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Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 13 (2010) 7479

Original paper

Exercise at given percentages of VO2max: Heterogeneous metabolic


responses between individuals
Friederike Scharhag-Rosenberger a,b, , Tim Meyer a,c , Nina Gler a ,
Oliver Faude a,c , Wilfried Kindermann a
a Institute of Sports and Preventive Medicine, University of Saarland, Saarbrcken, Germany
bSports Medicine & Sports Orthopaedics, University Outpatient Clinic Potsdam, Germany
c Institute of Sports Medicine, University Paderborn, Germany

Received 23 June 2008; received in revised form 30 November 2008; accepted 8 December 2008

Abstract
Purpose: Given percentages of VO2max are widely used for training and study purposes although they might not result in homogeneous
metabolic strain. Therefore, the homogeneity of metabolic responses to prolonged exercise at fixed percentages of VO2max should be investi-
gated. Procedures: Twenty-one healthy male subjects (29 5 years, 77 8 kg, VO2max : 59.9 11.8 ml min1 kg1 ) performed two incremental
tests to exhaustion on a cycle ergometer to determine VO2max . Subsequently, two 60 min tests at 60 and 75% VO2max were conducted in ran-
domised order. VO2 was kept constant by adjusting the work rate. Blood lactate (La) responses as primary outcome variable to quantify
metabolic strain were assessed. Findings: Mean La was 2.1 1.1 mmol l1 (minmax: 0.75.6 mmol l1 ) during the 60% VO2max test and
4.6 1.9 mmol l1 (minmax: 2.28.0 mmol l1 ) during the 75% VO2max test. The coefficients of variation of La amounted for 52.4 and 41.3%
during the 60 and 75% VO2max test, respectively. La responses did not differ significantly between three subgroups of the subjects (N = 7
with VO2max < 55 ml min1 kg1 , N = 7 with VO2max 5565 ml min1 kg1 , and N = 7 with VO2max > 65 ml min1 kg1 ; P 0.08). Conclusion:
Altogether, prolonged exercise at given percentages of VO2max leads to inhomogeneous metabolic strain as indicated by the large variability
of La responses. This holds true even in subgroups of similar aerobic capacity. Thus, intensity prescription for endurance training and study
purposes should not be solely based upon percentages of VO2max when a comparable metabolic strain is intended.
2009 Sports Medicine Australia. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Oxygen consumption; Lactic acid; Physical conditioning; Human; Physical endurance

1. Introduction ings suggest that training intensities expressed as fixed


percentages of maximal ergometric values might not result in
Maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max ) is usually considered intraindividually homogeneous metabolic responses. So far,
to be the most important indicator of endurance and cardio- most of these data sets come from graded exercise tests.58
circulatory function.1 For training purposes, VO2max is often Using graded cycling protocols, Katch et al.5 showed that
used as a reference, i.e. exercise intensity is prescribed as per- the metabolic stress at 60, 70, and 80% of maximal heart rate
centage of VO2max . This becomes apparent when examining (HRmax ) as related to the anaerobic threshold was not con-
the large number of training studies in which percentages of stant across subjects. Weltman et al.7,8 arrived at the same
VO2max serve as training prescriptions.24 conclusion when conducting graded treadmill tests and using
In terms of targeted endurance training, athletes and different lactate thresholds as criteria for the homogeneity
coaches are striving for a defined metabolic strain to achieve of physiological responses to exercise at fixed percentages
predictable adaptive response. However, several study find- of HRmax , heart rate reserve (HRR), and VO2max . Meyer et
al.6 examined endurance athletes who conducted progressive

cycle tests to exhaustion and demonstrated that fixed percent-
Corresponding author.
E-mail address: friederike.scharhag-rosenberger@uni-potsdam.de ages of VO2max and HRmax corresponded to wide ranges of
(F. Scharhag-Rosenberger). exercise intensities as defined in relation to lactate levels and

