“Don’t give up!” the woman on my left says, leaning in close. “I can see you failing. Don’t fail on me!”
One of the men on my right leans in to the computer screen, examining the data from my heart rate and O2 consumption. Another man cheers me on.
I normally avoid running, evidenced by the burn in my chest and the pain in my calves. The incline and speed on the treadmill were higher than what I’m used to, but I keep moving for longer than I would if no one were watching.
As the researchers increase the speed and incline yet again, I wave my hand, speaking through the mask strapped to my face, “No more, I can’t—”
I brace my hands on the handlebars and swing my legs off the moving treadmill. The researchers seem a little disappointed that I’ve stopped, but they take it in stride, turning off the treadmill and removing the mask and heart rate monitor.
“What made you quit?” a woman with a clipboard asks.
It takes me a second to answer. “I couldn’t breathe,” I gasp, trying to walk to the table on shaking legs. She marks that down.
Watch below to see the end of my first VO2 max test.
I lean against the table for a moment, my eyes drifting over the treadmills and the researchers huddled around the computer results. The room was the exercise physiology lab on the BYU-Idaho campus; the students were exercise physiology students, and the test? Whether it’s possible to reach VO2 max with just walking.
VO2 max represents the volume of oxygen (O2) your body can use, or maximize. The faculty mentor for this student-run project, Eli Lankford, said the VO2 max is how well your heart and lungs distribute oxygen throughout your body.
“If you want to live longer — have a healthy heart, healthy lungs, not have congestive heart failure — it’s correlated with your VO2 max,” Lankford said.
Lankford has worked on many different research projects, some student-run, some sponsored by companies. He’s interested in “non-traditional” aerobic activities, like dancing and archery. He studied Polynesian dancers, including Miss Tahiti herself, to test how well these activities exercise a person’s body.
This student-run project was inspired by the fact that not many people run anymore, Lankford said. If the researchers could prove that a person can reach VO2 max by walking up a steep incline, people who can’t or aren’t used to running would benefit.
Although the group only studied about 30 people so far, they found that walking on an incline reached the VO2 max as well as running. Even though VO2 max tests have been around for a while, a walking test wasn’t always possible because most treadmills don’t incline far enough to give the walker the stress necessary to reach their max.
Listen below to hear Lankford’s further description of the study.
VO2 Max Test
When Lankford asked, almost jokingly, if I wanted to participate in their study, I didn’t think too hard before saying yes. An athlete I am not, but I thought maybe I could be their baseline for a “normal” person.
The study included coming into the lab three times to perform three slightly different versions of the test. I felt indignant during the first test because they did increase the speed enough that I had to run. However, it turns out this was just the baseline test to see if my VO2 max was the same or better whether I was running or not. On the following two tests, only the incline increased, not the speed.
Part of any VO2 max test includes wearing a mask that allows you to breathe in the surrounding air, but then sends your exhalations out a different way for the computer to analyze.
On the first test, where I ran, my VO2 max was 49. According to this scale, that means my VO2 max is “superior,” which is honestly a huge surprise to me. The other two times, where the incline increased but not the speed, my max was only slightly lower: The second test was 47.3, third was 46.18.
According to Runner’s World, the only way to increase your VO2 max is to push your body beyond what it is comfortable with, similar to how you would train your muscles. This includes running and other high-intensity workouts.
Lankford and his students are currently working on publishing their findings.