Posts Tagged ‘frank shorter’


#27 – Are You Wearing Running Genes?

9 August 2007

If you hang around runners and other endurance athletes, sooner or later you’ll hear them talk about “VO2 max”. No, this isn’t what the space shuttle uses for fuel! In a nutshell, VO2 max is a measure of how well your body delivers oxygen to your muscles during prolonged exertion, and thus it’s a good barometer of your endurance capability. I won’t try to explain the science behind it all when someone with an advanced degree can tell you what VO2 max means to runners.

There is also a good VO2 max calculator out there, and many others like it. These calculators are just estimates, but the consensus seems to be that they’re always in the ballpark. An actual test of your VO2 max requires you to spend some time on a treadmill hooked up to an oxygen hose and other instruments; oh, and it’ll cost you $100 or so. Since I don’t have that kind of dough laying around I’ll just stick to the calculators for now. According to the above site my VO2 max is 46.7 ml/kg/min (read the Wikipedia entry on VO2 max to better understand the units of measure.)

A sedentary person will range between 20 and 50 for their VO2 max with an average of 35. In other words, an untrained couch potato can hop off the sofa and test out to the above VO2 max scores. Does this mean that my 46.7 puts me near the top of that range? Not at all! The sedentary VO2 max essentially is your genetic base, a base upon which you can improve with training. VO2 max performance will improve with training – since I’ve been running for almost four years now, I should be well above my base. How far?

January 1, 2004 was my first run since the fall of 1999 and I was well out of shape. I managed to last for 13 minutes, covering just 1.25 miles. According to the calculator my VO2 max was 26.5, although such a short distance doesn’t allow for as much accuracy as a longer run. Still, it shows that my base is quite low! After all my “in shape” score of 46.7 is below what some people can apparently do without even training. Hopefully with further training I can continue to push my upper limit.

Speaking of upper limits, elite athletes can boast some pretty amazing VO2 max scores. The highest ever recorded seems to be a 94 by Bjorn Daehlie, the Norwegian cross-country skier who was almost unbeatable in his prime. Greg LeMond reportedly scored 92.5 and skyrunner Matt Carpenter notched a 90.2 (although he claims that he may have scored a 94.9). You certainly don’t need to score in the 90’s to be competitive; in fact many champion athletes have scores in the 80’s and even 70’s, such as Steve Prefontaine (84.4), Lance Armstrong (83.8), and Frank Shorter (71.3).

Notably none of those elite athletes scored below 50, so I’m not about to earn a living by winning races! If I want to run faster, though, it’ll help to improve my VO2 max as much as I can. The way to do that is to train at or near that limit, which is why runners and coaches recommend interval training – run hard for a minute or few, recover for a bit, then repeat several times. You can’t do this all the time or your body would wear out, but this type of training is what moves your VO2 max upwards. Other aspects also affect endurance – such as lactate threshold and efficient stride mechanics – so VO2 max isn’t the single defining marker for speed over long distances. But it sure helps!

Does this physiology apply to other animals? You bet! In fact you can take that bet to the race track – a thoroughbred race horse has a VO2 max of around 180, twice that of the highest-scoring humans! If that’s not impressive enough, how about the animals curled up at my feet… my dogs. Trained sled dogs scored a VO2 max of 240! Dogs are born to run. Humans not so much, but we still enjoy it! Especially when I’m running with dogs, although sometimes I get a little bit jealous of their genes. 🙂