When VO2max isn’t max


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This week’s Jockology column in the Globe and Mail takes a closer look at the recent study that produced “supermax” VO2max values by changing the test protocol, suggesting that the VO2max plateau isn’t really a physical maximum:

Eventually, your muscles can no longer get enough oxygen. It’s an immutable physical limit that kicks in during any sustained physical exercise and tells your body: “This fast – but no faster.”

At least, that’s the theory we’ve been working with since 1923. But a controversial new study from researchers on three continents suggests that the famous “VO2max” – the maximum amount of oxygen that you’re able to deliver to your muscles during hard exercise – isn’t really a maximum at all. Your heart and lungs don’t call the shots after all; your brain does. […]

As usual, Trish McAlaster has a nice graphic that illustrates what’s going on with the new test:

11 Replies to “When VO2max isn’t max”

  1. “There was one further surprise: When the subjects did a final incremental VO2max test at the end of the experiment, the group that had previously performed the decremental test maintained their new higher max – a result that left even Mr. Beltrami puzzled. Whatever additional exercise capacity was unlocked by the novel decremental protocol somehow persisted.”


  2. Tom – That was what I found the most interesting about the entire study. It makes me think the central governor can be trained and maybe we can improve our VO2max more than originally believed. That was a 4% increase in VO2max virtually overnight.

    Very interesting.

  3. My next interval session will be 6x5min (4’@5’30” per mile +1’@6′ per mile), instead of running the whole thing @5’30″…

  4. Does anyone have a link to the entire study? I would love to get my hands on it

  5. @Alex:

    “Why should we be surprised at a training effect resulting in improved performance?”

    From the paper’s discussion section:

    “It is important to stress that all our trials were conducted in the space of no more than 3 weeks per participant, and VO2max is known to be reproducible over this period in highly trained subjects. Moreover, data from the control group show that no training effect was produced by repetitive INC testing. This is also confirmed by the lack of improvement in the time to fatigue for the reverse group in INCF despite a persistently higher VO2max.”

    The second and third points are key. There were two groups in the study, each of which did three VO2max tests. The control group did three consecutive incremental tests and saw no change in their VO2max values; the other group did one incremental test, one decremental test, and one final incremental test, and saw a 4.4% increase.

    Now, it’s theoretically possible that the decremental test is an incredibly hard, super-magic workout that instantly increases VO2max by 4.4%. But when these subjects did their third and final incremental test, even though VO2max was higher, their time to exhaustion wasn’t. If the change in VO2max was really a training effect, you’d expect their time to exhaustion to increase. People often confuse “VO2max” with “performance,” but they’re two different things.

    @Chris, the study abstract is here. If you’d like the full text, let me know.

  6. Interesting. Thanks for clarification.

    In my training centre (cycling) the interval efforts where power (controlled by ergo) is taken up high and stepped down are rated as some of the harder sessions, despite overall intensity being set the same as a ramp up scenario.

    Also, using a power meter to estimate Maximal Accumulated O2 Deficit during track cycling events (e.g. individual and team pursuits) has shown me that a higher MAOD is attainable when the effort starts out much harder than sustainable and the rider fatigues while attempting to sustain a maximal effort.

    No idea if this observation is related, but seems to be a similar phenomenon.

  7. I would love the full text! My buddy is in Exercise Physiology right now and would love to read the entire article – sadly we do not get a subscription to the British Journal Of Sports medicine here 🙁

  8. @alex
    Very interesting stuff! I’d also be interested in the full text if it’s available 🙂


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