Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Finding My VO2 Max: Running and the Pursuit of Measuring Improvement

How fast am I right now? What is my physiological running capacity? What about my running efficiency? How am I running?

These were some of the questions I was asking myself as I stepped into the Singapore Sports Medicine Clinic. I was there for my first VO2 Max Test. I was more curious than nervous for what is essentially a maximal effort running test on a treadmill with a mask attached to your face. I looked a bit like Bane from Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.” In the reality was that like any assessment or race, a few butterflies were in my stomach knowing that I would be pushing myself close to a physical limit.

What is VO2 Max? VO2 Max was one of the oldest measurable aspects of sport physiology yet it continues to be used today. A form of VO2 was tested and used by Edmund Hillary and his team before first climbing Mount Everest and during the lead-up to Roger Bannister’s epic four-minute mile. Nike’s Breaking2 Team used VO2 Max in the battery of tests during their attempt at breaking a sub-2-hour marathon.

In short, VO2 Max is your maximum-oxygen-processing capacity. It’s a number that varies from athlete to athlete depending on the level of cardiovascular fitness, but at its core VO2 Max represents your current fitness level.

How is VO2 Tested? While there are a few different ways to estimate your VO2 Max, the most common way to determine your VO2 Max is a sport lab test. With a mask attached over your nose and mouth, you progressively increase your running speed on a treadmill until your oxygen exchange rate no longer increases (or you can no longer go faster). You capture this data point at maximum exertion.

In this post I want to share a bit about what is VO2 Max, my lab test and results and a few conclusions and lessons learned.

Historical, Contemporary and Scientific: What is VO2 Max?

VO2 Max is one of the most utilized data points in sports science. VO2 Max is an abbreviation for the maximum amount (V for Volume) of oxygen (O2) you can uptake and transfer to your blood. You in essence trying to determine an individual’s ability to transfer the maximum amount of oxygen from the air into their blood stream during some extreme exertion.

VO2 Max is one of the oldest physiological measurements in sports science yet it continues to be used today along with other measurements like lactate threshold.

Physiologist and 1922 Nobel Laureate A.V. Hill is most often credited as the first researcher to study maximum oxygen consumption. He believed a high VO2 Max score translated into successful distance running. The book “The Perfect Mile,” which recounts the pursuit of the first four-minute mile by Roger Bannister and others, also share an interesting aside about VO2 Max. Roger Bannister, who would go onto be the first man to successfully run a four-minute mile, was also a medical student and researcher. He created his own treadmill and devices to measure both his own oxygen capacity as well as several members on Edmund Hillary’s mountaineer team to climb Mount Everest. This research aided him in understanding the impact of different training, like intervals, on his running speed.

Nike’s recent endeavor to run a 2-Hour Marathon combined both the pursuit of a mythical athletic achievement and the various scientific advances towards running far fast. As described in “What Nike’s Breaking2 Team Learned in Africa” in the lead up to the attempt, Nike’s team took three elite athletes and had them run a battery of tests, including a half-marathon time trial and some lab tests. Specifically all the athletes were tested for VO2 max, lactate profile, and running economy. While Eliud Kipchoge barely missed the record with a marathon time of 2:00:25, a lot of old running lessons were reiterated like importance of running conditions (temperature, humidity and number of runs), pacing and fueling, and a few discoveries were made including a new shoe, run pacers, running formations, and fueling station strategy.

Since its inception and standardization, VO2 Max has been used in a thousands of scientific studies. It’s used to determine the efficiency of different training protocols and as a baseline measurement for athletes around the world. Strategically VO2 Max is an important number in various calculations around training too.

Fortunately, VO2 Max is also not impossible for recreational athletes and biohackers like me to get checked. Many labs will test this for you and there are even tools that can estimate your VO2. This got me curious.

Why Do a VO2 Max Test? A “Self Tracking” Runner in Pursuit of Quantification

As far as I know, I’m no olympian or future running record holder, but what I am is both a runner and an obsessive self-tracker. In this case, I am mainly curious about VO2 Max as a data point to understand how I’m doing and correlate my training to improvements.

I’ve been tracking my life in different forms for several years. I track my productivity, time and tasks. But I’ve become increasingly interested in biomarkers and health tracking. One health data point in particular I recommend is Heart Rate Variability, which helps me quantify my stress and contributors to overtraining and recovery.

I’ve been running regularly for about a year and a half and specifically training for running for about a year. I first got myself into running by completing a 5k and then deepened my commitment by completing my first marathon. I’m currently focused on shorter speed training for 5k’s and 10k’s. Like any new runner, I had some big improvements at the beginning, got some early injuries, and made some race and training mistakes too.

