Data Driven Fitness: VO2 Max, Lactate Threshold, Heart Rate, What?


Want instant feedback regarding your workout?  It’s a numbers game!  The fitness industry is making billions off data tracking wearables from Polar to Garmin and beyond.  Studios are displaying heart rates on smart screens in classes, in fact, that’s one of the new gadgets we’ve added at the RFC this year – MYZONE Heart Rate Tracking.  What do all these numbers mean and what should you do with them?  Bear with me today as we take a brief walk into fitness-geekdom.

VO2 Max: A measurement of cardiovascular efficiency; the maximum volume of oxygen you can use at your maximum effort.

How it’s tested: In a fitness lab, usually on a treadmill or bike with a gradual increase in effort over time. The amount of oxygen consumed is measured through a mask using this formula:

VO2 =    (milliliters of air inhaled per minute)(percentage of oxygen in the air inhaled)

(milliliters of air exhaled per minute)(percentage of oxygen in the air exhaled)

Can’t get to a exercise physiology lab?  Submaximal Testing is also a great option to estimate your VO2 Max.  Submax tests are similar in that they are generally performed on a treadmill, bike, or step over a set time and only take you up to 85% of your estimated max effort based off of heart rate.  We use a Submax Treadmill Test in our Wellness Profile Program at the RFC.

What are the norms?  Depending on age, a VO2 score could range from 20-90 ml/kg/min, with the average being 30-40 and the average fit score ranging from 30-50 ml/kg/min.  As you might expect, as you age, the average scores decline.

What does that mean for fitness?   Your VO2 max is a great way to measure cardiovascular fitness.  A higher VO2 max indicates a higher fitness level.  Your VO2 increases with cardiovascular training.  For someone new to fitness, this means adding cardio activities like walking, running, cycling, or swimming to your fitness routine.  If you already have a consistent cardio routine, to improve your VO2 max, incorporate workouts with cardiovascular intervals of 30 seconds to 3 minutes at a challenging pace/effort followed by equal to 2x the time of recovery (easy pace, slow enough to catch your breath.)

As cool as it is to know your VO2 score, it’s not a great indicator of athletic performance, so now we move to….

Lactate Threshold:  the intensity of exercise in which lactate, a byproduct of energy production, builds up in the blood faster than it can be removed which makes you feel sick and want to stop exercising immediately.

How it’s tested: In a fitness lab, usually on a treadmill or bike with a gradual increase in stages of 3-5 minutes until exhaustion.  At the end of each stage, blood will be drawn so lactate levels may be tested.

What does it mean for fitness? A higher lactate threshold means you are able to exercise at a higher intensity for longer.  In short, you are more comfortable with being uncomfortable in high intensity exercise than someone with a lower lactate threshold.  To train lactate threshold, complete longer intervals of 8-15 minutes at or just above threshold (where you feel slightly out of breath, but able to maintain the pace for the duration of the workout) and then take a short 1-2 minute break and repeat or stay at threshold or just above for 30-90 minutes.  Note:  A 30-90 minute workout will require more recovery, so the shorter, 8-15 minutes minute threshold intervals would be preferred when you need less recovery.  Those new to lactate threshold training should start with shorter bouts of 3-6 minutes and slowly work their way up to the 8-15+ minute intervals.

How do you do VO2 or Lactate Threshold workouts when you don’t know your scores?  Heart Rate Training and RPE provide a great place to start!

Heart Rate Training:  training or exercising based on your heart rate response, typically defined in zones 1-5:

How it’s calculated
: The simplest calculation is to use 220-age and multiply it by the percentage in which you are working.  However, diving a bit deeper, use the following formula:Note: Zones 4 and 5 are not recommended to those beginning an exercise program.

  1. 220 - Age = maximum heart rate (MHR)
  2. MHR – Resting Heart Rate = Heart Rate Reserve (HRR)
  3. Training Zone Calculated based on HRR by: Target %HR *HRR
  4. Training Zone Calculation + RHR = Heart Rate Training Zone

Example: For a 32 year old athlete with a resting heart rate of 53:  220-32 = MHR of 188.  188-53 = 135.  Mid-zone 3 would be 75% of MHR so 135 * .75 = 101.  Then, to get 75% MRH, 101+53 = 154.

