Aerobic Capacity, Bjørn Dæhlie and Predictors of Endurance Greatness

Audrey ManganSeptember 20, 20124


Bjørn Dæhlie, shown here in 2010, no longer owns the highest V02max ever publicly recorded.

A few weeks ago 18-year-old Norwegian cyclist Oskar Svedsen turned heads by doing something no one has done before in the world of physiological testing: he recorded a V02max of 97.5 mL/kg/min. The number surpasses the high water mark long held by Bjørn Dæhlie (96 mL/kg/min), making Svedsen the young new king of aerobic capacity.

Whether it has any significance or not, cross-country skiing can no longer lay claim to the best V02max in existence, a fact that was not lost on the Norwegian press. At least one journalist took the opportunity to wonder if a bigger trend was afoot: are the country’s most naturally gifted athletes feeding into cycling over other athletic pursuits, and if so, does Norway have a new national sport on its hands?

Both are interesting questions, but they make the incorrect implication that V02max test results are the predictors of performance in cycling, skiing or any other endurance activity. Svedsen himself acknowledged that lab numbers aren’t everything. “The figures are not what’s important. I’ve been beaten by many with lower O2 uptake than me throughout the years,” he said to

Svedsen proved on Monday that he could perform on the road, too, winning the junior time trial at UCI World Championships in Valkenburg, Holland. His unparalleled engine undoubtedly helped him along, but a high max VO2 alone is not a guarantee of performance. To use an example from nordic skiing, Espen Harald Bjerke (NOR) once recorded a 96 max VO2 but never came close to matching Dæhlie’s results. Bjerke’s best World Cup finish was a fourth place in Otepää, Estonia, in 2005; Dæhlie is still considered the best cross-country skier in history.

The discrepancy between Bjerke’s and Dæhlie’s results underlines Svedsen’s dismissal of test results as overly important. Aerobic capacity is only just that — capacity. It demonstrates an athlete’s potential if he or she can get other aspects of the sport to fall into place.

For instance, a 2010 study by a group of Swedish and Norwegian sports scientists sought to determine the relationship between “energy delivery and mechanical efficiency” and performance. To do so it collected a handful of physiological data points from Swedish and Norwegian skiers at the world-class and national-levels as they rollerskied on a treadmill. Not surprisingly, the study found that the world-class group was more efficient overall than the national-level athletes and suggested this was likely due to better technique and power transfer. Aerobic capacity wasn’t the only part of the skiers’ physiology affecting results.

The fact that it took a cyclist to finally depose Dæhlie from his throne is also worth noting. VO2max is calculated with an athlete’s weight, and so if two people record the same value for absolute oxygen consumption, the lighter person is going to have a higher VO2max. An elite skier, with a need for upper body strength, is generally not going to weigh less than a cyclist.

So if anything, Svedsen’s ascension to the top of the charts underscores how impressive it was for Dæhlie to have held onto the position for so long. And in an argument over whose sport can claim the best athletes, Dæhlie still owns the title for most decorated winter Olympian of all time.

Audrey Mangan

Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.

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  • Train Wreck

    September 20, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    Objective scientific articles about fitness like this are a great thing. More, more, more!

  • Howdy

    September 21, 2012 at 9:32 am

    Awesome article! I agree with Train Wreck above, more more more!

    A little clarification though:

    While you are absolutely correct that weight will drag down the number, that isn’t the whole story.

    VO2 is a measure of how much oxygen the muscles are using, so, the more muscle being used, the more oxygen being used, the higher the VO2 max.

    SO, VO2 max numbers can be very MODE (skiing vs. running vs. cycling) dependent in an athlete (it can also obviously be very mode dependent on what mode you focus on).

    Does anybody know what the mode of testing was in any of these cases?

    My point is, if BD was tested running (that 96 was also taken in August, so not exactly at peak fitness), his number would have been higher on a ski treadmill. I would imagine that The Kid was tested on a bike erg (’cause what cyclist likes to run, eh?), which makes his numbers MUCH more impressive, as cycling numbers tend to be just a bit lower than running tests.

  • sailguy

    September 21, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    Great article, more please.

    Internet evidence suggests Bjorn mostly used a running treadmill, but….

    VO2max is a ‘good’ predictor of skiing results, but only ‘correlated’ with cycling results. Cycling is heavily influenced by aerodynamic drag and tactics. Runners predict using speed at the lower lactate threshhold.

    We can envy cyclists, as their watt meters directly measure motive power. VO2max is a measure of fuel burned, including waste heat and inefficiencies in technique.

    Howdy, more muscle in use leads to higher oxygen use, but if a particular athlete is limited by (for example) lung transfer, adding muscle won’t increase oxygen use. For each sport, one of lung transfer, blood transport, and muscle power is the limiting factor that sets the VO2max score. That said, the athletes who are exceptions to your summary can’t become elite skiers or cyclists. You have probably seen some athletes put in the years of training volume and learn technique, but year over year progress stops earlier for them than the rest of the training group.

  • campirecord

    September 21, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    It is also worth noting how technically difficult it is to measure V02 per say. Instrument calibration, environnement, type of effort and so on, small variations can occur, at these levels, small increments might only be accumulation of noise or innacuracy. Still a very good point about mass, I love cycling and as I get a full power kick on the bike is also the time I start losing power on the rollerskis for obvious reasons.

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