VO2 max is one of the key performance metrics in cycling, and we’ve found a full-time solicitor (the reigning men’s British Hill Climb Champion, no less) with an aerobic engine large enough to compete at the Tour de France.
Jonathan Robinson is the University of Bath’s Lead Applied Exercise Physiologist.Simon Bromley
Jonathan Robinson, the university’s Lead Applied Exercise Physiologist, explained the procedure to us: Andrew, a former elite-level road racer turned hill climb specialist, would ride an SRM Ergometer stationary bike with the resistance ramping up by 25 watts every three minutes, until exhaustion.
He would wear a mask that measures — via an innocuous-looking machine attached to a computer — the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in each breath. The largest number achieved during the test for millilitres of oxygen consumed per minute would be his VO2 max.
A blood sample is taken every three minutes to measure lactate levels.Simon Bromley
VO2 max is the maximum volume of oxygen your body can use in a minute, usually expressed relative to body weight. In more general terms, it describes the size of your aerobic engine.
Every three minutes, Jonathan would also prick one of Andrew’s fingers with a needle, take a blood sample to measure his lactate levels, and make a note of his heart rate.
This information would be useful for setting Andrew’s training zones accurately and tracking changes in fitness if he were to perform the test again.
What goes into making a National Hill Climb champion? Not a lot if you’re talking about mass…Simon Bromley / Immediate Media
Before all that fun began though, Jonathan measured Andrew’s height, weight and body fat percentage.
Body fat: 5.8%
That last figure might seem minuscule, but bear in mind that it’s currently hill climb season, so Andrew is at hisoptimum race weight.
The test started at 175 watts. That’s easy for Andrew, but it’s higher than normal. If the test had started from zero it would have taken an eternity.
Increasing the starting resistance simply shortens the time to exhaustion, so it’s set according to an easy pace for the individual athlete.
Andrew eventually topped out at 425watts, which may not sound like a lot, but in the context of this test is a massive number.Simon Bromley
But after almost half an hour of pressing progressively harder on the pedals, Andrew hit his ceiling at a brutal 425 watts.
Jonathan removed the mask from Andrew’s face and gave him a moment to recover. Having reached a maximum heart rate of 194bpm, Andrew was nailed. But in the end, it had been a controlled effort.
Andrew pushed himself to exhaustion without fighting the bike or his pedalling technique falling apart.
It was astonishing to watch Andrew push through such a big effort.Simon Bromley
Andrew had hit a peak oxygen consumption of 4,952ml/min. That translates to a VO2 max of 78.7ml/min/kg, which is exceptional.
When Jonathan read it out, there was an audible gasp from the small group of staff and students in the lab — it was one of the highest scores they’d ever seen on the bike in the lab.
The lactate concentration results showed that, for Andrew, his Onset Blood Lactate Accumulation (OBLA) – his one hour time-trial power or FTP – was around 350 watts (5.56w/kg). His Lactate Threshold (LT) – his all-day riding power – was a mind-boggling 300 watts (4.76w/kg).
Once Andrew had digested the news that he was objectively brilliant, he had a few questions for Jonathan. Could he have tried harder? How could he beat his score and hit 80ml/min/kg? And how could he apply these results to his training and racing?
The answer to the first question is, in short, no. The test periodically ramped Andrew’s breathing and heart rate up until he surpassed the highest amount of oxygen his body could use. Your underlying physiological limit isn’t affected by effort.
The other questions are more complex and require exposing Andrew’s relative weaknesses and how he can adapt his training regime with the aim of pushing his VO2 max beyond 80.
If, for example, Andrew could lose 1kg and maintain his current aerobic ability, he should see his VO2 max score increase to 80ml/min/kg. At 5.8 per cent body fat, however, it’s difficult to see where that kilo could come from.
Performance in the lab and in the real world can differ, but there’s no denying that Andrew’s numbers are incredibly impressive.Simon Bromley
How efficiently can his body convert that oxygen into power? What percentage of his VO2 max is sustainable and for how long? How responsive is Andrew’s body to training? And that’s before we even get to motivation, bikes, aerodynamics, nutrition, etc. It’s a rather large can of worms.
We already knew Andrew was special — he’s a national champion after all — so these tests invariably throw up more questions than they answer. But they are also a fascinating insight into the physiological prowess of a national champion, and one who trains and races while holding down a full-time job.
Simon is a writer and photographer who has been riding bikes for fun since he was a kid. He took a deep dive into road racing, crits and time trial culture in his twenties, but as a person of very little talent, he always looks to tech to compensate. He loves nothing more than finding a smart (preferably cheap) hack that others hadn’t thought of. His stable of bikes isn’t the most extravagant, but they’re all customised to meet Simon’s particular tastes and kept fastidiously clean.