One place to start looking for information on this topic is the Concept2 Indoor Rower website where they include a simple tool for estimating a rower’s relative VO22max from his or her weight and 2000m ergometer time.

This tool is based on the work of the late Dr Fritz Hagerman of Ohio University, whose large-scale research on the physiology of elite rowers was transformational to the sport science of rowing.

To dig a little deeper into Hagerman’s research on VO2max and why it still matters decades later, World Rowing spoke with Dr. Charlie Simpson, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Science at Oxford Brooks University, Great Britain.

What is VO2max?

“The key thing to know about VO2max is that it is the maximum amount of oxygen that your body consumes in one minute,” says Simpson, whose own research also focuses on rowing physiology. “If [on average] 30 Litres of oxygen goes in and 25 comes out, your VO2max is 5.0 Litres in that time frame. Fritz found a near perfect correlation: the higher the VO2max, the better the 2000m erg performance.”

“The more oxygen a person can deliver to their muscles, the more able they are to produce energy inside the mitochondria of the muscle cells,” explains Simpson. “The mitochondria are the batteries of the body that use the combination of oxygen and glucose [sugar] to provide the energy that allows muscles to produce their force.”

While rowing does have more than its share of large lungs, like Great Britain’s Pete Reed's, lung size is largely not going to change with training. “If you are a total novice and have done no training and then do ten years of training, your lung size hasn’t changed,” says Simpson. In contrast, “how well you extract oxygen through the lungs is important and hugely trainable.”

VO2max in context

“We express VO2max in two ways,” he continues. “Absolute VO2max pays no regard to a person’s size. A typical untrained university student will have an absolute VO2max of about 3.5 Litres per minute (male) and 2.5 L/min (female). Relative VO2max is the absolute value divided by body mass in kilograms. For an 80 kg male with an absolute VO2max of 3.5 L/min, the relative VO2max becomes 44 millilitres per kilogram per minute.”

While VO2max is certainly an important factor in a rower’s speed and inextricably linked to 2000m ergo performance, Simpson points out who will win on the water is not as simple as comparing these numbers alone. Every rower brings a unique blend of factors from technique and motivation to equipment and experience; it is the total package that creates a rowing performance along with a rower’s physiology.

“Assuming that [these other factors] are similar – and they most certainly are not – there are four physiological features you can measure to predict performance in rowing,” Simpson explains:

1.       Aerobic capacity – the maximum capacity of oxygen dependent energy systems, very similar to VO2max, which sets the upper limit to energy production

2.       Anaerobic capacity – the maximum capacity of non-oxygen dependent energy systems, important as a typical 2000m race is about 70 per cent aerobic and 30 per cent anaerobic.

3.       Lactate threshold Measuring lactate levels, used widely by elite rowers, can indicate the balance between the use of aerobic and anaerobic energy sources.

4.       Mechanical efficiency – the effectiveness of translating energy into useful work at the oar handle

Getting faster

 “For the average rower, knowing their VO2max doesn’t give them any more information than their 2000m erg time,” says Simpson. For this reason, it is important not to get hung up on the numbers and instead be encouraged that improvements will come with the hard work of effective training.

“It takes several years of really high quality [full time] rowing training before your VO2max is likely to reach its genetic limit,” says Simpson. Even then, “where rowing performance is at its maximum, you spend many more years improving your technique, improving your lactate threshold, improving your ability to withstand pain.”

While starting out with a higher VO2max gives an initial advantage, especially on the ergo, like having long arms, it appears to come down to what a rower chooses to do with what they’ve got that can lead to improved physiology and ultimately to success in a boat.

“The challenge is to find training strategies that help all rowers reach their genetic limit for VO2max,” Simpson concludes, “and that is where the experience of a coach becomes invaluable.”