Defined by a Number: My VO2 Max Test

I’ve always reveled in the sadistic satisfaction that comes with exploring my physical boundaries. My athletic career has been defined by quarreling with limits, then promptly figuring out a way to conquer them. Perhaps it’s simply human nature; we always desire more than what we have.

But no amount of desire, countless hours in the saddle or lightweight carbon fiber components will take me past my maximum potential as a cyclist. We are ultimately defined by our physiology, which can be a tough pill to swallow. I’ll never forget my first realization of this fundamental truth when my mom told me I was too short to play in the NBA. That one stung, but it led me down a wondrous path of endurance sports. After all, the cross country team didn’t have cuts.

I’ve raced at a near professional level as a triathlete and cyclist, but have never been able to break through the wall of amateurism to the holy land of Proness. I’ve had nibbles of success as a Cat 2 roadie in the last year, but have long wondered if I devoted myself full time to my athletic endeavors if I could improve enough to make the jump. Turns out, there’s a way to answer that question.

Evan Rudd

Will I ever achieve my dreams of going pro? My body's physiology says probably not.

One of the best measurements of human athletic potential is the VO2 max test, which measures the maximum capacity of an individual’s body to transport and use oxygen. It may seem silly, but I’ve always had reservations about getting tested. What if my number is really low and I’m not nearly as bad-ass as I think I am? What if my number is really high and it turns out I’ve been underperforming my entire life? In my twisted mind, there was no positive outcome, but my curiosity overpowered my doubts and I decided to go for it.

The test was done at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s kinesiology department on an ergometer bike. The whole thing felt so unnatural, breathing into a tube on an unfamiliar bike in a deserted college classroom wearing nothing but bib shorts, a heart rate monitor strap and cycling shoes. As the minutes ticked by, rivers of sweat poured to the floor and I started to struggle to hold a cadence of 50 rpm. Every three minutes the watts increased by 50, making it increasing difficult to hold a steady cadence. I lasted over 22 minutes and hit about 90% of my maximum heart rate.

And there it was on the screen, the number that now defined my athletic existence – 67.4ml/kg/min.

“So…is that good,” I muttered, trying to catch my breath. I had to go home and do some research before I could put that number into context. The highest recorded VO2 max belongs to Norwegian cyclist Oskar Svendsen who scored a mind boggling 97.5. Greg LeMond recorded a 92.5 and Lance Armstrong apparently scored an 84, but I don’t really trust anything associated with Lance.

According to one chart I found online, I’m competing at the exact level I should be given my VO2 max:Vo2 max chart for cyclists

Based off this chart from an article by exercise physiologist Carson Christen on the FasCat Performance Center blog, I’m at the high end of Cat 2 racers and am tickling the bottom threshold of being a domestic pro. Of course, there are hundreds of other variables that dictate performance besides VO2 max. Training intensity, race experience, team support, diet, equipment…the list goes on.

In regards to my potential, I can interpret this chart two ways (assuming it’s accurate). Either I’m maxed out and have little chance of making any major improvements or perhaps I’m still not fully realizing my potential. I think I’ll go with the latter as the former is kind of depressing.

The article also discusses the importance of being able to sustain an 80-90% effort for long periods of time, also known as lactate threshold. Athletes who aren’t blessed with astronomical VO2 max scores can vastly improve LT with proper training. So is there hope for me? I certainly think so.

Taking a step back, I realize how ridiculous it was for me to stress about having this test done. Regardless of my VO2 max, I’m truly grateful to be able to enjoy riding a bike. I never made it to the NBA, but I can still take pleasure in shooting around with buddies. Racing is simply the icing on the cake of my life as a cyclist – the camaraderie, exploration, feeling of self empowerment – these are the real motivators for clipping in every day. We ride for many reasons, but everyone does it to have fun, and that’s most important.