A VO2 Max test for mere mortals?

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Nate, a soccer player at Huntington University, gets ready to undergo a VO2 Max test in the school’s Human Performance Lab. The face mask worn during the test helps a metabolic cart assess system assess an athlete’s expelled air for oxygen consumption. At right is Dr. Fred L. Miller III, chairman of the school’s kinesiology department.

The VO2 Max test has long been associated with elite athletes – a training tool for Olympians, a way for NFL scouts to assess would-be draft picks, that type of thing.

But recently I had a chance to sit on a test in the Human Performance Lab at Huntington University for a newspaper column I was working on, and discovered it wasn’t as intimidating as you might think. Even better, the school’s kinesiology department is making the test available to the community at large for $50 – less than the entry fee to many races these days.

VO2 Max is a scientific measurement of how much oxygen your body uses at peak performance – a combination of how much blood your heart can pump to your muscles along with your muscles’ efficiency in extracting oxygen from that blood and using it for energy.

A metabolic cart system, the same type of machine hospitals use to conduct stress tests on cardiac patients, analyzes the athlete’s expelled air. It’s a much more accurate means of assessing fitness gains than comparing your performance from one race to the next, according to Fred L. Miller III, the chairman of Huntington’s kinesiology department. Whether you do 5Ks or marathons, no two courses are the same. And a change in weather can make the same course a much different experience. Whereas in the lab, Miller says, the conditions are always the same.

So, how does it work? The test I watched was done on a treadmill, starting at a comfortable jogging pace for the freshman soccer player who was being assessed and then increasing in intensity every three minutes. The test typically takes 12-15 minutes. It’s up to the athlete to decide when he or she can’t take it anymore.

Nate, the soccer player being assessed, scored 60.0 ml/kg/minute, which put him in the 99th percentile for his age and gender. While this score may impress his coach, he didn’t take the test to improve his standing on the team per se. He’s working on gaining five pounds of muscle in the offseason, and he hopes to do that while maintaining – or perhaps even improving – his VO2 Max.

The speed and intensity levels of a test vary according to the individual, of course. To see a video of Nate’s test, click here and page down to the middle of the story. If  you’re interested in scheduling a test of your own, email Dr. Miller at fmiller@huntington.edu.

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