Posted by: Dean Hebert | July 30, 2008

Training: Coach Dean answers a question on VO2max and Training Specificity

A reader named Frank asks:

I had a VO2Max test today. I am 39, 57 and 74kg, I could lose 5kg of fat. I haven’t done any regular exercise between 18 and 36. I started doing jiu jitsu/grappling 3 years ago 1 to 3 times a week.

Starting the test warm up my heart rate was already around 100! During the test it went up to 190. Result is my Vo2Max is 25.5! Obviously that’s terrible, I don’t feel that I am that out of shape, I do up to 5 sparring sessions of 5 minutes during training that are pretty intense.
Is my case desperate? How much will I be able to improve with aerobic training? I like climbing, I have been climbing up to 5000m peaks, it’s tough but I did it. Will I ever be able to climb higher, 6 to 8000m?

VO2max is always interesting.

First, VO2max does include weight as a part of its calculation, so you’ve targeted one important point: 5kg of fat will certainly make a difference. Think of it like wearing a 5kg weight vest in everything you do… and it is dead weight since unlike muscle, it can’t even help you move your body.

But the real point I need to make about VO2max is that most sports physiologists would argue that the limits to an athlete’s running performance are determined by number of factors including but not limited to adaptation of muscles, running efficiency and metabolism; and that VO2 max is simply a measure of the oxygen that the athlete consumes at the maximum level of energy output. So, let’s not put too much stake in this number.

Another reason not to put too much stake in this one number is that there are many different “tests” to determine your VO2max. From step tests to time trials – the results are then compared to a table of data. Almost ALL are ESTIMATES derived from formulas and are not direct measures. That means any inaccuracy in the process skews the results. Any inaccuracy by your tester also skews the results. True, your pulse rate appears to be very high. I question the accuracy of the 190bpm reading, though it’s possible.

If accurate, your 25.5 VO2max is low. But, let’s get real. Is your goal to have a number to brag about to friends or to be able to perform you chosen sport better? If you just want a number – drop weight – become an endurance athlete (runner or cyclist preferably) and your VO2max will greatly improve.

Howver, that still won’t mean you can do better mountain climbing. Your grappling bouts are like sprints. They are short and intense. It’s been shown in researching and testing sprinters and endurance athletes that endurance athletes have higher VO2max figures. More “sprints” won’t be terribly effective in improving your VO2max. (Over time like any physical activity – it may move it upwards – but it won’t be the most effective way to do so.)

If it’s about performance then high intensity grappling bouts such as you have mentioned (5 minutes) may help but there needs to be more “reps” and with progressively less rest between them. It will improve your conditioning specific to grappling. The less rest there is, the more continuous the workout. Therefore, longer workout times become more “endurance” in nature.

As for the elevation of those peaks… conditioning will get you there. Your grappling is making little impact on your ability to climb. Climb to become a better climber. I would recommend climbing with a weighted back pack. This is something I have done for runners training for the rim-to-rim-to-rim Grand Canyon run with great results. Use the same approach in part of your training – climb hard intervals – no strolling allowed. You could even adapt this easily to stair steppers in a gym in fact.

I can’t get too much more specific without knowing all the details of your workout schedule (such as how much aerobic training you do separate from these primary activities). But, I hope this will help. Good luck. You’re heading in the right direction.

Coach Dean Hebert, Tempe Arizona, USA
Contributing Editor, Running Advice and News



  1. Great advice! Was just speaking to a colleague of mine today about the importance of training athletes based on vo2 max.


  2. Thanks Cher, by the way, I dropped by your blog. You have some good info on your blog. Your friend should be listening to you!
    Coach Dean

  3. Ha, thanks! Well, feel free to drop by more often! I think youll actually enjoy my newest post! 🙂

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