What does it mean for fitness? A lower resting heart rate indicates a higher fitness level.  As you increase your cardiovascular fitness level, your resting heart rate will drop and change your training zones.  Heart rate is a great guide as far as how hard your body is working at a given time and is affected by stress including illness, energy, nutrition (caffeine + stimulants), recovery and sleep, and may be affected by your medications.  In fact, if you are taking a beta blocker, heart rate training is not recommended and RPE is preferred.  Read more about beta blockers and exercise here>>.  An increased resting heart rate is a sign of fighting illness, stress, or overtraining and detraining.

Where should you be when you’re exercising?  It depends on your goals.  Generally speaking, training in zones 1-3 are recommended for general heart health, training in zone 3-4 improve endurance, and to improve lactate threshold, power, or speed, you must train using zones 4 and 5.

Read more about heart rate training in Chelsea's post:  Crush Your 2018 Goals with Heart Rate Training!

No heart rate monitor or taking a medication that affects your heart rate?  How about RPE?

Rate of Perceived Exertion or RPE: a subjective measurement of how you are feeling during exercise.  It’s great because no tests or devises are required, however, it is subjective, meaning it very much depends on your pain or exercise tolerance. You’ve likely seen this chart in your gym:

Where should you be when you’re exercising?
  Similar to Heart Rate Training, it depends on your goals.  Generally speaking, training in an RPE of 6-13 (or 1-6) are recommended for general heart health, training at an RPE of 11-16 ( or 4-8) improve endurance, and to improve lactate threshold, power, or speed, complete intervals of RPE at 14-20 including ½ - 2x the interval to recover at an RPE of 6-9 (or 0-3).

…..and then there’s Step Counting  My son’s LOVE seeing their fireworks on the Garmin VivoFit Kids watches.  “10000 steps today, Mom!  Whoot! Whoot!  An extra point please!” Parents get to divvy out points for chores on these bad boys and we’ve set it up so that they get 1 extra point for 10000 steps and then an additional point for every 100 steps after that.  It motivates my kiddos to move more throughout the day which is exactly the intention of step counting.

Step Counting: The number of steps you’ve taken in a day.

Why steps?  It’s an easy way to measure your physical activity; to increase your physical activity, literally take more steps.  Research shows that people who take more steps throughout the day are more active and therefore, generally, healthier and more fit.

What does it mean for fitness?  We most often hear the recommendation of 10,000 should be your daily goal, however, there are also studies that show 15,000 steps is a better recommendation for heart health and to maintain a healthy body composition. The key to step counting is to help decrease a sedentary lifestyle by taking more steps (or getting moving) more throughout the day.

If you are just starting out with step counting, monitor your steps throughout a week and then set your step goal just above your current steps.  Continue to increase your step goal as you regularly make the goal until you reach 10,000 – 15,000 steps per day.  Remember: your step counter is only tracking your estimated steps, not all forms of exercise, so a lower step goal may be appropriate for you if you are already exercising.

Using data to drive your workouts is a great way to get the most out of each session, however, sometimes, more data is not what we need.  Sometimes we just need to go for a walk or hit the gym to clear our heads, and in this case, yes a data driven workout could be a welcome distraction, but, at the same time, if you feel like a data driven workout is adding stress to the very workout that is supposed to be stress relieving, skip the data monitoring and do what feels good.  If you are finding yourself getting overly obsessed with your numbers, take a break from it to stay mentally healthy.  The best fitness routine is the one that keeps you healthy and balanced physically, mentally, and spiritually.  Use your data wisely, and this year, you will be fitter and healthier than ever!

Read more about heart rate training in Chelsea's post:  Crush Your 2018 Goals with Heart Rate Training!

About Author

Amanda Pack

Sr. Recreation and Fitness Program Coordinator

Amanda received her B.A. in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At SAS, she has shares her passion of wellness with SAS employees as a Senior Recreation and Fitness Program Coordinator. When she’s not teaching others how to squat, chaturanga, and run or coaching expecting moms and Ironmen-to-be, you’ll find her exploring the outdoors with her husband, two sons, and schnoodle, cooking, propagating succulents, and training for endurance events. She’s a 2x IRONMAN finisher and multi-marathoner who loves to be on the trails or on her yoga mat! Amanda is registered through Yoga Alliance as an Experienced 200 hour Yoga Teacher (E-RYT200), certified in personal training and group exercise instruction through the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), an IRONMAN Certified Coach and has training in prenatal yoga, Cosmic Kid's Yoga, and as a postpartum doula.

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