VO2 Max: how to find your true aerobic capacity

Professional athletes have been using VO2 Max machines for years to find out what their true aerobic capacity is. Now you can too.

How? A rigorous fitness test (that takes around 20 minutes).

What is a VO2 Max machine?

Known as the ‘gold-standard' in cardiovascular fitness testing, the VO2 Max machine measures how efficiently your muscles use oxygen during exercise.

The higher the VO2 number you get, the better your body is at using oxygen during physical activity. This means that you can maintain peak performance for longer.

People who have a high VO2 capacity are generally suited to endurance sports like marathons, triathlons, long cycling events (think Tour de France), and cross-country skiing.

‘If you're a semi-elite athlete and you're thinking about going professional, then this test will show you what your true ability is,' said Liam Daley, TAFE NSW Northern Beaches' Head Teacher of Sport, Fitness and Recreation.

‘A good result is a VO2 Max of around 75. If you have a VO2 Max of 30, you will never be in the Tour de France or the Ironman Triathlons,' he added.

How does the test work?

The participant is attached to specialist monitoring machines while being put through their paces on a piece of fitness equipment (usually on a treadmill or stationary bike).

The test starts the participant exercising at a moderate level. This level is then gradually stepped up every minute or so, to make it harder and harder. Eventually, after around 15 – 20 minutes, the participant will reach the very maximum of what they are capable of in terms of aerobic capacity. Their carbon dioxide levels will have overtaken oxygen levels, their heart rate will have reached max, and they will have to stop due to exhaustion.

Throughout the test, the participant's breathing is analysed. The analysis looks at the gasses going in and coming out of the participant's mouth to see how much oxygen is used and how well this oxygen is utilised.

‘One of the best things about this test is that we are able to see whether you're doing your absolute maximum or not. We're watching your carbon dioxide, oxygen and heart rate, so you might think that at 85% you're maxing out, but we know that you're actually not at your maximum yet and we'll keep you going until you reach your max,' said Daley.

‘It's probably the most pure test of cardiovascular endurance-everything else is an estimate,' he added.

Can you improve VO2 capacity?

Yes. But only a little. According to Daley, a person's VO2 capacity is mostly determined by genetics and only a small amount by conditioning (around 10 percent).

You can train that 10 percent and make your VO2 a little bit better, but overall, whether you will excel at endurance sports is mainly up to your DNA.

‘Things that help your body uptake oxygen like your lung capacity, blood vessels, and the size of your heart and lungs, you can't change that,' said Daley, adding ‘the number of red blood cells and the number of mitochondria that you've got in each blood cell, you can change that'.

Interested in sport and fitness?

If you are interested in sport and fitness (whether for your own personal goals or for a career) come along to the TAFE NSW Northern Beaches' Fitness, Sport and Recreation open day on 24 June. Here, you can hear about nutrition and fitness from nutritionist Tamara Madden and participate in fitness and strength workshops and challenges. You can also speak to teachers and tour our state-of-the-art facilities. For full details, visit our website.

Think you're up to it?

If you are a semi-professional athlete who would like to try the machine, you can book in to secure a spot on the day.

But, it is important to note that you need to be very, very fit. This test is not a walk in the park. It is hard. It puts your body under serious strain, and often it will take professional athletes days to recover. If you are not a serious athlete, it's best that you don't take the test.

However, if you are a serious competitor and do want to see what you're capable of, you are more than welcome to book in to take the (free) test. If you're interested, call Toyah on 9942 - 0490 to talk about signing-up for testing on the day. Spots are limited, so get in quick to secure yours!

Visit the TAFE NSW Northern Beaches Sport, Fitness and Recreation open day website to get your name on the list.