I am a Sport and Exercise Science student with a love of cycling. As you have probably guessed from my previous posts, I’m very much into cycling and am the Website and Social Media Administrator here at Biketart. Through my love of Science and desire to improve my performance, I saw an advert for VO2 max testing at the University of Kent. Through experience at the University of Brighton I’ve come to know the value of these tests – you can find out an array of Physiological data and your lactate threshold which helps no-end in terms of fitness. I’m undertaking a Pyreneean week of training up the cols over in southern France, so need to be in the best shape possible. I heard back from Dr Richard Ebreo and decided I should take on the challenge for science.

As cyclists, we’re used to pain. We push up hills, grind away on flats and get ourselves up the big hills we live near. For anyone who’s ever done a climb at the end of a day, you’ll know the leg sapping feeling you get as your lungs give out and your heart is in your throat. For those who do intervals, you’ll know the feeling we get doing these efforts on flats, on the turbo in the depths of winter or racing down the seafront. It’s dreadful, be we do it for the adrenaline. I apprehensively packed my bag of cycling kit and pedals for the testing on Friday 1st may. Pinch, Punch, first pain of the month. I travelled (rather sketchily) up to Medway Park, Gillingham where I was due a 3:30 appointment to undergo a VO2 max ramp test. Luckily, I arrived 45 minutes early and had a good luck around – you’d think that’d be nice, given the climate and feel of what I was about to undertake – but no. I had more time to dwell on what was coming. I knew this would be harder than a mountain or a time trial – “You don’t stop when you’re tired, you stop when the bear is tired” – Adam Hansen. There was a feel of impending doom and excitement in me. The time was passed with pre-loading of some sports drink and chilled out music. I’d taken some days off the bike to be completely rested and hydrated before my effort, and the time came.

After quickly changing into my kit, I met Richard. He started his career in Anaesthesia before realising his love of cycling and switching to a PhD program in exercise and localised muscle function. We spoke about our riding habits and I was amazed to find out he’d ridden the mountains I’m going to be taking on for the 2nd time in May – the Tourmalet and Hautacam. Richard, unlike me, tackled them on a gruelling day for L’etape de Tour, on the queen stage where Nibali took his grasp on the jersey. We exchanged pleasantries as I got on the bike, signed a consent form and set off – I couldn’t help thinking I’d signed my right to a funeral.

– My cockpit of doom.

The VO2 max test is a pretty simple protocol. You strap on a heart rate monitor, a gas mask and warm up at 100 watts. Before you start riding, your blood lactate concentration is determined through a pin prick blood sample. Already, the day was going to entail Blood, Sweat and Tears. Oh, and fear. Most Pro cyclists are looking at a VO2 max of around 75 to a ceiling of 98 ml/kg/min-1. Now, what does this mean? This is the maximum amount of oxygen you can use at maximal exercise. So, in Lehman’s terms, the Maximum amount of air you can use and get into your muscles during exercise. VO2 max typically occurs at around your maximum heart rate, and the computer which was wired up to my gas mask showed a graph of where I was currently at. I was feeling good and my heart rate was around 110-120 during the 100 watt warm up. I knew I was in good shape as my resting heart rate recently has dipped below 40 BPM but never over 50. Still, this didn’t reassure me that I wasn’t going to feel the pain.

When VO2 max occurs, typically there is a plateau in the graph of inspired air. More simply, you will see a gradual slope of the air inspired before it levels off and does not increase – this is the VO2 max. A pinprick sample is done again after the exercise to ascertain what blood lactate concentration you achieved – this is key to determine whether the test you did was a fully maximal test and therefore a true reading of your VO2 max value. For a maximal test, there should be a blood lactate of above 8.8Mm.

– Average VO2 Max figures for cyclists and how they rank in the categories.

Richard told me the ramp was going to increase now, about a Watt every second and a half. I braced myself, took a deep breath in and continued pedalling. If your cadence drops below 60RPM the test will finish. Me and Richard continued talking until around the 250-300 Watt range were I really had to start concentrating. My heart rate was more towards 150-160 and I found it uncomfortable to breath in the confines of the mask. It was interesting to look up and see my figures rise and fall depending on whether I breathed in or out. 320 watts. Sweat was dripping off my face and onto the floor as my legs had a distinct burn about them. The industrial fan Richard had set up for more air blew beautifully cold air on to my clammy, suffering face. If only it could cool the burning muscles under my skin.

I’d included more core exercise training in my regime to counteract rocking on the bike on the climbs. 350 watts. My heart rate was around 170-175 which I had calculated as my Lactate Threshold. This means my body would soon switch off it’s Aerobic pathways and focus purely on producing energy quickly through Anaerobic means – what am I on about? Basically, my body would start producing energy in a way that creates Lactic Acid, thus making my legs burn. My lungs were burning now and my hips were rocking slightly on the bike as I glanced up to the green number in front of me. 360 Watts. My cadence was around 90 RPM but I was having to really put the hurt down to keep it up. 380 Watts. I was gasping and rocking all over the place, wanting so much to stop but knowing I couldn’t give up. The fan in front of me taunted me with it’s electric efficiency and insufferable humming. 390 Watts. The sweat was pouring now, my Cadence jutting from 80 to 90 and short bursts of energy giving me up to 100 RPM. Groans were seeping out of me with the last ounces of my energy. “COME ON WILL!” Richard shouted next to me, studying my effort and chart readings. 400 watts. I’d broken what I wanted to, now was just a matter of continuing.

I wish I could tell you how the last Watts felt, but I genuinely can’t remember. Some sort of primal instinct in my brain shut off my surroundings and memory as I groaned, shouted and gasped for air on the bike. I’d clasped my hands to the hoods and snapped out of my temporary slumber to a headrush and stars in my eyes. I’d gotten to around 415-420 Watts I imagine. My heart rate was at 200 and I collapsed on the bars. My mask was taken off, I don’t remember when or how. My arms were evaporating a true scent of effort into the air, sweat rushing away into the ceiling. Again, the fan was meticulously blowing the air onto my soaked, exhausted body. I can’t wait for the results. Richard let me off the bike and I was so dizzy . My lips were spittled and wet, but I’d done it. Before you leave, you have to recover at 30-50 watts to clear the excess lactate from the test. Richard assured me I’d get my results soon and I left, a broken – but happy – man.

Richard contacted me today to let me know my VO2 max is from around 65-70 ml/kg/min-1. This was an awesome reading and I’m so happy to have had the news confirmed. My work has truly paid off and I am in good stead for the Pyrenees. Some of you are probably wondering – what does this actually mean? This reading gives information into how fit a person is and usually (but not completely) is an indicator of endurance performance. You can calculate race times and wattage from VO2 max values. This is also an incredibly useful test to determine your Lactate Threshold – racing just below this allows you to draw out the most aerobic power without going into “the red”. I have included a list of VO2 max values for ages and they are all relative. I’d like to be at 70+ at one point in my life but VO2 max is genetically determined and there is a ceiling. However, jumping from something simple as 68-69ml is a massive step in training and can take several Macrocycles or years.

– Normal VO2 max values

For anyone who wants to increase their performance and see the benefits of their training, exercise testing is an awesome way to find out your values. I’d recommend getting in contact with the Sport Science departments at your local universities and help out a student who is just as interested in exercise as you are.