I’m learning and improving, which for me is the most important. Through reading about running and training with different programs and run workout types, I’ve gotten better and better. My times have improved as have my ability to run longer and faster. I doubt I’ll run and train forever, but for now, I’m keen to continue to build my foundation and make solid improvements in the years to come.

In view of how often VO2 Max is used in science and elite athletes, I was keen to know my VO2 Max. Like a lot of runners, we hear this term tossed around but we rarely get a chance to figure it out for ourselves. Practically speaking, it’s not necessary to know your VO2 Max to be a good runner or a good self-tracker, but if you are keen to have data points about your health and fitness, VO2 Max is one of the best data points to know and leverage.

My VO2 Lab Test

My pursuit of better running and further life quantification lead me to a sports science clinic in Singapore recently. I was there for two tests, a video gait analysis (a topic I’ll go into in another post) and my VO2 Max test. I wanted to know how well I was running.

I arrived at the lab in a fasted and rested state. After a short discussion with Anna Tong, the exercise lab technician, I had my height and weight measured and did a 10-minute treadmill warmup. After, I was fitted with a heart rate monitor and with a mask that covered my nose and mouth and was attached to some lab equipment. Along with the treadmill, all of this was linked to a computer which would be tracking the key data points throughout the test: my heart rate, my air exchange, and my treadmill speed.

I was told that I could and should stop the test at anytime, especially as I reached my peak. At the end of the test, I would be asked to identify my Perceived Effort or Relative Perceived Exertion. The Borg scale is commonly used in sports science and it ranks from 20 to 0 with 20- Maximum exertion, 19- Extremely hard exertion, 17- Very hard exertion, 15- Hard exertion, 13- Somewhat hard exertion, 11- Light exertion, 9- Very light exertion, 7- Extremely light exertion, and 6- No exertion at all

After checking a few things, the test began. I started running at a lower moderate pace of 14 kilometers / hour (8.7 mph) and each minute the speed was increased by 0.5 kmh. The first several stages were hard but reasonable as I reached up to 15km/h and 16 km/h. My breathing felt relatively controlled and the pace was not yet too extreme. The lab technician gave me periodic encouragement, but I kept going even though I was fatiguing fast at this high speed. Mentally my mind was becoming more and more focused on keeping the pace.

As the speed increased two more times to 17km / h, my vision was narrowing, heart rate was near its limit and my breathing rate was somewhat struggled. My mind was focused almost entirely on running fast enough. I was hurting too as I pushed myself to run at this high speed. I was at or near my limit.

Following protocol to end the test after a set number of speed increases, Anna stopped the simulation and the treadmill speed slowed down and stopped. I was tired in both mind and body as I had used a lot of mental focus to push myself to this limit.

As I bent over in exhaustion, the lab technician held the exertion chart in front of me and asked how I felt. I indicated a perceived effort of 18 out of 20. In all honesty, I still had a bit left in the tank but not much.

As I walked off the treadmill, my mind and narrowing vision improved. I walked to the water-cooler for a drink, before sitting down. The test itself was over. I had given an extremely hard effort to know my VO2 Max and understand my fitness level.

My VO2 Max Lab Results

I took a shower and rested as the lab technician checked the numbers. There had been a small technical error during the test, so she was double checking the calculations and results.

Ten or fifteen minutes later she called me into her office to check my results:

As we discussed, she said that she didn’t believe it was technically possible to reach VO2 Max. Our bodies always provide some level of “buffer” to avoid self-destruction. As such, she preferred to call it VO2 Peak.

That said, she said I had done really well. My maximum heart rate was 177 and offered a chart for heart rate training zones.

Based on my height and weight, I had scored a VO2 Peak Value (ml/kg/min) of 50. This placed me in excellent aerobic fitness level and not too far from professional athletes too.

Interestingly she said two things that got me thinking.

The first one was that I had probably underestimated my moderate pace, so I potentially could have run faster which might modify my score. Having spent most of the previous months focused on Marathon Training, my pure speed was faster than I had thought. I honestly didn’t really know my speeds that well yet. Like knowing my VO2 Max, I still had a lot to learn, but I finally knew where I stood in terms of my VO2 Max.

Second, she said that while VO2 Max is useful, she recommended a running blood test about my lactate threshold. As she explained, Lactate Thresholds and zones can be even more useful in understanding your training zones and the effect of targeted training on those zones over time. VO2 Max is possible to change, but it is slow and takes time.

Conclusion: Finding My VO2 Max: Running and the Pursuit of Measuring Improvement

Runners and athletes typically quantify our performance from the races and competitions we are in. Race distances are fixed so it is easy to measure our achievements based on our times. We know just how fast we ran by checking the clock. These race times and our workout paces give us a pretty good idea of just how fast and fit we are.

