VO2max. An athlete’s engine capacity


Today, VO2max – maximal oxygen uptake – measures an athlete’s potential, but in the past, a tape measure and stopwatch were used. Even the most precise data obtained using those tools is laughable in the face of current scientific tests.

In the second half of the 20th century, sports science began a process of stringent laboratory testing that radically changed training methods. The best example of this revolution in cycling was Francesco Moser‘s 1984 Hour Record.

25 – apex for oxygen consumption

These days, new assessment parameters have superseded the tape measure and watch.

One of the best for predicting athletic potential in endurance sport is VO2max, that is, the maximum rate of oxygen consumption. This is a biological parameter that expresses the maximum oxygen volume (in millilitres) that can be consumed in a minute per kilogram of body weight at maximum aerobic effort. The unit used is ml/kg/min (millilitres per kg of body weight per minute) and, despite genetics playing a critical part, it can be increased by improving physical conditioning.

Most top amateur athletes, especially distance cyclists, can achieve average best values of 70/75 ml/kg/min. However, even a value of 60 ml/kg/min suggests a good aptitude for endurance sports. Among professional athletes, the highest VO2max values are achieved around 25 years old, before slowly dropping off as the body ages. Still, there are plenty of cases of finding excellent values, above 60 ml/kg/min, in athletes over the age of 50.


vo2max test

Where to do the test

You really should know your VO2max to assess your sporting performance, especially because a paltry 23% of the energy produced by oxygen combustion in the muscles is actually turned into watts at the pedals. Put in motor-racing terms, higher VO2max values means greater horsepower, which is pretty useful in climbing the racing standings.

A specific test is used to determine the maximum rate of oxygen consumption. Until relatively recently, only “elite” athletes used such tests, but today many sports medicine centres offer them. I really recommend using a “serious” facility that measures this rate using specific equipment (a mask is vital) and not one that merely estimates it indirectly through watt output. Erroneous results can lead to serious mistakes in athletic preparation. In the best cases, this will lead to a bit of a race blunder; in the worst cases, your training will be total disproportionate.

December to February is ideal

When is the best time to do the test? The best time is December to February, in the off season, so you can plan your training properly, based on your real “horsepower”. As a coach working in this field, I really believe this is a fundamental step for my athletes to get their training approach right and to really understand where they are as an athlete.




Having graduated in Sport and Movement Science, he is now the athletic coach and owner of “Reaction", a centre in Saluzzo offering a range of sports and exercise programmes, from rehabilitation to performance training. In addition to being the athletic trainer for Alex Zanardi and Vittorio Podestà, who won gold medals at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics, his main areas of interest are biomechanics and functional assessments to improve athletic performance. He loves endurance sport and is an accomplished long-distance cyclist. He has been part of Equipe Enervit since 2014.