VO2 Max – Inconceivable! I do not think it means what you think it means.

It was quite the scene. An Olympic athlete racing down the pool at top speed…hopping out dripping wet to exhale into giant weather balloons. The purpose, of course, was to establish peak oxygen consumption for various components of a 100 breaststroke. If we broke down the event, we could isolate the specific factors which to train during a season. No doubt the premise was sound, but the execution was an exercise in ridiculousness. Yet, the result was still a better understanding of how a performance emerges.

VO2 Max in ‘Pop Culture’

Awareness is not an understanding and before highly targeted social media advertisements became a norm, it was just entertainment that captured the zeitgeist of the day. The 80s had VHS and SportsCenter, the 90s brought us DVDs and Napster, and the ’00s introduced DVR and personalized consumption.

Television and movies became the vehicle for sports science to be introduced, shared, and consumed – albeit not discussed. To better understand the role of science in performance you had to sift through dense peer-reviewed journals, while pop culture let ‘sports science’ emerge on screen by way of showing us athletes riding and running with all sorts of equipment measuring all kinds of data.

swim workout with apple watch

VO2 Max

Clearly, the solution to performance plateaus must be sports science. So we did the submaximal work. The same ridiculous collection of CO2 and VO2 gases to determine a specific VO2max from graded, stepped efforts of long breaststroke swims – now what to do with it? The man was ‘fit’. After all he was an Olympic athlete.

Simply we could compare results with other elite athletes. But since Mark couldn’t run like Pre or cycle like LeMond, his V02 max became more of a curious novelty than an indicator of future performance success. So like any ‘brilliant’ minds, we doubled down and compared V02 max to peak O2 consumption for 15, 50 and 100 meters of breaststroke!

Practical Application of VO2 Max

Be curious of applied ‘science’ and dabble in the ‘basic’ to understand your motivations/intentions toward a purposeful training paradigm when providing or searching out information. In retrospect, had we looked into Heart Rate Variability (HRV) as an indicator of Mark’s endurance we likely could have saved ourselves a lot of time, energy and foolishness. But in searching for answers to our questions, we continue to grow as coaches and athletes.

VO2 max is an indicator of aerobic ability, not performance. Tailor training to performance factors you can control. Measure the resources at your disposal. And evaluate performance with specific goals in mind. Remember, Ivan Drago is not real. Dolph Lundgren is and he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to MIT after earning multiple degrees in chemical engineering.


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