Sustainable Percent VO2max

The Sustainable % VO2max is the percent of VO2max that can be sustained during a race. The ability to sustain high percentages of VO2max is a key factor for success in endurance events. It’s particularly important as race distance increases and can be improved through specific training.

Percent VO2max and race distance

As race distance increases the % VO2max that can be sustained decreases. Typically well trained athletes can run at close to 100% VO2max during a 5km race (~98% VO2max). This decreases significantly to around ~92% during a 10km, and ~78% during a marathon. 

In order to maximize performance athletes must be able to sustain a pace, or intensity that is as close to VO2max as possible. Research suggests that this is particularly important in races of greater than 30 minutes duration and appears to become increasingly important as race duration increases (Ghosh, 2004; Lucia et al., 2001; Fallowfield and Wilkinson, 1999; Coetzer et al., 1993; Coyle et al., 1995; Costil et al., 1973).

Over shorter duration races (e.g. 1500m-5km) the sustainable %VO2max appears to be less important. Research looking at the sustainable % VO2max during a 5km race, did not find any relationship between the %VO2max sustained and 5km race performance (Støa et al., 2010). This is not surprising since athletes are able to race at close to there VO2max during races of <5km and therefore there is little scope to improve the sustainable % VO2max in these events. 

As race duration increases it becomes harder to maintain a pace that is close to the maximal oxygen consumption. Here the ability to sustain work rates at high percentages of VO2max become increasingly important. And, even small differences in %VO2max sustained (e.g. 1-2% improvement) will have a significant effect on race performance.

So, what factors influence our ability to sustain high percentages of VO2max?

Factors influencing the sustainable percent VO2max

The %VO2max sustained seems to be dependent on a number of factors including the aerobic capacity of the active muscles, the percentage of type I muscle fibres (Coyle et al., 1991 & 1995;), muscle capillary density (Coyle et al., 1988), and is strongly linked to the lactate threshold (Coetzer et al., 1993) and the VO2 at the lactate threshold (Coyle et al., 1988).

Individual variation in percent VO2max sustained

The sustainable %VO2max can vary widely between individuals and can help to explain differences in race performance over varying distances. If two athletes have equal VO2max and vVO2max then the athlete with the highest sustainable % VO2max will win in a race situation of 30mins+ duration.

However, it must be remembered that the sustainable % VO2max decreases as race distance increases and the rate of decrease varies from athlete to athlete. As an example marathon specialists are able to sustain much higher percentages of VO2max than non-specialists over marathon distance, but may have a lower or similar sustainable %VO2max over shorter distances like the 10km.

Assessing the sustainable % VO2max

The %VO2max sustained can be evaluated under laboratory conditions, by measuring oxygen uptake at average race pace (running), or average power output (cycling, rowing), or, during a treadmill/cycle ergometer time trial. Here, the athlete would run at speeds used during races, or cycle at power outputs recorded during time trials etc. 

The VO2 is recorded is for each of those speeds, or power outputs. It’s  then converted to a percentage of VO2max from a recent VO2max test.

The %VO2 can also be established by comparing race pace/power outputs with laboratory recorded VO2 values from a recent incremental exercise.

Using heart rate to assess sustainable effort

If you don’t have access to a sports science lab to test VO2, an alternative is to assess the percentage of heart rate that you are able to sustain.

Heart rate follows a similar linear relationship to speed and power. Therefore, assessing the percentage of heart rate that you can sustain over various race distances, intensities can provide some information about the ability to sustain high work rates during endurance exercise. Here you would compare the percentage of maximum heart rate that can be sustained across different speeds or power outputs (cycling).

Training to improve sustainable percent VO2max

Since, the sustainable %VO2max appears to be strongly linked to the muscles aerobic capacity, muscle capillary density and the VO2 at the lactate threshold, training should focus primarily on enhancing the muscles aerobic capacity.

As such it’s important that training volume is sufficient to maximize the muscles oxidative capacity. In addition athletes should include an adequate amount of lactate threshold training – a speed/power output that is at or slightly below the lactate threshold – to enhance muscle aerobic capacity, increase the lactate threshold and ultimately the sustainable %VO2max.

Another, key factor is the training intensity used during training. We need to train at specific race intensities if we want to improve our ability to sustain those paces. In this way a 10k runner needs to devote a significant amount of time to training at 10km intensity, a marathon runner needs to devote time to training at marathon pace, and a time trial cyclist should train at the power outputs used when racing.   

It is important to remember that during races of shorter duration (e.g. 5-10km) there is less scope for improvement in the sustainable %VO2max, than in longer duration races like the marathon. So the amount of time devoted to improving the sustainable %VO2max should be dependent on race duration.

Summary of sustainable percent VO2max

  • The %VO2max that can be sustained is an important factor in endurance events of greater than 30 minutes.
  • The sustainable %VO2max is less important in shorter events but becomes increasingly important as race distance increases.
  • Factors influencing the sustainable %VO2max include the muscle capillary density, % type I muscle fibres, muscle capillary density, aerobic capacity of the muscle, the LT and the LTVO2.
  • The sustainable %VO2max can vary greatly between individuals with some individuals better suited to longer duration races (e.g. marathon) whilst other suited to shorter duration races (e.g. 5km).
  • Training to improve the sustainable %VO2max should concentrate on maximizing the muscles aerobic capacity (e.g. adequate volume of moderate intensity training, tempo training).
  • The scope for increase in the sustainable %VO2max is less in shorter duration races (e.g. 5km) than longer races (e.g. marathon).

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Sustainable Percent VO2max References:

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Coyle EF. (1995) Integration of the physiological factors determining endurance performance ability. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 1995;23:25-63. Review.

Coyle EF, Coggan AR, Hopper MK, Walters TJ. (1988) Determinants of endurance in well-trained cyclists. J Appl Physiol. 1988 Jun;64(6):2622-30.

Coyle, E.F., Feltner, M.E., Kautz, S., Hamilton, M.T., Montain, S.J., Baylor, A.M., Abraham, L.D. and Petrek, G.W. (1991). Physiological and biochemical factors associated with elite endurance cycling performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 23, 93-107.

Coyle EF, Sidossis LS, Horowitz JF, Beltz JD. (1992) Cycling efficiency is related to the percentage of type I muscle fibers. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1992 Jul;24(7):782-8.

Costill DL, Thomason H, Roberts E. (1973) Fractional utilization of the aerobic capacity during distance running. Med Sci Sports. 1973 Winter;5(4):248-52.

Fallowfield, J.L. and Wilkinson, J.L. (1999). Improving sports performance in Middle and Long-Distance Running. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, LTD.

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Lucia A, Hoyos J, Chicharro JL. (2001) Physiology of professional road cycling. Sports Med. 2001;31(5):325-37. Review.

Støa EM, Støren Ø, Enoksen E, Ingjer F. (2010) Percent utilization of VO2 max at 5-km competition velocity does not determine time performance at 5 km among elite distance runners. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 May;24(5):1340-5.