In a comprehensive review on training, Midgley and McNaughton’s first sentence state’s “The maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) has been suggested to be the single most important physiological capacity in determining endurance running performance” (2006). Based on this notion, training for distance runners has become fixated on the concept of VO2max. Training to enhance VO2max is the subject of numerous review articles and popular coaching material. A whole theory of training has evolved based on the idea of training at the speed that corresponds with VO2max, and at certain percentages of VO2max (Daniels, 2005). Given the emphasis on this particular parameter one would assume that it must be very closely tied with performance and fatigue. It’s not.
In the following paper the limitations of VO2max will be discussed. Including the legitimacy of the variable itself, why it arose to such prominence, the efficacy of basing training paces off of it, should we even train to improve it, and how closely it ties to performance.
How the VO2max concept developed:
The ability to measure oxygen consumption first arose in the early 1920’s. It was in 1923, when A.V. Hill and his partner H. Lupton came up with the idea there being an upper limit on oxygen consumption. In an experiment which consisted of Hill running at various speeds around a grass track while measuring VO2, it was found that Hill reached a VO2max of 4.080 L/min at a speed 243m/min (Bassett, 2000). Despite increases in speed, his VO2 did not increase, leading Hill to conclude that there is a maximum limit to oxygen consumption, or in his words:
“In running the oxygen requirement increases continuously as the speed increases attaining enormous values at the highest speeds: the actual oxygen intake, however, reaches a maximum beyond which no effort can drive it… The oxygen intake may attain its maximum and remain constant merely because it cannot go any higher owing to the limitations of the circulatory and respiratory system” (Noakes, 2008, pg. 575).
These findings led to two lasting conclusions. First, that VO2max is limited by the circulatory and respiratory system. The second conclusion was the result of trying to device a laboratory test for determining VO2max, in which thirty years later, Taylor et al. decided that during a graded exercise test, a VO2max was obtained when a plateau occurred in VO2 (Noakes, 2008). However, in Taylor’s original definition, a plateau was not a true plateau but it rather consisted of a VO2 increase of less than 150ml/min from one workload to the next. These findings led to the idea that in order for a true VO2max to be reached, a plateau of the VO2 should occur.