Vo2max is often used in endurance sports. The term refers to the maximum oxygen consumption or – more precisely – to the maximum capacity of a person to transport and use oxygen during exercise.
The V stands for the volume, o2 for oxygen and max for the maximum. Vo2max also generally refers to the test used to determine a person’s maximum oxygen consumption.
But what exactly does Vo2max mean in practice – and above all: How can you increase it in the best possible way? Robert Gorgos, training & nutrition expert at MoN Sports and nutritionist at the WorldTour cycling team BORA – hansgrohe, gives valuable tips on how the pros do it and what every (hobby) athlete can take away from it!
Vo2max, or maximal oxygen uptake, is a popular tool for determining an athlete’s endurance performance.
In the past, myths about certain Vo2max values of world-class athletes have become popular. This is because, as a rule and in purely theoretical terms, high values are also associated with correspondingly high performance in sports such as cross-country skiing, long-distance running, cycling, rowing, triathlon or swimming.
Absolute Vo2max describes the amount of oxygen that an athlete can take in absolutely per minute. The interaction of individual lung volume, heart volume, the transport capacity of the blood vessels and the nervous system plays a decisive role. This is therefore largely trainable – although it is also genetically determined.
It is equally dependent on age, sex and the proportion of fat to muscle mass. Theoretically, only about every 1000th man has the prerequisites to become an Olympic champion in an endurance discipline.
Relative Vo2max is also a popular parameter and measures the maximum possible amount of oxygen per minute in relation to body weight. It is of particular importance in sports that require moving one’s own body weight.
Men are slightly higher in this regard compared to women due to their slightly larger organs, larger percentage of muscle mass, and slightly lower percentage of body fat. For example, men in cross-country skiing have values up to about 90 ml/min/kg. Values of world-class cross-country skiers, on the other hand, are 10-15% lower. In comparison, an untrained man is about 25-30 ml/min/kg.
Simply put, it controls all metabolic processes.
Simply more energy can be produced and converted (more precisely expressed: Oxygen + energy from carbohydrates or fat → ATP (usable energy in the body) + water + carbon dioxide .
Thus, the athlete is faster or better on the road.
A high maximum oxygen uptake shifts performance upward in all areas, including e.g. fat metabolism, compared to a low Vo2max.
Yes and no. Those who genetically do not have the abilities will probably not become top endurance athletes. However, it is possible for them to increase the proportion of utilization of maximum oxygen uptake through training.
Example: A marathon runner with a very good oxygen uptake (70 ml/min/kg), who can only run at 75% of his Vo2max permanently in competition, is theoretically moving slower than an athlete who, at “only” 60 ml/min/kg, can use 90% of it permanently in the run.
This ability can be trained with appropriate training. This means that even an athlete who is not genetically gifted can achieve outstanding performances in classic endurance disciplines.
It can only be measured accurately by spiroergometry. That is, measuring the inhaled and exhaled air through special masks during an athletic performance.
Lower intensities can also be “measured” here. However, Vo2max is defined as the gross criterion of endurance performance in an exertion situation over one minute.
Alternatively, an approximately accurate determination of the Vo2max via formulas as a field test is possible, e.g. on a bicycle with a power measurement. Here, for example, the measured power over 5 to 6 minutes on the bike is approximated as “Vo2max power”, which can then be converted into the relative Vo2max related to body weight.
Ultimately, it’s about training the energy-producing systems. Primarily the adaptation of the heart, lungs and skeletal muscles, here on the cellular level the formation of mitochondria, are the decisive factors.
In simple terms, this means that as much oxygen as possible should be converted during training in order to achieve these adaptations.
Classically, this is done primarily through a high volume of training, so that absolutely large amounts of oxygen and large amounts of energy are converted. Another option is to train the maximum capacity of the organs involved, for example at 90% or 100% of Vo2max power on the bike.
In recent years, Norway has increasingly adopted the “polarized” training approach: Here, training is either carried out in calm areas or, for example on other training days, deliberately in the area of maximum oxygen uptake, e.g. as “high intensity interval training”.
Whether this is the right approach for each athlete depends on the training age, the individual requirements and the time budget.
In order to continuously increase Vo2max, it generally makes sense to use a low-intensity training approach during 80% to 90% of the session’s training time, provided the sessions are of a fairly long duration.
Always pay attention to the correct compliance with the training intensities: A light training session should be of really low intensity which can be easily checked e.g. via the heart rate measurement.
Here lies a big mistake of many (hobby) athletes, who simply go too fast. Because if training is constantly too intense, the desired adaptations via volume or intensity simply do not take place.
In tempo training, for example, fat metabolism and the formation of new mitochondria are not stimulated. Too much interval training will train the anaerobic metabolism (VLamax) too much.
A high-intensity training approach should be used for about 10-20% of a session’s training time. During this perios an athlete should use 90-100% of his Vo2max.
If Vo2max is already well developed, then targeted tempo or sweet spot training can improve efficiency, which can be a success factor for long-term endurance sports, e.g. long mountain rides.
In summary: Polarized training improves your fat metabolism and thus your basic endurance. Furthermore, the anaerobic metabolism is trained.
As studies show, optimal improvement is achieved when both areas are combined – resulting in greater performance in the long run.
For example, what might a training week look like for increasing or training Vo2max, especially if you don’t have an infinite time budget?
Here is an example of a time budget of 10-12h per week in cycling combined with a running session:
Monday: Day off
Tuesday: intensive training, e.g. 1.5h in Z1 with 3 x (2+4 min) intensive intervals starting in Z5 and then in the area of the individual aerobic/anaerobic threshold (Z4)
Wednesday: low-intensity endurance training in Z1 2h, built into it 2 x 20min in Z2
Thursday: Day off
Friday: Stair runs, 20min easy with 2 increases, 5 x 3-4min in the range of 90% of Vo2max, short breaks, 20min cool-down run.
Saturday: low-intensity endurance training in Z1, 2.5h built into it 2 x 30min in Z2
Sunday: low-intensity endurance training in Z1 and Z2, 3-4h
One of the decisive factors for training success is nutrition, because without sufficient energy, the processes in the body cannot be adapted.
A carbohydrate-rich, easily digestible basic diet and the perfect catering of each individual training session have proven to be an essential factor for performance increases.
The food during the training is often underestimated, the food after the training is “over-portioned”.
Especially for longer endurance units, our SLOW CARB from MoN Sports is particularly suitable for longer endurance units, as it optimally supports the training of the fat metabolism.
In the 2nd half of long units should then be switched to the higher dosing POWER CARB (preferably in combination with GEL 40 or PORRIDGE BARs), otherwise the energy deficit will be too high (recommendation: 60-80g KH/h).
During intense training, more carbohydrates should be ingested immediately to cope with the high training load and address the carbohydrate-consuming systems. Here 70 to 120g of carbohydrates per hour are possible with appropriate “train the well” in advance. FAST CARB or POWER CARB (again gladly in combination with GEL 40 or PORRIDGE BARs) are perfectly suited for this.
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