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VO2 Max -- Does It Matter for Climbers?
What is VO2 Max?
VO2 max is the maximum volume (V) of oxygen (O2) in milliliters that you can use in one minute, per kilogram of body weight, while breathing air at sea level. Oxygen consumption happens to be linearly related to energy expenditure; therefore, when we measure oxygen consumption, we are indirectly measuring an individual's maximal capacity to do work aerobically. Keep in mind that this is one of MANY components of "fitness" -- see our article called Climbing Fitness Polygon for more -- and happens to be a particularly important characteristic for great endurance performances in running, cycling, rowing, cross-country skiing, or even high-altitude alpine climbing. Those individuals who are in better cardiovascular condition will have higher VO2 max values and can exercise more intensely than those who are not as fit. Don't despair if your VO2 Max is fairly low when you first start a training program -- studies show that you can significantly increase your VO2 max by regular training and by gradually increasing your activity level until you can work at an intensity that raises your heart rate to between 65 and 85% of its maximum for at least 20 minutes 3-5 times a week.
Why does VO2 Max matter for high altitude climbers?
The problem of oxygen consumption is compounded at altitude because of the reduced atmospheric pressure. Walking up James Street in downtown Seattle at 3 mi/hr with a 50 pound pack is easier than slogging up to Camp Muir or Camp Schurman on Mount Rainier with that same weight. While your body is essentially doing the same amount of work in both scenarios, at altitude your body's ability to deliver oxygen to the working muscles is considerably lower than it is at sea level, which means you are working much closer to your maximum capacity in the "thinner air" on Rainier, Denali or other high altitude peaks. However, keep in mind that having a high VO2 Max does not guarantee that you will be able to physically attain the summit you're after -- you may still be someone who suffers from HAPE, HACE or other altitude-related illness -- BUT your chances of success are significantly increased the fitter you are and the more comfortable your body is working at all intensity levels (including those near anaerobic threshold!)
Why know your VO2 Max?
Some people may argue that knowing your VO2 Max is not important, particularly if you are more of a recreational exerciser. Others find that testing and improving on their personal fitness numbers gets them motivated to work harder. Still others will use that piece of information to assess how they compare to others ("standards") who are doing their same sport. By knowing what your current VO2 Max is, you can objectively assess your progress as you improve your cardiovascular fitness. If you, as a 28-year-old male, begin the spring season with a VO2 Max of 35 (considered low) and hope to successfully climb up Rainier in 6 months' time, and you see that other male climbers in your age group who reach the summit average VO2 max of 52, then you have a specific, measurable goal to try to reach as you go through your climbing training program, and you will know exactly when you reach it. This can be particularly important if you happen to live in parts of the country where you don't have access to mountains, but still want to gauge how you're doing with your training compared to others who do.
VO2 Max of an average male 20-29 years of age is: 38-43.
VO2 Max of an average male on college track team is: 48-53.
VO2 Max of endurance cyclists or runners: >75 ml/kg/min.
VO2 Max of female volleyball or male baseball players: 40-50 ml/kg/min.
Highest VO2 Max ever recorded for a man: 94 (Nordic skier)*
Highest VO2 Max for a women: 77 (Also Nordic skier)*
*from Cyclist'sTraining Bible by Joe Friel, 1996
Average mean VO2 Max during actual climbing on Cho Oyu** (8201 m.) in 1998: 45-67 (mixture of steady and intermittent climbing at altitude)
Interestingly, in the Cho Oyu study, VO2 Max didn't seem to play as crucial a role in a climber getting to the summit as researchers expected -- which illustrates the vital point that a deep desire and motivation to get to the summit seems to be a very important factor for success at extreme altitude. However, there must be a critical balance between motivation and obsession, and motivation and physical ability. Those individuals with a higher VO2 Max will be able to climb faster, produce more heat (from continuous climbing), spend less time in "the death zone," and get down more quickly before weather turns bad. Having a high VO2 max doesn't guarantee success at altitude, but it certainly makes it a lot more likely and easier!
** from ch. 7: Cardiorespiratory Responses to Climbing at Altitude, Science of Climbing and Mountaineering CD-Rom.
How to Improve Your VO2 Max
Endurance runners improve their VO2 Max by doing repeats on tracks; climbers can do similar interval training on stairs, hills, or an incline ramp on the treadmill to simulate the climbing they'll be doing in the mountains. For more on this, see our article on Interval Training. One note to add: if your heart rate has not recovered to 120 beats per minute in the rest interval (or the descent of the hill/stairs), extend the recovery time before repeating the interval. Eventually, as your cardiovascular system improves, you'll be able to stick to the recovery times between the reps. These workouts make a refreshing change from what can be rather monotonous endurance training.
For an introduction to what interval training can do for you, consider trying Karen Voight’s Energy Sprint video, professionally designed to gradually ramp up your intensity and keep your heart rate elevated for an allotted time for seven complete intervals.
Examples of VO2 Max Scores
Female (values in ml/kg/min)
Male (values in ml/kg/min)
(For more details about table references, visit Sports Coach pages)