In the everlasting pursuit of fitness and speed, numbers don’t lie. Let’s look at the VO2 max test.
Power, cadence, and heart rate are the most common metrics used in cyclist training plans but together they comprise only a fraction of the story. In the jigsaw puzzle that is the quest for fitness and form, each of these metrics plays an important role but the most telling assessment comes from a test very few cyclists take.
**VO2 max testing** is the endurance athlete’s gold standard for measuring the body’s aerobic capabilities and how to specifically, effectively bring those capabilities to the fore through tailored training. The data collected during a VO2 max test takes the guesswork out of subsequent training as you will know *exactly* which areas to work on in order to make great fitness rise to the top.
First, it’s important to understand what VO2 max is. Essentially, VO2 max refers to the maximum amount of oxygen the body can consume and is indicative of athletic fitness and potential. This is the reason you often find legendary cyclist’s names paired with their VO2 max results: Greg Lemond had a VO2 max of 95 during his golden days while Indurain’s result of 90 came between Tour de France wins.
Your body’s ability to take a breath, exhale that breath, and **use** that breath are all separate metrics that may stand out individually but only indicate fitness when they all come together efficiently in concert with the cardiovascular system. Being able to take a big breath (known as *intake*) doesn’t mean much for fitness if you can’t use most of the air you inhale (your *uptake*), while being able to uptake a large amount of oxygen won’t be a great advantage if you can’t intake much to begin with.
What does all of this oxygen talk have to do with going fast on your bike? Oxygen is the gas that drives your motor: oxygen is brought in through the lungs and delivered to the muscles via the cardiovascular system. At work are red blood cells which load themselves with oxygen, transporting it where it’s needed and coming back to the lungs with carbon dioxide for you to exhale. This process is measured for efficiency during the VO2 max test.
Prior to the test you’ll be weighed, have your height measured, and a lab technician will take your age, weight, and height are then used to interpret your VO2 max results and will give you an idea of whether you stand at, above, or below average for your given range.
Lab assistants will have you fitted with an awkward mask reminiscent of the one worn by comic book villain Bane. Looks aside, the mask plays a crucial role in the test as it’s the tool by which your intake and vital capacity (the measure for your how much oxygen your lungs can take in) are gauged. A heart rate monitor compliments the mask.
The test proceeds by having you kit up and, with the aforementioned medical attachments in place, mount a trainer and begin spinning at minimal effort. This is the warm up phase which typically starts below 100 watts. After an adequate warmup, the trainer (cycling ergometer) will gradually increase your wattage after every few minutes until you reach the point of exhaustion brought on by going into the anaerobic zone (when your body goes into oxygen debt). After reaching exhaustion, you’ll warm down for an additional fifteen to twenty minutes while awaiting the data from the test.
Interestingly, scoring highly during a VO2 max test *does not* necessarily mean you’ll be fast on the road or podium every race you enter. If this concept seems a bit confusing, consider the following: Let’s say you test at a VO2 max of 80. A score of 80 puts you in line with world tour pro cyclists and yet you may be having trouble keeping up with the pack on the third lap of the local Tuesday night group ride. What’s missing?
Despite having a very high VO2 max, you are likely only able to keep up intensity for a short period of time within that. Your ability to keep up a high-intensity effort is determined by your FTP (functional threshold power). If your FTP is low, then you’ll only be able to support around 50-60% of your VO2 max. To put this in perspective, if you have a VO2 max of 80 but only have the functional threshold power to support half of that, then someone with a much lower VO2 max at 58 who is able to support 90% will undoubtedly leave you behind on a climb.
From the above example it becomes clear that VO2 max testing, combined with past performance results, power files, and times, will help guide you in a specific training direction. If you test highly but are not performing to the potential your numbers indicate then working on your functional threshold power will be a clear and obvious training direction that will result in increased fitness and training capacity.
VO2 max testing gives a complete, empirical picture of your fitness as it stands the moment the test is taken. By having a complete data set to complement your perceived exertion, a coach can create a personalized training regime that points exactly to your weaknesses and shapes them up. Diet recommendations can also be made based on test results which is crucial since the most simple way to increase your VO2 max is by losing weight (without reducing power).
In today’s information age data is the standard by which athletes objectively zero in on training targets to unlock maximum potential. VO2 max testing is important for every competitive cyclist in this regard and should be taken seriously by those looking to push their cycling to a higher standard.