the Grinch as an exercise icon, did you?)
- Elite male runners can consume up to 85 mL, and female elite runners can consume about 77 mL. Five time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain is reported to have had a VO2 max of 88.0 at his peak, while cross-country skier Bjørn Dæhlie measured at 96 mL.
- But don’t be too impressed. Siberian dogs running in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race have VO2 values as high as 240 mL. Woof.
- Studies show that sedentary people can improve their VO2 max by over 20% by running a minimum of 25 miles per week at high intensity. No thank you.
So if you should happen to encounter a VO2 max test, bring your sneakers, your big heart, and your mental toughness. You’ll need all three.