Have you ever wondered if you should get a VO2 Max test done? A lot of new devices, like the apple watch, have been coming out with “VO2 max testing” apps and I’ve been getting a lot of questions about their accuracy. You may have even tried using the feature on your watch but don’t know what the number means. Or more importantly, now that you have a VO2 max number, what do you do with it or use it to improve your training.
Smarter, Not Harder
Too often athletes are pushing themselves to the limit and will always try and factor in a workout or plan the day for a workout. How often do you plan for recovery? Typically the answer is never though the recovery process is the most crucial. This is what I mean by exercising “Smarter, Not Harder.” Getting your VO2 max, aerobic threshold, and anaerobic threshold is the best way to take training to a smarter level. You will be able to know exactly where you need to be working out to make the gains you want to see in your performance.
What is VO2 Max?
The most accurate and reliable way to measure physical fitness is to take blood samples
throughout a workout, then run those samples through a series of lab tests to establish the contents. The idea is, as you exercise, certain chemical changes occur in your bloodstream that signal different physiological occurrences that happen as you fatigue the body. As you may well expect, taking blood samples is not only not feasible for everyone, it is also an inconvenient and painful way to test. So, a group of researchers set out to establish a better, less invasive way to test physical fitness and the conclusion was a VO2 Max test. The idea is the body must rely on oxygen for any kind of activity and the body will consume oxygen, by breathing, at a certain rate per kilogram of body weight. Based on how much oxygen the body consumes, we can determine how physically fit the body is during strenuous exercise.
Wrist Monitors, Formulas, Average Population Norms.
The gold standard measurement of VO2 Max is through respiration during a graded exercise protocol. Meaning, if you want accurate results with numbers that are specific to your workout style, you want to be able to capture and analyze the amount of air you are breathing during exercise. Also, when you do a VO2 Max test, you want to be performing a graded exercise protocol (intensity increases at a known interval and intensity) and you want to be capturing data about your physiological response throughout the test. A graded test takes you through a physiological exertion range, getting harder and harder as the test goes on, until you cannot continue exercising. This is done to get what is called a peak or max VO2 measurement. Typically a test like this is done in a laboratory setting and a few professionals, like myself, do it in their office.
Now that is not to say your apple watch or garmin device is junk and inaccurate, but you should know the numbers you are given are submaximal estimations of your performance. Also, Apple reported some findings about their VO2 Max testing abilities and was found to be accurate in low intensity, geriatric activity from sedentary people. Meaning, if you exercise frequently, the Apple watch is probably not as accurate as you would like. Typically a device worn on your wrist has an error rate of about 10%. When estimating VO2 max, the apple watch and garmin watch use a formula based on your heart rate and submaximal activity, like walking. So the apple watch and garmins don’t give a true measurement of VO2 Max but rather a VO2 submax level.
Get the Most Out of Your Watch VO2 Max Test
The best way you would want to use your watch VO2 Submax test is to not workout for a couple of days before and to not have taken in any kind of stimulants i.e. caffeine (sorry no coffee or energy drink on test day). Then you want to be able to increase your exercise intensity at a known interval. In my clinic, I use a 2 minute protocol meaning, every 2 minutes the intensity is increased. It’s best to use a treadmill where you can control the speed and incline. Increase the intensity by speed for the first initial rounds and when you get to a running speed that is your tempo pace, switch intensity increments to the incline setting. The length of the test depends on your exercise threshold and how long you can keep going. Technically, the longer you can go the better and I often find that people end the test too early. It’s best to have a buddy who knows your intensity level who can cheer you on a little bit longer. This is to make sure you get to a true “peak” aka VO2 max level.
In my clinic, I do a similar test using a mixed gas analyzer, chest heart rate monitor, and a graded treadmill exercise protocol. I also put up the data on a screen because I have found this will help motivate you to continue to exercise to your max. The best thing about using the analyzer is it gives me accurate and reliable data based on your body and performance at a peak level. Plus I can get accurate results on your caloric expenditure and source, which has been a huge game changer for a lot of runners and endurance athletes. Typically runners aren’t eating enough calories to improve their performance, but that is a topic for another day. :-)
How to Use VO2 Max Test Results
VO2 Max test results are best used when done routinely and when starting a new workout program or training routine. Think of a VO2 Max test number as a picture, a snapshot taken in a moment of time. Your VO2 Max number is how you are doing at that moment and only at that moment. You also want to take another measurement when you have completed the first periodization or first phase of a new program. The reason is to be able to identify if your training is going to give you the results you are looking for from the program.
Too often athletes are pushing themselves to the limit and will always try and factor in a workout or plan the day for a workout. How often do you plan for recovery? Typically the answer is never, though the recovery process is the most crucial. This is what I mean by exercising “Smarter, Not Harder.” Getting your or “gassing out?” Often what I find is endurance athletes like runners often exercise way too hard and hit the wall as a result. You should really be working out in a more efficient zone rather than a harder zone to see true performance improvement.
Dr. Estrada is an Endurance Specialist at EPRSG and has over 15+ years of experience. He has completed over 10+ half marathons, 4 marathons, and 2 triathlons. His experience ranges from swimming, running, cycling, mountain biking, and many other sports. He has coached many athletes ranging in ages from high school to senior competitions.