How to measure VO2 max for cycling

VO2 max cycle test

VO2 max is one of the many metrics cyclists use for measuring endurance capacity and fitness. If you’re data driven or are into marginal gains, this post is for you.

VO2 max is the numerical measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilise during exercise. It is measured using ml per kg a minute (ml/kg/min). It is dependent on your red blood cell count, how fit you are and how much blood your heart can pump in a given time. All factors that obviously influence physical performance.

To get an accurate measure of your VO2 max, you need a laboratory test as there are a lot of variables that can influence the result. To get a rough idea of your VO2 max, you can perform managed bleep tests at a gym or university or you can do a cycling test yourself.

The results the cycling test will generate are rough and will only provide a guide to your VO2 max. However, it’s a starting point from which you can build a much more detailed and personal training plan.

You will need a bike with a power meter to do it.

First warm up until you’re thoroughly ready for an effort. Use your usual routine, or warm up in zone 1 for ten minutes, then do a couple of intervals, then back to zone 1 for five minutes.

Find a level piece of road you know well. If you have time trialled along it, all the better because you need to find your max sustainable output for a 20 minute session. If you don’t know what that is already, your power meter can help.

You want to find an output that is just about manageable over that 20 minutes. As much as you can give without having to rest or reduce your output during that time. Try to select days with similar weather, traffic conditions and time of day if you can to reduce variables. Then give it your all.

The VO2 max cycling test

Using your power meter, pedal at your maximum sustainable effort for 20 minutes and then warm down. Do this a few times with a couple of days rest in-between. Take an average of the power output you generated across all of these sessions and use the following calculation.

Average wattage during the session x 10.8 ÷ your weight in kilos + 7.

That is a rough estimate of your VO2 max. So if I have an average of 330 watt output and weigh 85 kilos, the maths would be: 330 x 10.8 ÷ 85 + 7 = 48.9 mL. In terms of a 42 year old cyclist, this isn’t bad. Compared to a pro, it’s nowhere. Recently released data from Thibault Pinot shows just how far short I am as he manages 86 mL.

However, he is a pro and I am not. I did it just to see what the numbers were and will likely forget in a week or two. His career depends on his. Well that and managing his temper.

Measuring VO2 isn’t necessary for everyday riding but if you want to compete or improve using data, it has its place. Just don’t obsess over it and remember that any test outside of a lab is only an approximation.


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