Demystifying VO2 Max (+ Sample Sets)

This is an all too short introduction to a complicated and well researched topic. As per normal, I don’t intend to cover this topic to perfection, rather I hope to distill some of the available wisdom down to a place that can be useful for everyday coaches and swimmers.

Let’s get it.

There are two measurements often confused in the conversation about VO2 Max in swimming. Thus, straight off the block, we need to parse a few terms: VO2 Max (the measure of Aerobic Capacity) and %VO2 Max (the measure of Aerobic Power). Deep breath, let’s break it way down... one step at a time.

Start there. Both aerobic- one capacity/ one power.

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VO2 Max- the measure of aerobic capacity

Also known as “maximal oxygen uptake”, VO2 Max is a measurement of how much oxygen a person can utilize during exercise. Even more simply, VO2 Max is commonly used as the measurement in determining an athlete’s aerobic endurance.

Dr. Ernest W. Maglischo simplifies this nicely in his seminole swimming text, Swimming Fastest.

Oxygen consumption is usually expressed according to the number of liters or milliliters of oxygen used by the body during intense exercise. For example, if the person inhales 10 L of oxygen in 1 min and exhales 6 L, oxygen consumption would be 4 L per minute

In The Science of Winning, Dr. Jan Olbrecht simply refers to VO2 Max as the measure of “Aerobic Capacity”. This framing will become useful as we meander this topic to its next peak in a moment. Notably, there is a pervasive understanding that those with greater Aerobic Capacity (measured as VO2 Max) will have an advantage in endurance events.

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While there is a genetic component to Aerobic Capacity, literature agrees that VO2 Max (Aerobic Capacity) is highly trainable in athletes- you can imagine any number of aerobic training sets that would help an athlete prepare their aerobic capacity . Studies seems to converge around 15-20% of potential improvement through proper training.

Example Sets abound but here are a few I love

This is written on a “gear” scale of effort from 1-5, where 1 is super easy and 5 is a max effort.

  • Sample: I would repeat this 2-3 times depending on ability and time of season.

    • 300 at gear 2- rest 30 seconds

    • 200 As; 25 FAST/ 25 Smooth- rest 20 seconds

    • 3 x 100 <descend 1-3> to Gear 3- rest 20 seconds

%VO2 Max (Percentage V-O-2-Max)- the measure of aerobic power

So, if VO2 Max is an athlete’s maximum amount of oxygen an athlete can use during intense exercise, think of %VO2 Max as an athlete’s relative ability to use that oxygen efficiently. Dr. Olbrecht, again helpfully, refers to this as the measurement of Aerobic Power.

This type of work is necessary for all swimmers, but its importance increases proportionally with the distance of the event. Thus, swimmers working towards events longer than 400 meters should be sure to include this type of work increasingly as they approach competitions.

Some examples below. As an oversimplification, Aerobic Power Training (measured as %VO2 Max) tends to be roughly 1,000 yards at roughly 90-95% of max effort.

Example Sets

  • 4 x (100 + 50 + 50) at 400 race pace with 10 seconds rest- Repeat this set twice with some easy swimming between.

  • 4 x (100 + 200 + 50 + 50) at 800 race pace with 10 seconds rest

Take Away- coaches and swimmers

Aerobic Capacity (measured as VO2 Max) is arguably necessary for the preparation of all swimming events (including the 50 m races). Aerobic Power (measured in %VO2 Max) is required to prepare swimmers for all events, and is especially important for events longer than 400 meters.

Should this piece peak your interest, you will be greeted with a waterfall of resources and research on this topic online, in journals and in books. Enjoy the journey.

Thanks so much for reading. If you enjoyed, I humbly ask that you forward this piece or our blog to your coaching, swimming and triathlon friends. Thanks!

Jeff Gross

Founder, Techniq Group