1440-2440/$ see front matter 2009 Sports Medicine Australia. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2008.12.626
F. Scharhag-Rosenberger et al. / Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 13 (2010) 7479 75

the individual anaerobic threshold (IAT). It remains ques- 5565 ml min1 kg1 , and N = 7 with high aerobic capac-
tionable whether these results are transferable to prolonged ity (HIGH): VO2max > 65 ml min1 kg1 ) participated in this
endurance exercise. study. Anthropometric data of the subjects are given in
Outcomes of prolonged exercise tests have so far only been Table 1. Participants gave their written informed consent
presented as side aspects of studies with a different focus that according to the rules of the institutional review board. Before
were conducted with trained9 or highly trained10 cyclists. exercise testing, they were subjected to a medical check up
Aiming at elucidating why competitive cyclists with similar to ensure the absence of health risks.
VO2max differ in their cycling performance, Coyle et al.10 Each participant performed four tests. Initially, one step-
examined prolonged cycling tests at 88% VO2max to exhaus- wise and one rampwise incremental cycling test to exhaustion
tion. The analysis revealed differences in time to exhaustion were conducted on separate days in randomised order.
that were associated with the lactate threshold (LT). How- VO2max was determined as the higher VO2 either from the
ever, LT was not a precise predictor of exercise duration. In rampwise or the stepwise incremental test to make sure that
a study by Orok et al.9 prolonged exercise tests of 60 min real VO2max values were recorded independent of day-to-
or until exhaustion at constant work rates corresponding to day variances12 and the exercise protocol.13 Subsequently,
about 40, 60, and 80% VO2max were performed by seven two prolonged exercise tests at 60 and 75% VO2max were
trained cyclists to test whether the blood lactate concentra- conducted in randomised order. They started with a three min
tions at the end of 3 min exercise stages of an incremental test warm-up and work rate was then adjusted until the intended
accurately reflect steady state responses. A diffuse pattern of VO2 was reached. From that moment, subjects cycled for
varying lactate increases and different times to exhaustion 60 min or until exhaustion. Power output was adjusted to
were reported for the 80% VO2max test. maintain VO2 constant by means of continuous VO2 moni-
Prolonged exercise tests at reasonable training intensities toring. Capillary blood samples for the determination of La
as given percentages of VO2max have never been conducted were taken and HR was recorded at rest, after 10, 20, 30, 40,
before to thoroughly investigate the metabolic responses that and 50 min, and after cessation of exercise. All testing was
occur during an endurance training session or in a study using performed on the same electrically braked cycle ergometer
such exercise prescriptions. Therefore, the aim of this study (Lode Excalibur, Groningen, The Netherlands).
was to describe the metabolic response to prolonged exercise During all tests, gas exchange data were measured con-
at given percentages of VO2max . tinuously by means of a metabolic device (Meta Max II,
Cortex, Leipzig, Germany) and heart rate (HR) was recorded
by means of a telemetric system (Polar S 610, Polar Electro,
2. Methods Kempele, Finland). Capillary blood samples for the deter-
mination of La (enzymatic-amperometric method, Greiner,
After VO2max had been determined, 60 min of cycling Flacht, Germany) were taken from the hyperaemised earlobe.
exercise at 60 and 75% VO2max were observed in subjects Criteria for determination of VO2max were: (i) maximal blood
with a wide range of aerobic capacity while monitoring work lactate concentration (Lamax ) > 8 mmol l1 and (ii) achieve-
rate by means of oxygen uptake (VO2 ) measurements. Sixty ment of HRmax > 200 minus age.14 Oxygen uptake reserve
and 75% VO2max are frequently used training intensities (VO2 R) was calculated as difference between VO2max and
within the range of exercise recommendations of the Amer- VO2 while sitting on the cycle ergometer quietly before the
ican College of Sports Medicine.11 Metabolic responses to onset of exercise. The IAT was determined from the step-
exercise were described by means of blood lactate concentra- wise incremental exercise test according to Stegmann et al.15
tions (La). Furthermore, maintainability of the tests and the Lactate steady state conditions during the prolonged exer-
presence of lactate steady state conditions were observed. cise tests were considered to be present if La increased for
A total of 21 healthy male subjects (N = 7 with lower less than 1 mmol l1 between the tenth exercise min and the
aerobic capacity (LOW): VO2max < 55 ml min1 kg1 , N = 7 last blood sample according to a definition for constant work
with medium aerobic capacity (MEDIUM): VO2max rates by Beneke.16 This criterion could not be investigated in

