VO2 Max and the House of Cards

I’ve been fascinated by VO2 max testing for some time, but too chicken to actually do it. What if it was too hard? What if the results weren’t good? What if I failed? Is it possible to fail? I won’t like running wearing a mask. I hate running on a treadmill. I will definitely fail. 

Last year I did lactate threshold testing on the bike, because getting my finger pricked every 3 minutes seemed like a better option than running on a treadmill wearing a mask, but my coach kept telling me I really needed to do the VO2 max testing. And I kept avoiding it.

Then there was St. Michaels Half. The post I wrote was obviously in jest, but in reality I knew my race performances were built on training that was a house of cards. I even noted to my friend on the drive to St. Michaels’s that it was just a matter of time before the house of cards fell. I knew how flimsy it all was. My injuries had been dictating my training which had no substance and little purpose. My coach needed updated heart rate data to base my plan on, and for that I needed to do a VO2 max test.

10 days after St. Michaels I was at the gym, looking like this: 10407420_742752589078587_5877092175612748139_n

At least green is my favorite color.

Running with a mask on is hard. You want to drink, but you can’t, and the air is dry as heck, and you can’t spit or talk….and it’s only for 8 minutes but that’s an eternity in treadmill years. And since there’s nothing much to do I found myself watching my heart rate climb steadily…then suddenly spike to over 200. I started freaking out and so my coach put a towel over the screen so I couldn’t watch it.

A few minutes later he removed the towel to show me my heart rate had dropped. Basically, I get a heart rate spike during the early stages of running, so I need to warm up properly. Duly noted.

So this was the first part of the test. The warm up. Next up was the real thing, the part where the speed keeps increasing until you can’t run any more. I was most worried about this part. I’m not one to cry uncle. I was worried I would keep running until I passed out or fell off, because I’m too stubborn to give up. In reality, I lasted a shorter time than I thought I would. I really couldn’t keep up with the rapidly increasing speed and called it at less than 12 minutes. I thought my coach would try to make me keep going but he knows me better than that because he switched off the treadmill right away.

I’m not really a numbers person (I’ve always liked words better) and had a hard time taking in all the data, but the key takeaways were:

– My VO2 max is 51.4

– I need to warm up for longer

– I eat too much sugar (seriously, he could even show the impact of the excess glucose in my results…)

To fix the sugar issue, out went my much-loved Starbucks lattes. When I’m not frequenting Starbucks I drink my coffee black, but now I have it with eggs for breakfast instead of my previous sugar-infused greek yogurt with granola. The local farm now loves me because I buy 2 dozen eggs every week…and they have duck eggs which are THE BEST.

The next day, I had a new plan. With new heart rate zones. And all of a sudden my workouts were much harder. Basically, I had been slacking off. I buckled down and adjusted to the new plan, mostly managing the workouts. They were tough, but knowing there was data behind each workout indicating that I should be able to do this really motivated me to get through it.

Working on heart rate rather than pace has been interesting because, whereas if I hit a fast pace in pace training, I would freak out and back off, because I’m looking at heart rate I don’t notice the pace. Once or twice I have caught sight of the pace I’m running and have been surprised at how fast it is. Another great thing about heart rate training is that you can’t cheat it. So whereas in pace training if you have a downhill you get to take it easy, but if you have an uphill you have to worker harder to maintain pace, in heart rate training you have to push harder on the downhill to maintain the rate, but don’t have to work harder on the uphill. So the effort is much more even.

So is it working? Maybe it’s too early to tell, but about 4 weeks after starting the new training plan I raced the olympic distance at TriRock Philadelphia, finishing in 2:30 and change, a 3 minute PR. If I can go sub-2:30 I get to start in the elite wave. 🙂 Next Sunday I am racing in the elite division at Maryland Olympic Duathlon. Time to put the training to the test.


  1. Wow fascinating stuff. I too would be dreading that test. Ugh. Polar watches give a VO2 max based on what? Age I suppose and heart rate? How accurate could that possible be??
    Very excited to see where this latest tidbit of knowledge takes you!

  2. This is so cool, I’m fascinated. I have always wanted to learn more about heart rate training and just got a Garmin with heart rate strap to start figuring some stuff out on my own about my body and heart rate (after learning that I have the freaky sinus bradycardia last year my curiousity was piqued even more). See you Sunday at the duathlon! Well, I’ll see the back of you as you speed off!
    Cynthia @ You Signed Up For What?! recently posted..Tri Talk Tuesday: Fueling Your TrainingMy Profile

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