Scientists and coaches are openly questioning the importance of the most well-known performance metric in endurance sports – VO2max. This article answers whether VO2max actually matters for your sport performance. Let’s dive right into it!

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A high VO2max is undeniably beneficial, enhancing aerobic power, anaerobic threshold, and FatMax. However, it’s essential to recognize that while VO2max is a pivotal metric, it’s part of a broader performance ecosystem.

Learn all the details about the aerobic energy system and how it affects fat metabolism in our course: Muscular energy metabolism.

The higher the VO2max, the higher the aerobic power (left) anaerobic threshold (middle) and FatMax (right), all other things being equal.

For a more in-depth exploration of VO2max, its significance, and common misconceptions, check out our expert-led video. It provides valuable insights that can help you better understand and leverage this metric in your training.

The interplay between VO2max and other performance indicators is intricate. So, why the debate around its significance? Let’s delve deeper.

From a health standpoint, VO2max is a good indicator of cardiorespiratory fitness, closely tied to longevity. So yes, from a health perspective, VO2max is a good indicator of overall health and fitness. 

That said, you might wonder: can you be fit and have a low VO2max? The (over)simplified answer is no, you can’t have a low VO2max and still be fit. Obviously this depends on what you consider a low VO2max, but we’re talking about very poor values (e.g. <35 ml/kg/min for males and <25 ml/kg/min for females).

Now let’s switch from a health perspective to a sport performance perspective. In this case, there is still no doubt that VO2max is an important and strong indicator of endurance performance in the general population. So yes, VO2max is a good sport performance indicator in a group of people who show large VO2max differences.

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If you’re reading this, you’re probably more interested in whether VO2max is important for athletes who are already well-trained. Let’s find out.

When you look at a group of well-trained athletes, does VO2max predict performance? In other words: will the athlete with the highest VO2max perform best? The short answer is no, VO2max alone does not predict sport performance.

For example:

When comparing a group of 26 elite cyclists (without professional contracts) and 45 world-class professionals, there are no significant differences in VO2max. This shows that VO2max alone does not necessarily predict differences in performance in a relatively homogenous group. However, since they all have a high VO2max, we can agree that VO2max does matter.

Another striking example is that of an 18-year-old cyclist who recorded the highest ever value in a VO2max test: 96.7 ml/min/kg. Although his VO2max was more than 15% higher than the VO2max of a multiple Tour de France winner, his attempt to turn professional was short and unsuccessful.

Although a high VO2max may be important, it turns out that it is no guarantee for a successful career. This makes total sense right? Since there are other factors that determine performance too, which we will talk about in a bit.

Let’s finish with a running example. If we measure the VO2max of 16 of the world’s best male distance runners, how much would their VO2max differ? According to this study, it’s up to 22 ml/kg/min [62 – 84 ml/min/kg]. This shows that there can be large discrepancies in VO2max between athletes with similar performance capabilities.

VO2max can differ quite a lot between elite distance runners with similar performance capabilities (source).

These examples might make you think VO2max is not important once you have a decent VO2max. But let’s not jump into conclusions. It could also just show that other factors are important too, while VO2max does matter. In fact, it can still be your performance limiting factor.

You need a good VO2max to perform well in endurance sports. From a sports perspective, you should worry about having a low VO2max when:

  1. Your VO2max is (much) lower than that of your team mates or competitors. You can ask your coach or lab whether this is the case. INSCYD coaches, for instance, have the ability to compare VO2max values among their athletes or against normative VO2max data. 
  2. You find it difficult to maintain a high pace or power in long duration intervals (low aerobic power)
  3. You quickly run out of energy (carbohydrates) in events lasting longer than 1 hour (low fat combustion)
  4. You fatigue quickly and recover slowly during high intensity intervals (low lactate recovery rate)

INSCYD enables you to compare the absolute (example: 4751 ml/min) and relative VO2max (example: 72.0 ml/min/kg) against normative data or between athletes who are tested.

INSCYD performance software makes it easy to measure these 4 signs and compare them with normative data or team mates. The only thing you need to do is a VO2max performance test, which can take place in a lab or in the field, using a power meter (cycling) or GPS watch (running) only.

With INSCYD, you’re not just getting data; you’re gaining insights. Insights that can redefine training methodologies, optimize performance, and set new benchmarks in athletic achievements.

Dive deeper than ever before into the metrics that truly matter. With INSCYD, transform raw data into actionable strategies, tailored training plans, and unparalleled performance insights. It’s not just about measuring; it’s about understanding, adapting, and excelling.

