For some, VO2 Max testing is a bucket list item. It is somehow a badge of cool that they have been lab-tested and hooked up to all the machines and gizmos. There is reinforcement to the ego that only very serious, intense athletes partake in this rite.
What’s wrong with that? Nothing at all.
If you’re unfamiliar with this test, it is used to measure the maximal oxygen uptake that our body can accomplish during intense exercise. Usually done on an exercise ergometer (bicycle) or running on a treadmill, though just about any activity can be tested. The rider breathes with a tube and face mask on that captures all the air they are breathing in and out and this air is analyzed to determine exactly how much oxygen is being used. The results are generally used to determine training intensity zones with some using it as a predictor of athletic potential.
Problem is that if your goal is to get a really accurate measurement of your current fitness and to set appropriate training zones based, the lab VO2 max testing may not be the best solution for you. Seems counter-intuitive — that an accurately measured and lab-driven test may not be the best or most accurate way to get performance data.
Primarily it is the foreign nature of the test that usually causes the margin of error.
When you’re breathing through the tube during the test, your nose has to be plugged and the air you’re breathing tends to be very dry — drier than you’re used to exercising in the real world, which often causes irritation in the throat.
Additionally the mask can be a bit claustrophobic for some (and this can be compounded if you do experience discomfort in your throat).
Finally the effort for some is foreign. Generally these are graded tests that last anywhere from 8 – 25 minutes with a steady progression in the intensity level. If you don’t routinely exercise on the “very hard” end of the scale, working to failure is going to be very difficult and you likely won’t reach your actual maximum.
Add in the cost of the test (from $75-$300 depending on location and logistics — in many instances if the athlete is over 40 years of age the presence of a physician is required) and the fact that you can gauge your fitness and set training zones with much simpler sub-maximal field tests that you can do on your own (I’ll get into more of that later) and the shiny-ness of the lab test begins to dull.
What can you do to make sure you have a good VO2 max test?
- Get a “bad” test out of the way first so you can get used to the test and then go back about 2 weeks later to re-test, for real this time armed with the knowledge of what it will feel like. It might even be possible to get a discount from the lab for setting up two tests this way.
- Get in some training in the supra-maximal training zones. Be prepared for the effort of working to failure by doing some short intervals — try doing 1 minute as hard as you can followed by a minute of rest and repeat this 4-8 times. Do this twice a week for a couple weeks before the test.
- If doing a pre-test as recommended in #1 isn’t feasible, getting used to the mask and drier air is more of a challenge. Short of breathing directly from your furnace’s hot air vent (for the dry air) or wearing a mouth guard while plugging your nose (to simulate the mask) during an indoor ride — both of which are stupid and probably shouldn’t be done — getting used to these factors will prove difficult.
Do you need VO2 Max testing? Perhaps not — but there’s nothing wrong with still wanting to do one.
One good option for many would be to skip the “Max” portion of the test. If your goal is to just get accurate information for setting training zones then a sub-maximal lab test may be ticket. They’re often cheaper (usually physician presence isn’t required), they’re generally more accurate on the first try (because results aren’t dependent on working to our absolute failure point), and they tend to be more enjoyable and therefore are more readily repeatable to gauge progress.
It’s a great idea to use a local performance lab as a resource if that’s available to you. But go in armed with this information and know what you’re signing up for.