Updated: Mar 4, 2020
Disclaimer: I'm the worst social media person on earth. I didn't take any photos or videos from my VO2 Max Test...I know...I failed the social media community, and the world at large. I'm sorry everyone...I'm sorry! Forgive me! No, but seriously, I didn't take any media from the test, so I hope the race photos infused in this article serve as inspiration to get you hyped for 2020 races, even if they aren't about VO2 Max testing.
VO2 Max Simply Defined: "VO2 max, also known as maximal oxygen uptake, is the measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen a person can utilize during intense exercise." (Source)
Several weeks ago I did a VO2 Max test at the University of Virginia. I'd never done a VO2 Max test before, and the test administrator did mention that the "stress" of doing it the first time could mean that results aren't going to be 100% correct. After the test, she thought it went very well though and we got very accurate numbers.
I was told that I shouldn't do any strenuous activity the day before so that my maximum effort for the test would be a true maximum and I wouldn't have issues with fatigue from the previous day. Sadly, I can't remember what I did the day before...I think it was a short run at a low effort. In any case, I followed the instructions because I wanted to perform at my best and get the most accurate results possible and not waste money.
What's It Like? (What it was like for me)
I'm sure people have varying experiences for their first VO2 Max test. Some people stress easily and become anxious when doing new things - I was just a tad nervous because I always feel pressure to do my best work. However, besides a bit of nerves, I loved the experience. The lady who was in charge had two assistants with her (students at the university) and they all did a great job. They took it step by step, talked through everything with me, let me know exactly what to expect, and we all made jokes throughout. Having good test administrators makes a huge difference!
I had my height, weight, and blood pressure taken. I came it at 5'9 (no shock there...I've been that tall since I was 13), weighed 151 (yeesh...lost some weight), and my blood pressure was 118/64 (awesome! I used to have high blood pressure for years from not sleeping enough and always stressing myself out).
They hooked me up to an EKG to track my Heart Rate throughout the test. This meant having 6 or so little disks stuck to my chest/stomach area and having a little box hooked around my waist and resting on my left hip. I thought the box and wires would distract me during the test, but I don't remember noticing them much at all.
It took us some time to get the mask positioned and tightened properly on my face, but after a few moments of adjustment, that was also set and ready to go. I've heard people say that the mask is hard to breath through when it's on, but that wasn't the case for me at all; I felt fine breathing through the mask.
We started the test at a walking pace for a few minutes. My HR was at 70bpm. We then did a warm up for several more minutes that started at 6mph and ended at 6.8mph. My heart rate went from 131bpm to 151bpm during the warm up.
Once the warm up was over, we took the treadmill up to 7mph, and from there the speed stayed the same for the remainder of the test. Instead of adjusting speed, they began to increase the incline on the treadmill by 2.5% every two minutes.
By the end of the test, when I reached my hardest effort and stepped off the treadmill, I'd been running for 12:13 (not including the warm up time) and tapped out when the treadmill hit 12.5% incline at the 7mph pace. The previous incline of 10% was hard, but I was doing okay...that 12.5% put a quick stop to it though. I don't think I made it more than 30 seconds on that setting.
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I walked on the treadmill for a few minutes to cool down, and then went and took a shower (had to be at work afterwards) while they compiled the data.
My Max HR was 200. My VO2 Max was 61.2. My Peak RQ was 1.12.
What's This Information For?
Previously, the only way I'd known what my maximum HR was the traditional method of 220-Age which brought me to 192bpm. I also tried a test with my Suunto 9 and chest-strap HR monitor to estimate my Max HR and VO2 Max. While somewhat close, the test was inaccurate. I believe the Suunto test had my Max HR at 195 and my VO2 max at 57 or so. I like accurate data because it leads to optimal training, so that wasn't good enough for me.
My Max HR matters because it changes which HR's correlate to which training zones. Previously, I had been doing my runs in Zones that weren't quite right, and although I made lots of progress, I wasn't making optimal progress. I'm very data driven, and I try to learn what different paces and elevations correlate to different zones of training so that I better understand how my body feels at different efforts.
The VO2 Max number doesn't matter very much to me. My only true use for it at this moment is to compare it with future tests. Ideally, over time, and with consistent training, that number should go up.
Peak RQ was a term/metric that I wasn't previously familiar with. If I am explaining it correctly, based on what the administrator told me, when you hit a Peak RQ of 1.0, you are then primarily exhaling Carbon Dioxide. This it the "point of no return". You're completely anaerobic above 1.0, which means your effort is unsustainable for a long period of time. The good news about this test, for me, was that I didn't break the 1.0 mark until I'd hit a HR of 190bpm. Is this 100% accurate and reliable? Probably not. What it does tell me though is that I can sustain efforts at higher intensities than I previously thought for longer periods of time than I previously thought. In the past, if I'd seen HR's in the high 170's or low 180's, I'd back off, but now I know I can hold them for longer which will lead to faster route times if I'm training at high intensities.
EDIT: Since originally writing this article, I competed in a Viking Dash Trail Run 5K where I took 2nd place (missed 1st by 3 seconds). My average HR (I wore a chest HR monitor) was 187bpm...so the Peak RQ zone breaking 1.0 at around 190 was pretty spot on because I was able to maintain the same pace most of the way through the race, but at the end, when it was a dead-sprint to try to take first, and my HR spiked to 196bpm, I burned out and couldn't finish the last 15-20 seconds at that pace...hence 2nd place.
Should You Do A VO2 Max Test?
If you are really serious about maximizing all of your training, gauging different metrics over time to visibly see the changes in your fitness level, and want to compete in endurance sports, then a VO2 Max Test will have valuable information for you and will be worth doing. I changed several things in my training program based on the data from the test and, so far, it seems to be paying off. Of course, I won't know how much of a difference the programming changes have made until I've been training with my updated program for a few months. If you are a data-driven person, this test will not only be very useful to you, but will also be exciting!
Can you be a great athlete without the test and data? Yes, absolutely. No doubt about it. Lots of professional endurance athletes go years without doing a VO2 Max test. It's not an end-all-be-all test of fitness. Having a higher VO2 Max than someone else doesn't remotely guarantee that you'll be finishing ahead of them at a race.
If you are someone who doesn't love data, following HR's during your training or racing, and would rather not let data dictate your training, then don't take this test. The information you gain from it won't be worth much to you unless you are just looking at it as a "check point" to compare to a previous "check point". For the athlete who is just racing and competing to relieve stress, get in better shape, challenge themselves, or for pure enjoyment, a VO2 Max Test is probably a waste of money. Even if you are a very competitive athlete, there is no point in doing a VO2 Max Test if you won't enjoy the training style that the information from it assists most with.
I'd never tell a client that they have to get a VO2 Max Test done. If they were asking about it, I'd share the reasons why it could be valuable, and let them decide if it's worth the $150+ dollars for the test. It was an awesome experience for me, and I love data, so it gave me everything I wanted. It may not be the same for you.
If you haven't seen the trend yet in all of our training articles, every person is unique. We all think differently, feel differently, and have different backgrounds, abilities, and goals. The style of training I enjoy might be misery to someone else. You just need to find out what you enjoy, use smart training principles, and be consistent!
At Trio Fitness OCR, we allow for the uniqueness of the individual. While training principles never change, there are different strategies to cater to the training that people enjoy. Whether that's training by HR, feel, distance, time, weight, reps, speed, etc. If you're ready to improve your training and enjoy it, head over to our Training Programs and choose the one that best fits your goals. If you have questions, you are welcome to email us at Info@triofitlife.com.
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Joel Hayes (Coach & Article Author)
Luke Hayes (Coach)