For Coaches:

Transform your coaching methodology with INSCYD’s comprehensive metabolic profiling. Offer your athletes insights that were once exclusive to the elite. See INSCYD in action today and step into the future of performance analysis.

For Athletes:

Unlock your full potential with INSCYD. Find your dedicated INSCYD coach or lab here. Already have a coach? Experience INSCYD in action with your coach and redefine your training approach.

But what if you have a low VO2max, even after you did everything to improve your VO2max? Focus on other performance determining metrics!

Literature shows that you can also improve performance without improving your VO2max. This again shows that although VO2max is important, it’s not the only performance determining factor. There are obvious other factors like technique and tactics, but there are also metrics that are still closely related to VO2max.

Fractional utilization of VO2max

You can have a very high VO2max, but at which percentage of VO2max can you exercise for a long amount of time? Fractional utilization of VO2max is about the percentage of your VO2max that you can sustain during exercise. This intensity is often expressed as the percentage of VO2max at which the anaerobic threshold occurs.

For example, if your VO2max power is 400 watts and your anaerobic threshold occurs at 300 watts, your fractional utilization of VO2max equals 75%.

Now imagine two athletes.

  • Athlete A has a VO2max of 60 ml/kg/min. His fractional utilization of VO2max is 70%. This means he can maintain an oxygen uptake of 42 ml/kg/min during an endurance event.
  • Athlete B has a VO2max of 50 ml/kg/min. His fractional utilization of VO2max is 90%. This means he can maintain an oxygen uptake of 45 ml/kg/min during an endurance event.

See how athlete B has a lower VO2max, while he is able to use a higher oxygen uptake for a prolonged amount of time? All other things equal, athlete B should be able to go faster in an endurance event.

Of course VO2max is still part of this equation, but our example shows that a good fractional utilization of VO2max can compensate for a lower VO2max.

The INSCYD metabolic report shows your fractional utilization of VO2max as a percentage of the anaerobic threshold (example: 77% of VO2max).

To better understand the depth and breadth of insights provided by INSCYD, watch this video showcasing an example of INSCYD’s metabolic report:

This data is a game-changer for coaches, offering a comprehensive view of an athlete’s performance metrics and guiding more effective training plans.

In speed/pace sports like running, another performance determining factor is the velocity at VO2max (vVO2max). vVO2max is the minimum velocity that will elicit maximum oxygen uptake.

Since theoretically all intensities above anaerobic threshold will eventually elicit VO2max, the velocity at VO2max is closely related to your anaerobic threshold velocity.

The INSCYD metabolic report shows your velocity at anaerobic threshold, which is closely related to your velocity at VO2max (example: 2.85 m/s).

Both depend on your (running) economy: how fast can you go with a given amount of oxygen/energy. It’s no secret that running economy is a super important performance determining factor. Although it’s often overlooked.

The interesting part of (running) economy is, that you can shave off many minutes from your marathon time, without improving your basic physiology like VO2max. That means that in most cases, you don’t need to train more or harder. Instead, you can focus on improving your economy during your existing training hours. 

Watch the video to learn how effective improving your economy is:

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The INSCYD performance software allows you to measure your velocity at the anaerobic threshold and your (running) economy, like no other tool can. By doing this, you get a better picture of what you need to work on. For some this might be increasing VO2max, while others may benefit more from improving their economy. Do make sure you don’t make the 3 most common mistakes when measuring the running economy.

After doing a running economy test, you hope to have a high VO2max, a high fractional utilization of VO2max, and a high velocity at VO2max due to a high economy. However, some researchers think it’s hard to hit this jackpot, because in their experience, runners with higher VO2max values tend to have lower running economy.

Last but not least, you could look at how long you can perform at VO2max. Time at VO2max answers the question: what’s my time until exhaustion at VO2max intensity?

With the INSCYD metabolic report, you can easily see how long you’re able to perform at your VO2max power or velocity. Say your VO2max power equals 375 watts. You can now use the lactate accumulation graph to see how fast you accumulate lactate (a marker for fatigue) at this intensity. Here’s how to predict how long you can maintain VO2max power until exhaustion, using the INSCYD lactate accumulation graph.

The INSCYD lactate accumulation graph shows that our example athlete accumulates 2.17 mmol/l lactate per minute at VO2max power (375 watt). The INSCYD test showed a max lactate concentration of 11.5 mmol/l and a resting lactate concentration of 1.5 mmol/l. Our athlete is able to ride (11.5 – 1.5) ÷ 2.17 = 4 minutes and 36 seconds at VO2max power.

But what does this mean in real-world scenarios? How do athletes interpret and utilize this data?

