Posted by: Dean Hebert | October 8, 2008

Training: VO2max and Activity-Specific Training

Coach Dean Hebert

Coach Dean Hebert

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. Because weight is a part of the calculation, you have brought out an important point: 5kg of body fat will certainly make a difference in your V02 max calculation. 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 now would argue that the limits to an athlete’s running performance are determined by a number of factors including, but not limited to, adaptation of muscles, running efficiency and metabolism; and that VO2max 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. By the way, yes, your pulse rate appears to be very high. I question the 190 accuracy 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. That still won’t mean you can do better mountain climbing or grappler. 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 and will more likely positively affect your VO2max.

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 for training. 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.

By the way, high VO2max does not mean you will function better at higher altitudes. If your red blood cell concentrations aren’t higher (through high altitude training or illegally using EPO) you won’t be able to carry the oxygen sucked into your lungs anyway.

I can’t get too much more specific without knowing all the details of your workout schedule. 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. Wow, thanks for the info!

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