By Teemu Virtanen
Endurance sports, and long distance skiing in particular, represent the hardest and most challenging physical activities you can find. When cross-country skiing, you have to use your whole body to move forward. And not just your body, but your metabolism and oxygen consumption are in full swing when you move from one place to another enjoying the beautiful winter nature around you.
It goes without saying that the faster you go the harder it is for you as your muscles need more oxygen to perform according to the increased pace. Pro skiers face this feeling of discomfort in every race, but it is also something they easily get addicted to as pushing oneself to the limit is the key factor in any endurance performance.
The maximal oxygen uptake is the measurement of an athlete’s physical shape, and it is commonly referred as VO2 max (also maximal oxygen consumption, maximal oxygen uptake, peak oxygen uptake or maximal aerobic capacity). Professional cross-country skiers are known to have the highest VO2 max scores since the nature of the sport requires an impressive capacity of oxygen consumption.
For some readers, the term VO2 max is still somewhat vague and it begs the clarification. It is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during incremental exercise; that is, exercise of increasing intensity. The name is derived from three abbreviations: "V" for volume, "O2" for oxygen and "max" for maximum.
Maximal oxygen consumption reflects the cardiorespiratory fitness of an individual, which is an important determinant of endurance capacity during prolonged physical exercise. VO2 max is expressed either as an absolute rate in liters of oxygen per minute (L/min) or as a relative rate in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body mass per minute (mL/(kg·min)). The latter expression is often used to compare the performance of endurance sports athletes.
The average untrained healthy male has a VO2 max of approximately 35–40 mL/(kg·min). The average untrained healthy female has a VO2 max of approximately 27–31 mL/(kg·min). These scores can improve with training and decrease with age, though the degree of trainability also varies very widely; some individuals can easily increase their VO2 max by training and for others the exercise won’t do the trick as effectively. It is an inherited ability, but anyone can improve his or her oxygen uptake by exercising.
When we look at the statistics collected over the years, Norwegian skier Bjørn Dæhlie has reached one of the highest VO2 max score, 96 mL/(kg·min) as five time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain is reported to have had a VO2 max 88.0 at his peak. However, Norwegian cyclist Oskar Svendsen amazed the world at the tender age of 18 when he recorded the highest VO2 max of 97.5 mL/(kg·min) in 2012.
It is important to keep in mind that in some endurance sports such as rowing, athletes’ body mass is much higher than in skiing making their VO2 max per kg slightly lower, but their VO2 max per liter is often much higher. For example, British rower Sir Matthew Pinsent is reported to have had a VO2 of 7.5 L/min.
How about women? Who has the highest recorded VO2 max score? That honor goes to Joan Benoit, 1984 Olympic marathon winner, with her score of 78.6. Bente Skari, cross-country skier, is the second name in the list with her score of 76.6. Charlotte Kalla and Marit Bjørgen are not far behind with their scores of 74 and 72, respectively.
Of course, these athletes are exceptionally talented and well-trained, but an average skier doesn’t need to worry about reaching such high scores. It is enough for you to go out and enjoy the perks that only physical endurance exercise can offer, and cross-country skiing is certainly one of the greatest ways of keeping yourself fit. So, don’t ignore the call of your neighborhood ski trail as it is time to get ready for upcoming Visma Ski Classics events.