Watch Professional Cyclist Toms Skujins discuss his experience with INSCYD and delve into his preferred metric – the lactate accumulation and recovery graph. His insights provide a practical perspective on how INSCYD’s metrics can be a game-changer in training and performance optimization.

While previous metrics are still closely related to your VO2max, there are other metrics that determine performance as well.

If you really want a full picture of your capabilities, you need to have a full 360 degree physiological performance profile

This metabolic profile contains metrics like:

Only when you have an overview of all these metrics, you can predict performance and understand what you need to work on in training. For example, here’s how a professional cyclist found out that you need to look at VO2max and VLamax to get the best out of your training and racing.

INSCYD is the only tool that can create a full metabolic profile with all these metrics. The best part: you can get your full metabolic profile without visiting a lab.

Get a full strength and weakness profile using the INSCYD performance software that ranks performance metrics against a peer comparison group.

Before we draw our final conclusion, we notice that both researchers and coaches question the value of VO2max, because they doubt the accuracy of VO2max measurements.

For quality VO2max measurements, it’s indeed important to have accurate equipment and a good VO2max test protocol. On top of that, you need to regularly test for VO2max to understand how it is affected by training.

INSCYD allows you to measure VO2max, using your preferred measurement equipment: a metabolic cart, lactate analyzer, power (cycling) or GPS (running). 

More importantly, INSCYD cross validates your data, to detect outliers. It will warn you when the data is not sound, e.g. when the VO2max, VLamax and Anaerobic threshold are not adding up.

INSCYD cross validates your data, to make sure there are no outliers.

This ensures you always have accurate VO2max data.

There are several reasons why you might think VO2max does not matter:

 

  • VO2max alone does not predict performance in a group of athletes with similar VO2max values
  • Practical examples show that having a high VO2max does not guarantee for a successful career
  • In elite runners VO2max can differ quite a lot
  • You can improve your race performance, without increasing VO2max

This however doesn’t mean VO2max is unimportant. In fact, by increasing your VO2max you increase some of the most important aspects in endurance sports, like…

  • Aerobic power
  • Anaerobic threshold
  • Fat combustion

… when all other metrics remain the same. That’s exactly why it’s so important to not only look at VO2max, but see it as a piece of the performance puzzle. While VO2max does matter, other metrics are important too, and even determine whether it makes sense to focus on increasing your VO2max

In summary: VO2max is super important in endurance sports, but you need to have a full physiological performance profile to really understand what’s going on.  However, to truly grasp the intricacies of performance, one must look beyond just VO2max and delve into a comprehensive physiological profile.

Discover the Power of Comprehensive Analysis:

Holistic Performance Profiling: INSCYD offers a complete physiological performance snapshot, diving deep into metrics such as VLamax, Fat and carbohydrate utilization, Anaerobic threshold, Economy, and Lactate accumulation and recovery.

Actionable Insights: Data is only as good as the actions it drives. With INSCYD, transform raw metrics into tailored training strategies, pinpointing areas of strength and opportunities for growth.

Global Benchmarking: Compare and contrast your athlete’s metrics against other athletes in the category, understanding where you stand amongst peers and what it takes to reach the pinnacle of your sport.

Testing anywhere and anytime: Whether you’re testing in the field or in a lab, INSCYD’s performance software is equipped to provide insights wherever you are testing, ensuring you’re always in tune with your performance.

For Coaches:

Elevate your athletes to new heights. Harness the power of INSCYD’s comprehensive metabolic profiling and offer insights previously reserved for the elite. Book a free demo and redefine coaching excellence.

For Athletes

Don’t leave your performance to chance. Partner with an INSCYD-certified coach or lab here or see INSCYD in action with your coach and embark on a data-driven journey to the top.

FAQ

Should you identify talent based on VO2max?

Measuring VO2max is a way to identify talent. Keep in mind though that talent identification goes beyond measuring VO2max. There are metrics that determine performance, besides VO2max. Also keep in mind that athletes are able to increase their VO2max by training. So make sure to understand the training history of the athlete too.

Is VO2 max important for sports that involve short, intense efforts?

VO2max is important in sports that involve only short intense efforts. That is because to perform these efforts repeatedly, you need to recover quickly. Your aerobic system takes care of this recovery.

Does VO2max determine performance?

VO2max is one of the metrics that determine performance. Especially in endurance events. Keep in mind though that it’s not the only performance determining metric. There are others too.

Is VO2max performance limiting?

A low VO2max can be performance limiting. Here are some clear signs that you should worry about having a VO2max that is too low.

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