Insights from VO2max testing

One of the great things about being in Austin, beyond the tacos, Barton Springs, the Hill Country, and the barbecue, is having access to a world class research university. I’m talking about the University of Texas at Austin, of course.

As a top 5 ranked kinesiology program, they have lots of cool toys. It’s where I get my Dexascans done (and my clients) and it’s where I had my VO2max test performed just yesterday.

Actionable Data

As a minimalist runner, both in footwear and in volume, I aim to maximize the value of every workout. My aim from this test was to find out where I could put my limited time to maximize my running-specific fitness.

Some context: in the past year, I’ve set personal bests in the mile, the 5k, and the 5 mile, all on a paltry amount of training per week (no more than 20 minutes of structured running workouts, on average). This past fall saw me largely doing tabata-style intervals, leading to a 5 mile time of a smidge over 38 minutes. The winner of the race did it in ~25 minutes, so I was basically off by half. Pretty good for such low volume of training!

This year, I wanted to invest a little more time, ~45 minutes per week on average, to see if it helps make me faster. From the data, I was hoping to find a maximum slow pace that I could accumulate some time at every few weeks. Let’s go to the data!


Lactate Threshold Scan

First: the Tyler/Skyler confusion never dies. Next, the amazing thing about the VO2max number is that it is exactly the same as it was 6 years ago in graduate school, when I was doing no running whatsoever. There is evidence that vo2max is largely a function of recruitment, rather than fitness per se. Since I have trained to failure for ~20 years, that might be why that is steady.

Also interesting: the data pretty accurately predicted my 5k performance. I’ve gone sub-21 on trail, so I’m certain near 20 on flat asphalt is a reality.  Cool Stuff.

So from all of this, Phil and I talked about I should spend more time around lactate threshold, as that is where I have room to improve. It is also one of the more trainable aspects of physiology with regard to running performance. Also important for me because I now hold the UT FIT institute record for highest lactate levels after the warmup stage: 3 mmol!

Lactate Threshold Scan 2

I asked why he thought that might be. Shrugging, he said: “…Fast twitch?”

So the plan might look something like this:

Week 1: Death intervals on treadmill, ~5 minutes

Week 2: Short time trial or supramax intervals on treadmill

Week 3: 60 minutes at threshold pace, which was ~8:30-8:45/mile as per above. A similar run a few weeks ago confirmed that 8:45 on Town lake trail averaged 166 bpm heart rate, which is in line with the data above.

Restart sequence. The workouts support each other, so we should see improvements in 2 and 3. Treadmill intervals at your limit are, um, at your limit. Improvements are slower.

I have no races on the horizon. If I did? I’d likely choose race specific workouts over physiology-focused training. The whole machine needs to be tuned to the demands of the race, not just adding better parts and hoping for improved performance.

But if I was doing an ultra distance event? Well, that’s basically what Andrew would do also.

Comments are welcome.

6 thoughts on “Insights from VO2max testing

  1. I was just doing some reading on VO2 max, and found stuff I wasn’t expecting to find. Some sources suggest that it is largely genetic, and perhaps not that trainable. I think that is Dr. McGuff’s take. Others say that in practice, subjects often don’t exhibit a heart rate plateau, but terminate the test for other reasons. So it really just measures peak VO2 for that activity. That makes improvement in VO2 max somewhat difficult to interpret. Your thoughts? What is the value of repeated testing?

    1. Craig,

      The only way to get the lactate threshold value, which is quite trainable, is to do the VO2max test. The value of repeating it would be to see if the lactate threshold has changed.

      FWIW, the vo2max value has scant trainability, to the tune of 10-20% above adult baseline. To your point, that’s not much.

  2. Skyler, first thing I want to say is I have deep respect for you and what you taught me.

    I was the classic case of someone who obsessively over-trained to the point of playing basketball 5-6 days a week and destroying my hips, knees & spine (bad genetics and hard courts didn’t help.) After being forced to give up basketball (in my early 50’s) or become incontinent and worse I bumbled around in depression while I ballooned out to 213 lbs and a plus 40″ waist (I’m 6 foot tall btw and when working out like crazy in college only reached 183 lbs.) I didn’t have much luck with longer exercise programs because they were so damn boring.

    Then I stumbled into one of your earlier websites where you discussed adult exercise physiology and the benefits of short high intensity workouts and days off. Took up high intensity cycling and rowing and dumbbell workouts and sawtoothed my way back down to 180 lbs where I stand today (@ 58 years of age.) I still need to lose another 10 lbs but I’m on a good path and the sawtooth’s are smaller as I work my way down.

    I have a Garmin watch and use it to track my VO2max. Garmin uses First Beat formulas which unfortunately only work with running or cycling with a power meter.

    My VO2max got stuck around 43 sticking with the philosophy of shorter intense workouts. Then I started increasing my workout lengths as an experiment to see if that would increase my VO2max and also to burn more calories because I wasn’t doing the greatest job restricting calories. 🙂

    With longer workouts of 15 minutes to an hour I was able to increase my VO2max to 48 but got stuck again. I was riding one day, rowing the next on a Concept 2 rower.

    Then I had to go on a 10 day business trip where I only got to the gym twice and ate like an idiot.

    I came back and proceeded to crack a VO2max of 51 on my first 10 mile ride all out. My average sustained power numbers jumped up. A light went off in my head. 2 days of rest and another 10 mile bike ride. Rinse and repeat. In a week I hit an estimated VO2max of 55, with each jump I got similar increase in average speed and sustained power numbers.

    My take on this is a couple things.

    1. To increase VO2max, which is a measure of how you can sustain high output you need to exercise at maximum power for longer periods of time. 30 to 40 minutes all out seems to be a good amount. This builds up your heart/lung capacity but I suspect, more importantly, it increases the capacity of your muscles to store glycogen and dispense of lactic acid. I was leg muscle limited, not lung capacity limited as I over-trained. My heart rate kept going down for the same times but my performance wasn’t improving.

    2. You need rest between workouts to perform at your top capability, a day is OK…two or three is better.

    Good luck on your quest.


    P.S. I’ve been preaching the gospel of Tyler and passing your blog along to everyone I meet who, like me, is trying to develop a lifelong wellness program.

    1. The “Gospel of Skyler” has a nice ring to it. It also reinforces what my clients say about me having a “Cult of Personality” about myself. 😬

      I’m glad you’ve found value from this. Keep an eye out over the next couple weeks for my training update, as this weekend I’m participating in a super hilly 25k trail race on <1 hour per week of run training. I'm less concerned about VO2max as an outcome measure for performance, it's so variable as you've seen, but we should certainly see it stable as performance improves.

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