Apr 21st 2016  


This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series Training challenges

It’s an Olympic year – hurrah!  Love all those fit muscular athletes gracing our screens – the tears, the triumphs, the upsets… “But you’re surrounded by fit muscular athletes all the time” complains a friend.  Well, yes I suppose so, sort of.  And what are fit muscular people obsessed by?  “What’s your VO2 Max?”  What is a VO2 max?”

VO2 max is a measure of aerobic capacity or cardiovascular fitness and refers to the volume of oxygen your body can utilise per kilo of body weight per minute. To some extent your capacity is innate, and affected by your genetic inheritance, your body composition, and how much you have trained.

Remember we tested Instructor Adam Prout to exhaustion and then had a look at how well he did on cognitive function tests? It was only a couple of weeks ago, and he seemed to be fairly fit then – if you missed it you can read about it here.  We got him to exhaustion after 20 minutes, but his recovery back to baseline was pretty quick. In addition to being a Kung Fu Instructor Adam is a life-long asthmatic, and so I was wondering what his VO2 max would look like.

Adam steps onto the pile of paving slabs with a metronome ticking in the foreground to maintain his pace.

The metronome controls the pace.

What do you mean, we don’t do endurance training?

The big endurance sports of rowing, cycling, running and cross-country ski-ing boast very high VO2 max scores among their elite athletes. You may be surprised to learn (especially if you are reading this at the end of a class) that martial arts in general are not considered as “endurance”.  Presumably because we don’t cover enough ground (up and down the hall doesn’t really count).  Anyway, it certainly feels like an endurance activity.  So VO2 max is still an interesting measure for an asthmatic Kung Fu Instructor.

The home test kit

How do we do it?  We did not have a state-of-the art lab at our disposal, and so I read around to see if we could make do without the masks, monitors and persons with clipboards.  This is want we had: some paving slabs to make a step, a metronome, a stopwatch, blood pressure monitor (for heart rate), and a motivator (more on that later).  There are lots of tests outlined on the internet and we settled on the 3-minute step test. I used the outline at shapesense.com, which comes with plenty of explanations, a calculator, and nice tables to compare your performance.


You can estimate your VO2 max using a resting heart rate.  Before we started Adam sat with the blood pressure monitor, and we took an average of 3 readings – 67 beats per minute.  As Adam is 41 years old, this gave him a “fair” VO2 max score of 41ml/kg/min. Oh dear, and we thought you were fit.  But the cognitive tests we did showed that Adam is better after exercise, so let’s head out into the field and do the step test.

The hard bit..

Adam steps up onto the pile of paving slabs as a tiny red poodle looks on.

“Come on Adam, only 2 minutes to go – you can do it – I would do it with you but it’s bigger than me…”

First we had to build a step 16¼ inches high – an inexplicably precise height (these endurance people must be obsessive about inches!). So we piled up paving slabs.  We could do 15½ inches or 17 inches but 16¼ inches was proving difficult.  “This shouldn’t be the hard part” “How important is the height?” “Well the calculations might not work if we change the height – if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” and so on. After a bit of messing about we found a couple of thin slabs that were ¾ inches high so that Adam could step up from them. The metronome is set to 96 beats per minute (Andante or walking pace in musical terms), with one foot moving up or down on each beat.  It is very important to maintain a steady rhythm for the full 3 minutes.

The easy bit

After a practice with the metronome, it was time to start the stopwatch. Instructor Karim, who did such a great job of exhausting Adam before, was busy, so we used a substitute motivator.  “I think I can manage 3 minutes on my own” “Well with your VO2 max, I doubt it…Come on, she won’t bite”  Tick tock, up down, up down, ding! Rush over with the blood pressure monitor which shows a pulse of 90 beats per minute.  Adam has barely broken a sweat – “I could keep doing that for hours”.

Does Adam have champion potential?

Back to the computer to check the score.  74 ml/kg/min! That’s more like it. A blood pressure monitor showing Adam's post test reading of 90 heart beats per minute , a key element in measuring VO2 max.Chris Froome (winner of the Tour de France (a cycling race in case you don’t know (and a bit of an endurance event))) is about the same weight as Adam and his VO2 max is 86 ml/kg/min.  Age also has an impact, and Adam is 10 years older than Champion Froome.

So what does all this mean?

Why does Adam have a fairly average resting VO2 max and a world class exercised VO2 max?  I think it shows that his Kung Fu training has given him great aerobic capacity, and that it does function as equivalent in some ways to endurance training.  The test did not take Adam’s weight (69.9kg on the day) into account, but used an adjustment for a “normal” population.  So maybe we need to start hunting for a lab and hook him up again.

Roll on the Olympics and all that VO2 max-talk!



The auditions for glamorous assistant/personal motivator descend into chaos

I know you love your pedantry, so here it is:

V = Volume

O2 = Oxygen as we breathe it (2 molecules of the element Oxygen within “air”)

Max = maximum or maximal uptake