ADVENTURES IN FOOD AND FITNESS: Vo2 Max test designed to push athletes to their limit

Huntington University freshman soccer player Nate Orecchio, left, prepares to undergo a VO2 Max test as kinesiology professor Fred L. Miller III attaches an air hose and face mask that will analyze Orecchio's oxygen use as he runs on a treadmill. (Photo by Tanya Isch Caylor)
Fred L. Miller III, chairman of the kinesiology department at Huntington University, goes over freshman Nate Orecchio's score after a VO2 Max test. (Photo by Tanya Isch Caylor)
This chart helps athletes undergoing a VO2 Max test at Huntington University indicate how they're feeling by simply pointing to the appropriate level on the chart. (Photo by Tanya Isch Caylor)

Soccer player Nate Orecchio is in the Human Performance Lab at Huntington University, sucking air through a tube as he runs on a treadmill.

The 18-year-old freshman midfielder is undergoing a VO2 Max test, a scientific assessment of his fitness level.

His legs are churning at 9 miles per hour – a pace of 6 minutes, 40 seconds per mile – while Fred L. Miller III, chairman of the university’s kinesiology department, monitors his heart rate, oxygen consumption and other biometric data on a computer screen.

Orecchio is in phase two of the four-part test, with each three-minute segment increasing in intensity.

“My guess is he’ll get through this,” says Miller. “But the next one will get him.”

Orecchio successfully endures three minutes at 10.5 mph. But when the treadmill speeds up yet again, he’s had enough.

“Those last 30 seconds were tough,” he says when the face mask comes off and he’s able to talk again.

It doesn’t matter that Orecchio didn’t make it all the way through the last segment. The test is designed to push athletes to their limit. If he could easily complete all four stages, that would indicate either that Orecchio was a freak of nature, or, more likely, that the program’s parameters were set too low.

As it turns out, Orecchio could hardly have performed better. His score – 60.0 milliliters of oxygen used per kilogram of body weight per minute – puts him in the 99th percentile for his age and gender, Miller says.

A customized test

Though a VO2 Max test can be customized according to the individual – Miller would plug in dramatically different speeds and incline levels for a 50-plus, middle-of-the-pack jogger like me than he would, say, a member of his boys’ and girls’ cross country teams – the biometric measuring assessment is the same.

The goal is to get your body to utilize the maximum amount of oxygen it’s capable of – a combination of how much blood your heart can pump to your muscles along with your muscles’ efficiency in extracting oxygen from that blood and using it for energy.

The university’s $25,000 metabolic CART system – the same type of machine hospitals use to perform stress tests on heart patients – measures oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production. (In calibrating the machine before Orecchio’s test, Miller reported that 20.94 percent of the air in the lab was oxygen, while .03 percent was carbon dioxide.)

Hospitals use different protocols than the VO2 Max tests performed at the NFL Combine, but the machine analyzes the test taker’s expelled air in the same manner. In both cases, the goal is the same: Get the person to perform at peak intensity.

It doesn’t matter if the machine is attached to a treadmill or some other piece of fitness equipment, Miller says. A stationary bike might be a better gauge of a cyclist’s fitness, while a cross country skier might perform best on a NordicTrack ski machine.

Why bother with such a grueling test, if your doctor or an NFL scout hasn’t ordered you to take one?

Because, Miller says, a VO2 Max test is a much more accurate means of assessing fitness gains than comparing your performance from one race to the next. Whether you do 5Ks or marathons, no two courses are the same. And a change in weather can make the same course a much different experience.

Whereas in lab testing, says Miller, the overall winner of the 2015 Indianapolis Marathon who has scored as high as 65 on a VO2 Max test, “the environment stays the same.”

A data-driven goal

Orecchio, an exercise science major, is hoping to add five pounds of muscle to the 156 pounds he currently carries on his 5 foot, 7 ½ inch frame during the offseason.

Thanks to the equipment in the Human Performance Lab, he can base his nutrition and fitness training on scientific data rather than guesswork.

The Bod Pod, another state-of-the-art device in the lab, helps him keep tabs on his ratio of lean muscle mass to body fat, along with other data such as his resting metabolic rate, which gives him a precise measurement of how many calories his body burns to maintain his current weight.

Analyzing the data from Orecchio’s VO2 Max test, Miller was able to tell him exactly how many calories his body burned at each stage of his workout – ranging from five calories per minute during a brief warmup to nearly 11 calories per minute as his intensity level increased.

“You burned 191 calories in 13 minutes of exercise,” Miller tells him.

In a few weeks, Orecchio will report back to the lab to see how he’s doing.

“Your goal,” Miller tells him, “should be to gain that five pounds of muscle without negatively impacting your VO2 Max.”

Visit the Human Performance Lab

To schedule a VO2 Max Test at Huntington University, email fmiller@huntington.edu. Though Miller is still working out the details, he expects the cost to members of the public to be around $50

A body-fat assessment in the lab’s Bod Pod costs $40, or $20 for those with a membership to any area gym.

Tanya Isch Caylor blogs about postfat living at www.90in9.wordpress.com. Contact her at tischcaylor@gmail.com. This column is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.

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