Similarly we use Heart Rate Monitors and GPS Run Trackers to further quantify our workouts, races and training. By measuring our heart rate during different segments, we can figure out our aerobic efficiency during a run and see how much effort it took to go a certain distance. Some training tools and software can even use this to calculate your VO2 Max and other traditionally lab-tested measurements.

Peak performance is hard. A lot of factors can throw off how well you run in a race or workout. It might be a hot humid day, we might be coming off a sickness, we might have poorly paced the race, we might be mentally off, or a whole host of reasons that change how well we perform. It’s impossible to always performance at your best.

Beyond race times, VO2 Max offers a unique data point to understand running and endurance sports. VO2 Max is your maximum-oxygen-processing capacity. It’s how fast you can move oxygen from the air into your blood stream and muscles. This translates into your ability to move fast and far for a period of time. Athletes and scientists use VO2 Max to represent current fitness level and adapt training accordingly.

As I shared in detail in this post, a couple months back I did my first lab test to determine my VO2 Max at a sports lab in Singapore. I scored a respectable VO2 Peak of 50.

What did I learn from this experiment and test?

Here are a few lessons from my first VO2 Max Test:

I Am Fit But Can Be Fitter: I scored an excellent aerobic fitness level with a VO2 Max of 50. Typical elite endurance athletes score above 80 and untrained males score around 40 to 45. I wish I had a number from before I started training but it’s likely I was on the lower side of untrained males. Considering the work I’ve put into health and fitness over the past year or so, I was extremely happy with my VO2 Max score. There is still room for improvement though. Most research indicates that high intensity interval training is one of the best methods to improve VO2 Max. In view of my current speedwork-focused training, which includes elements of HIIT, I expect my VO2 Max will continue to improve.

VO2 Max Estimates Are Close Enough: I’ve actually been “tracking” my VO2 Max for awhile. I track my Heart Rate Variability every morning using HRV4Training, which lets me record my heart beat intervals and log a few contextually relevant data points. I mainly use it to determine my stress and recovery. Using Heart Rate and Pace Data from Strava, HRV4Training also provides a VO2 Max estimate too. I was happy to learn that my VO2 Peak Lab Results was within a few points of VO2 Max Estimation. To my mind, this means that HRV4Training’s VO2 Max estimation algorithm are close enough approximation that it might not be necessary to do a lab test.

(NOTE: While I have not yet verified in as fully, TrainAsOne’s algorithms appear to also offer good corollary estimates of VO2 Max and other points. These numbers are then used to create tailored training programs according to your race goals.)

VO2 Max as a Useful Protocol for Self-Tracker and Biohackers: While races might be a more enjoyable method for recreational athletes to test their limits and see improvements from training, I learned from this experiment that a VO2 Max test can be a useful protocol too for certain interventions. The test itself is short (around 10 minutes of actual fast running) and relatively inexpensive (~100 usd). In my case, I tracked this about a month after my first marathon and plan to do it again within a year or two after continued training and racing.

It’s Good To Push Your Limits Occasionally: The Western sedentary lifestyle rarely pushes us to our limits. We sit, we walk and we use machines to help us move and lift heavy stuff. This translates to poor health and weak physical abilities, myself included. Over the last year or so, I’ve done a few experiments to push my limits, like 5k running, a marathon and strength challenges. While you shouldn’t do it all the time, I’m convinced that it’s a good idea to push your limits occasionally. During my VO2 Max Test, I pushed myself to near my maximum capacity over several minutes. From this I know roughly how fit I am in non-lab situations.

In some ways that was part of the point: seeing how far and fast I could push myself. Among other lessons, I learned that I am faster than I thought and that there is still plenty of room for improvement too.

In conclusion, while traditionally a metric used by elite athletes and scientists, I believe VO2 Max can be a useful quantification “measuring stick” for anyone serious about health, fitness and performance. Whether you use the lab method to determine your VO2 Max or a VO2 Estimate, VO2 Max provides a way to quantify how capable your “engine” is at moving oxygen. With VO2 Max, you can know just how fast and powerful you are.

At the same time, VO2 Max is only one factor among several you should consider when it comes to health, fitness and performance. Specifically to be a good athlete and human, you need to be healthy, stronger and mobile. This means good sleep, solid diet, regular exercise, including both strength and mobility work. To be a good runner, you need to have a good cardiovascular capacity (which might best be measured using VO2 Max) but you also need to master and develop other aspects like lactate threshold, running efficiency/economy, neurological reactions, running form, technique, and cadence, and pacing. Fortunately by knowing your VO2 Max you can tailor your training to build these other skills and capacities too.

Good luck with your run training, life tracking and overall life and performance optimizations!