VO2max is a poor predictor of performance, but computing your velocity at VO2max can pay big benefits

Let’s face it: it’s no big deal to know what your actual VO2max is. True, if it’s an ethereal number which resides above the magical 70 mark, you can brag about it a bit with your athlete friends. And even if your VO2max is a rather stunted figure, you can use it to look up your potential race times in a book like Jack Daniels’s great ‘Oxygen Power’. Aside from those two limited applications, however, knowing your aerobic capacity just doesn’t do you much good.

For example, if your V02max is 66 and another athlete’s is 60, that doesn’t mean that you’re 10-per cent faster or even 10-per cent better. In fact, it doesn’t even mean that, if you’re both runners, you’ll beat the other competitor in a 5K, 10K, or marathon. VO2max is a terribly poor predictor of performance potential.

However, another variable – your running velocity at V02max (ie., the running speed at which you begin to utilize oxygen at your maximal possible rate) – is an excellent predictor of your racing potential (in fact, it may be the best predictor, better even than running economy, lactate-threshold running speed, or the rate at which lactate increases in your bloodstream as you run at high speeds). In addition, your running velocity at V02max is a great training speed. If you know your velocity at V02max, you can structure some eye-popping, performance-boosting interval workouts around it.

Why is V02max no good as a race predictor, yet velocity at V02max is a fool-proof foreteller of race speed? Well, bear in mind that a pretty well-trained athlete with clunky feet can have a high V02max, because those clunky feet will force leg muscles to use oxygen at high rates as the poor fellow moves down the road. However, having gargantuan feet certainly does not make him a scary presence on the road-racing scene (unless he happens to get too close to other runners).

In contrast, your velocity at V02max reveals a lot about you. For example, if you and your running companion have V02max values of 70 but your running tempo at V02max is 4:20 per mile while he/she has a V02max tempo of only 4:40, you’ll be able to destroy that person in competition. For one thing, you’ re able to use oxygen more efficiently (at V02max, each of you utilizes 70 millilitres of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute, but you’re able to ‘milk’ this supply of oxygen to run 20 seconds per mile faster). In addition, since oxygen consumption and perceived effort are tightly linked, you’ll feel the same level of effort as your companion, even though you’re moving 20-seconds per mile faster. That’s a huge advantage! What’s more, your highly ‘anaerobic’ (faster than VO2max-speed) kick at the ends of races will move you fairly easily into 4:004:20 per mile mode, while your opponent will have to settle for a more modest 4:20-4:40.

How to work it out
But how do you calculate your velocity at V02max, and what do you do with it once you’ve actually got it? Fortunately, the whole process is fairly easy, thanks to some valuable research carried out a few years ago at the University of Montreal.

Here’s what to do. Find a nice 200-metre track (400metre ovals will work, too, but they make matters a little harder). Put traffic cones, flags, chairs, or whatever is handy at the four 50-metre points on the inside of the track (at the tips of the 200-metre oval and at the halfway points on the two straightaways). Have a friend along to help you during the actual workout.

Once you’re loose and ready, begin walking on the track at a leisurely tempo for two minutes. During this two-minute period, you need to cover exactly 200 metres (you’ll circle the 200-metre track once). The traffic cones (or chairs) which you placed at 50-metre intervals will help you regulate your pace.

After this first two-minute period, you must continue to do everything in two-minute stages without stopping between stages, but each stage must proceed at a slightly faster pace. Specifically, in your next two-minute stage, you’ll need to walk at a tempo of 101 seconds per 200 metres (about 25 seconds per 50 metres). Obviously, you’ll cover more than 200 metres during this second two-minute stage. In fact, you’ll cover 120/101 = 1.19 loops around the 200-metre track. I.19 X 200 meters = 238 meters total in this second two-minute stage.

When you reach the four-minute point (after the first two two-minute stages), it’ s time to break into a jog (never stop moving between two-minute stages, though). For your third two-minute stage, jog around the track at a tempo of 100 seconds per 200 metres (again, 25 seconds per 50 metres). To make sure you’re at the right pace, have your friend call out your splits to you as you reach each 50-metre point.

For your fourth two-minute stage, you should jog at a tempo of 85 seconds per 200 metres (about 21 seconds per 50 metres). Obviously, you’ll make about 120/85 = 1.4 trips around the track during this stage, or 200 metres plus 80 more metres. Once the two minutes in this fourth stage are up, you must move straight on to the fifth stage.

In the fifth stage, you’ll use a tempo of 74 seconds per 200 meters. And so on. After each two-minute period, you increase your running tempo a bit. Here’ s a listing of the stage numbers and tempos (time per 200 metres) for the remaining stages Remember that each stage must last for two minutes, so you’ 11 be running further on each successive stage. For example, notice that during stage 10, you only need to traverse 522 metres (about 6:10 per mile pace), but during stage 17 you’re supposed to sizzle through 762 metres (4:13 per mile).

If you make it all the way through, the whole affair will take 34 minutes, but few of you will actually complete all 17 stages. Most runners will stop somewhere between the middle and the end. You should stop whenever you feel you can’t possibly complete two minutes of running at the new stage tempo, or whenever you’re about 10 metres or more behind where you should be at the end of a two-minute stage.

At any rate, your V02max running velocity is your velocity over the last two-minute stage which you complete successfully. For example, if that happens to be stage 14, your V02max tempo is 36 seconds per 200 metres, 72 seconds per 400 metres, and about 4:49-4:50 per mile. If stage 10 is your final stage, then your V02max tempo is 46 seconds per 200 metres, or 92 seconds per 400 metres and 6:10 per mile. Your calculated V02max tempo should be faster than your usual 5-K race velocity. If not, try the test again at a later date.

What to do next
Once you know your velocity at V02max, you’re ready for a scalding workout which will lead to improvements in your V02max velocity – and heightened performances, too. To conduct a basic velocity-at-VO2max workout, simply jog easily for 10-15 minutes, and then carry out two and one-half minute intervals at your V02max velocity, with equal-duration recoveries. Cool down afterwards with 10-15 minutes of easy jogging.

How many VO2max-velocity intervals should you complete per workout? The key is simply to not let the total distance you cover at V02max velocity exceed 810 per cent of your weekly mileage. Recent research from France suggests that when this type of workout is combined with an appropriate overall training programme, runners can make sizeable improvements in their 10-K and half-marathon performances (up to 6-7 per cent in fairly experienced runners!).

Since this is a maximal test, don’t attempt it without first obtaining the consent of your doctor. Also, don’t carry out the test on a day when you’re tired, dehydrated, or distracted. For best results, do make the test as much fun as possible. Don’t let tension or a dark mood keep you from running at your best-possible paces.

Follow-up research has shown that this Montreal test is a remarkably accurate way to determine your velocity at V02max. And, best of all, it provides you with a specific workout intensity which can pay big performance dividends.

Owen Anderson

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