vo2 max, triathlon

What you need to know about Vo2 Max in triathlon

July 28, 2017 -

vo2 max, triathlon

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AthGene Ambassador Dario Vasquez (Scientist and Triathlete) will teach you all there is to know about VO2 Max; how you calculate it, how it is impacted by your genes, and what role it plays in his favorite sport, Triathlon.

How to estimate your VO2 Max and its significance in triathlon training

Are you a well-trained athlete between 21 and 51 years? If so, then you're going to want to read on.

As you may know VO2 Max is a physiological parameter, calculating the peak concentration of oxygen consumed by your body during a gradual increase of intense exercise. For serious amateur athletes, like myself, the absolute value of your the VO2 Max might not be of critical relevance. Nevertheless, we can use the estimated value over the course of our training program to assess our progress.

Danish scientists have revealed a relationship between heart rate (HR) and predicted VO2 Max using a simple formula, which is helpful to runners (the study was made only on runners). I used the formula to calculate mine and the results are quite encouraging, and made a lot of sense.

But as the formula was specific to running, can it be used for swimming and cycling?  In this post I hope to answer the question: is an individuals VO2 Max the same when running, swimming and cycling?

How does VO2 Max relate to my training performance?

Our muscles are composed of large cells with plenty of mitochondria inside, these are the energy supply factories of our muscles. Following this simple rationale, one expects that the more mitochondria you have the more energy can be supplied to our muscles. However, having a lot of mitochondria also means higher oxygen demands. For this, our circulatory system adapts by increasing our HR in order to provide more oxygen to the muscles upon reaching a plateau of oxygen consumption known as VO2 Max 2. The higher ones VO2 Max is, the better.  

Are there genetic factors involved?

vo2max_geneticsGenetic factors are found to be involved in the VO2 Max because the composition and physiology of our veins and muscles, is partly determined by our genetic background. An illustrative example of this is the gene encoding for the ACE (Angiotensin Converting Enzyme) which we also analyze at AthGene. The absence of a small repetitive DNA sequence in a spacing region of this gene has been linked to high levels of ACE in plasma and tissues 3. Interestingly, the ACE enzyme is involved in blood vessel dilation therefore it may enhance oxygen and nutrient supply to the muscles.

Regardless of the genetics, several studies conclude that both endurance training and intensity training have positive effects on VO2 Max. Although at the end of the day, if you really want to push your VO2 Max to upper limits, high-intensity training is the most widely accepted way to do it 4. And as the say, no pain no gain...so get ready to suffer.


Discover your natural VO2Max potential

Can I run a controlled VO2 Max test on myself without spending hundreds of dollars?

For the purpose of a well-trained non-elite athlete, yes. It is a good idea to figure out what is your basal VO2 Max before you start your training program. The best way to do so, it is on a treadmill. According to the study conducted by Uth and colleagues, this is how you do it: you should warm up 10min at an average HR of 140 bpm before the test1. Start the test at a speed of 13km/h equivalent to 4min36sec/km approximately. The initial speed may actually differ on each runner since we are not all able to run at this speed. So it is better to start at your average aerobic pace 140-145 bpm maximum. From there, you increase 1km/h every minute until your exhausted and can't run any further. Take note of your endpoint HR (maximum HR).

The day after the test, when you feel relaxed, measure your rest HR. Applying the Uth formula you will get your estimated VO2 Max . In theory, using your maximum HR during an interval training and you rest HR should also give you the estimated VO2 Max . There are also a handful of online calculators to measure VO2Max. Here is a simple VO2 Max equation:

VO2 Max = (HR max / HR rest) x 15.3ml/kg/min

After training for at least 3 months you can retake the test and compare it to the previous value. If you do not see an increase, do not freak out. Take into account that assimilating training may take between three and six weeks. Plus every person is different and could take longer for you to see the effects. But obviously it could mean you have to adapt your training program. To make this decision, seek the advice of an experienced coach.

My VO2 Max compared to an elite triathlete?

I watched the last Super League Triathlon event and it is absolutely amazing the pace professional triathletes set on the course from one discipline to the other. These athletes have VO2 Max values which can be around or higher than 70ml/kg/min in both running and cycling. Marathon runners show levels between 80 and 70ml/kg/min.

My scientific curiosity was killing me, so I applied the Uth formula to my own data just for fun:

VO2 Max =(185 bpm / 43bpm) x 15.3ml/kg/min = 65,82ml/kg/min

Well… not bad for an amateur triathlete. Especially if I look back to my data in 2015, right before I started to train for a triathlon, when I got 61 ml/kg/min. Now despite having reduced my running volumes from 60km per week to hardly 40km per week my VO2 Max still increased. So this is great, because it means my training is working! I am looking forward to see what my genetic test from AthGene says about my VO2 Max, so that I can benchmark it to my result.

What is the meaning of the VO2 Max in triathlon?

One has to be aware of the limitations of using the VO2 Max value particularly in relation to triathlon as the three disciplines that make up a triathlon require different physical capabilities. In fact, according to some studies, the high VO2 Max values are not necessarily associated with high performance in short swimming for example, while the VO2 Max in cycling tends to be slightly higher than in running 5.

So can you take Uth formula and apply it to cycling and swimming?

Looking at all these data and studies, it is clear that one can take the VO2 Max estimation values of the Uth formula to monitor your own progress in running, however it isn't as applicable in the other triathlon disciplines. In a future post, I will go through alternative methods to assess your progress in cycling and swimming.

Catch you then...


1 Uth, N., Sorensen, H., Overgaard, K. & Pedersen, P. K. Estimation of VO2max from the ratio between HRmax and HRrest--the Heart Rate Ratio Method. European journal of applied physiology 91, 111-115, doi:10.1007/s00421-003-0988-y   (2004).

2 Lundby, C., Montero, D. & Joyner, M. Biology of VO2 max: looking under the physiology lamp. Acta physiologica 220, 218-228, doi:10.1111/apha.12827  (2017).

3 Puthucheary, Z. et al. The ACE gene and human performance: 12 years on. Sports medicine 41, 433-448, doi:10.2165/11588720-000000000-00000  (2011).

4 Laursen, P. B. & Jenkins, D. G. The scientific basis for high-intensity interval training: optimising training programmes and maximising performance in highly trained endurance athletes. Sports medicine 32, 53-73 (2002).

5 Suriano, R. & Bishop, D. Physiological attributes of triathletes. Journal of science and medicine in sport 13, 340-347, doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2009.03.008   (2010).


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