If you’re a keen cyclist, you’ve probably heard of VO2 max.
Having a high VO2 max is a strong indication of your aerobic fitness and ability to sustain long periods of moderate to high-intensity exercise. As such, your VO2 max will show whether you’ve got the physical capability to be an elite cyclist.
Here’s our complete guide to improving your VO2 max for cycling, with insight from Jakub Novak, head coach at ProCyclingCoaching and former World Tour cyclist.
Table of contents:
What is VO2 max?
So, what is VO2 max in cycling, and how does it affect your training? Novak explains:
“VO2 max is an individual’s maximal oxygen consumption or intake of oxygen within the body. Assessing VO2 max is the gold standard metric for determining a cyclist’s cardiovascular fitness.
Increased VO2 max relates to improvements in oxygen delivery and extraction within the body. A high volume of VO2 max enables you to become quicker and more able to sustain moderate to high-intensity training, which is needed in cycling.”
You can condense this information by thinking: Vvolume of O2 (oxygen) maximmune.
VO2 max is important in cycling, as improving your body’s ability to endure moderate to high-intensity activity is vital for improving your performance, whether you’re training for distance or power.
What factors affect your cycling VO2 max?
Your VO2 max can be affected by a few natural factors, including:
- body composition
- hereditary issues
Training and body composition are the two factors we can control to increase our VO2 max for cycling. Novak adds:
“Generally, VO2 max declines with age—about 2% per year after the age of 30—and males typically have a greater oxygen consumption value than females.
Unsurprisingly, training and exercise can influence your VO2 max. Endurance training can lead to an approximate 50% increase in maximal cardiac output and an approximate 50% increase in red blood cells.”
Maximal cardiac output refers to the volume of blood pumped by the heart per minute. The range is about 5-6 liters per minute for your average person at rest to above 35 liters per minute for top athletes during activity.
Increasing your maximal cardiac output through endurance training inadvertently increases your VO2 max, as Novák explains:
“An increase in red blood cell numbers increases the muscle capillary density and local blood flow, making a cyclist faster and stronger.
This is because regular exercise causes an increase in the number of red blood cells in the blood. More red blood cells will help increase VO2 max by fueling them with more oxygen.
Trained individuals can increase their VO2 max by anything from 5% to 30%. The least fit will see the biggest changes, and very fit athletes will see the smallest changes.”
How to calculate your VO2 max
Accurately calculating your VO2 max involves a professional laboratory set-up with a respiratory mask.
Elite athletes will have access to professional testing, but this isn’t typically the case for your average cyclist.
If you want to get an estimate for your current VO2 max, you can use this simple formula using your age and resting heart rate:
VO2 max = 15.3x (MHR/RHR)
To give an example, here’s how to calculate your VO2 max if your resting heart rate is 58bpm and you’re 25 years old:
- calculate your maximum heart rate by multiplying your age (25) by 0.7 and subtracting it from 208—this equals 190.5 bpm
- share your maximum heart rate by your resting heart rate (190.5 bpm / 58 bpm), and multiply this by 15.3
- your VO2 max, in this case, is approx. 50 ml/kg/min
Alternatively, you could invest in a fitness tracker with VO2 max tracking abilities.
They’re not as accurate as professional testing, but they’ll help you see if your cycling VO2 max is moving in the right direction.
What’s a good VO2 max?
According to Verywell Fit, a good VO2 max for men between the ages of 20-29 is 42.5-46.4 and 33.0-36.9 for women of the same age range.
For athletes, the optimal range for males of this age range is over 52.4 and over 41.0 for women.
As you can see, the difference between the good and optimal ranges isn’t huge because having a higher VO2 max doesn’t automatically make you an athlete.
However, training your VO2 max for cycling will improve your overall performance, especially if you can work at the higher end of your range for a sustained period.
How to improve your VO2 max for cycling
Are you new to cycling? If so, being consistent with your training and focusing on either distance or power will help your progress. Novák talks us through training your VO2 max for cycling:
“You can increase your VO2 max by training optimally for an extended period. By training optimally, I mean exposing your body to a high training load followed by sufficient adaptation or recovery.
For example, you can perform two or three harder weeks of training followed by one easier week.
When you train, it’s important to add variation to your days. Focusing on different fitness aspects each day of the week is an ideal training mix.
Varying your training allows for further performance gains and will keep you engaged and motivated. Avoid training more than three days in a row without a recovery day.”
Once you’ve been training for a while, you might reach a plateau. At this stage, it’s best to vary your training and ensure you’re targeting different areas of your fitness.
Using different training zones will allow you to structure your training to boost your progress in all areas and prevent injury through overtraining.
How to maintain your VO2 max
So, what happens when you reach your goal? Novák explains how to maintain your VO2 max so you can stay motivated and keep hitting your goals:
“Cyclists can maintain high VO2 max by training consistently and mixing moderate and high-intensity training.
Once an athlete has been training for more than a year, the changes in VO2 max are very minimal, and these values become quite easy to maintain without pushing their body over the limits.
Five to eight hours on a bike per week will maintain a high VO2 level. However, make sure you combine endurance training twice a week with a high-intensity workout once a week.”
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