I’m hunched over my bike, pouring sweat, and the Russians are yelling at me.
“Come on Sean, you’re doing well, you’re almost done!” shouts Egor. He’s standing right next to me, but I can’t see him — oxygen deprivation has started to close down my field of vision. Plus, it’s taking all my concentration to keep biting down on this hose that’s measuring every breath I take.
Yuriy leans over his shoulder, keeping a close eye on the screen that shows my wattage, heart rate, and oxygen consumption. “Good, good, good,” he mutters. “C’mon, c’mon!”
A few seconds later, as “469 watts” flashes on the screen in front of me, I can’t do it anymore. I yank the hose out of my mouth, I stop pedaling, and I’m done.
I’ve finished my VO2 max test.
Yuriy Gusev and Egor Akimov are coaches at the Central Cross Country Skiing (CXC), a training center and performance lab on the south side founded a number of years ago to bring science-based testing and training to endurance sports. Today, they’re testing my maximal oxygen consumption, known as VO2 max. It’s a measure of how efficiently your body can take in oxygen, which feeds your muscles. Some consider it to be the ultimate measure of fitness.
Your VO2 number is measured in milliliters per minute, proportional to your bodyweight, in kilograms. Your VO2 is some mix of genetics and training — working out can push your number higher, but your genes set the upper limit.
Top-level endurance athletes can put up impossibly high numbers in these tests. Lance Armstrong’s VO2 max was rumored to be 85. Nordic skiing legend Bjørn Dæhlie recorded a 96. The all-time record is 97.5, hit by cyclist Oskar Svendsen. Yuriy says he’s got a junior competitive skier who put up an 84.
I will not be putting up numbers like that. I’m a 30-year-old competitive-ish cyclist who has been known to skip workouts to have a beer and watch TV. Still… I want to know how I stack up.
The test itself is straightforward — you get on the bike trainer, start pedaling, and it increases resistance bit by bit until you can’t push the pedals. Meanwhile, you’re strapped to a heart rate monitor and stuffed with a tube in your mouth so a machine can monitor how much oxygen is in your every breath.
Because the test starts the resistance so low, it’s easy to begin with false confidence. A hundred watts is a breeze, and each increase in power feels so minor that, for a few minutes, I can’t help but think, “Yeah, I’m gonna blow the doors off of this thing.”
That feeling quickly fades.
By the time I hit 300 watts, I’m starting to feel the burn. By 350 watts, the sweat is stinging my eyes and I’m drooling. We tick up past 400 watts, and I’m wondering if the tube will suffocate me. By 420 watts, I’m certain it will. I’m deep in the pain cave.
I pull the plug at 469 watts and collapse on the ground, chest heaving. For a few minutes, all I can do is whisper “holy shit” over and over again.
A few days later, I sit down with Yuriy to go over my results. My VO2 max is 58 — pretty good for an amateur. An average for an untrained man my age is around 40 ml/kg/min. So, I’m stoked.
Yuriy is happy, but with caveats. “If you were training for the Olympics, we’d have a problem,” he laughs.
He walks me through the graphs and charts on the page, and sketches out for me what a sample training plan might look like to increase my numbers. For his real athletes, he constantly revisits the numbers in this report, using these baselines to tweak training, diet and recovery.
“You should do a VO2 test maybe four times a year,” Yuriy says. “To see if your training is working, and learn more about how your body works. Are you up for another one in a few months?” he says, with a grin.
I think back to those moments after the test, gasping like a fish and making a sweat angel on the floor of the gym. I hesitate for a second.
“Sure,” I tell Yuriy. “Sounds like fun.”
78.6: Highest VO2 max recorded by a woman — Joan Benoit, gold medalist in the marathon, at the 1984 Olympics.
Nordic skiers: The athletes most likely to have stunning VO2 max scores. Cyclists, distance runners, and rowers also tend to have very high max scores.
$150: Cost of a VO2 max test and analysis at CXC.
10’ x 12’: Size of CXC’s gargantuan skiing treadmill, if you want to do this horror show of a test on rollerskis.
1920s: When British physiologist A.V. Hill developed the concept of maximal oxygen consumption, though the tests we use to measure it today didn’t come around until the 1960s.