Table 1
Anthropometric and ergometric performance data of the subjects.
Age (years) Height (cm) Mass (kg) Pmax (W kg1 ) VO2max (ml min1 kg1 ) HRmax (min1 ) Lamax (mmol l1 )
TOTAL 29 5 179 6 77 8 4.6 1.2 59.9 11.8 192 9 11.0 2.0
LOW 30 5 178 6 80 10 3.3 0.7bb,ccc 46.5 7.8bb,ccc 189 5 9.7 1.9c
MEDIUM 30 6 180 5 79 5 4.9 0.5aa 62.1 1.9aa,c 192 10 10.9 1.5
HIGH 27 5 181 7 71 6 5.7 0.7aaa 71.2 5.6aaa,b 194 11 12.4 2.0a
Data are presented as means S.D. (TOTAL: N = 21; LOW, MEDIUM, and HIGH: N = 7 in each group).
Significantly different from LOW: a P < 0.05, aa P < 0.01, aaa P < 0.001.
Significantly different from MEDIUM: b P < 0.05, bb P < 0.01, bbb P < 0.001.
Significantly different from HIGH: c P < 0.05, cc P < 0.01, ccc P < 0.001.
76 F. Scharhag-Rosenberger et al. / Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 13 (2010) 7479

one case for the 75% VO2max test, as exercise was already ficients of variation (CV) are provided to describe the
stopped after 10 min. variability of La. Variances of La were compared by means
Data are presented as individual courses or of a dependant Sample t-test for homogeneity of variances.
means standard deviations (S.D.). Additionally, coef- Data of the entire group and the subgroups were checked

Fig. 1. Time course of VO2 , work rate, HR, and La during the 60 and 75% VO2max test (N = 21).
F. Scharhag-Rosenberger et al. / Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 13 (2010) 7479 77

for normal distribution using the ShapiroWilks W-test. were 2.1 1.1 mmol l1 (minmax: 0.75.6 mmol l1 ) and
As this was present, t-tests for dependent samples were 4.6 1.9 mmol l1 (minmax: 2.28.0 mmol l1 ), respec-
chosen to compare the 60 and 75% VO2max test. Subgroup tively (P < 0.001, N = 21). CV of La amounted to 52.4%
data were compared using a one-factorial ANOVA. The during the 60% VO2max test and 41.3% during the 75%
number of premature exercise cessations (defined as tests VO2max test (N = 21). During the 75% VO2max test the vari-
that could not be maintained for 60 min due to exhaustion), ance of La was significantly higher than during the 60%
the number of subjects exceeding lactate steady state, and VO2max test (P < 0.01, N = 21). Subgroup results and detailed
number of subjects exceeding VO2 at their IAT within characteristics of the tests are available online as supple-
subgroups as well as the number of subjects who completed mentary file. La responses were not significantly different
the test and subjects who stopped exercise prematurely were between the three groups (P 0.08, N = 7 in each group).
compared using Fisher exact tests. An -error of P < 0.05 The number of premature exercise cessations, the number of
was considered significant. subjects exceeding lactate steady state, and the number of
subjects exceeding VO2 at their IAT are presented in Table 2.
Those subjects who did not complete the 75% VO2max test
3. Results maintained exercise for an average of 33 14 min (minmax:
1050 min; N = 17). The subjects who stopped the 60%
Ergometric performance data of the incremental test from VO2max test prematurely exercised for 25 and 45 min, respec-
which VO2max was derived are presented in Table 1. In that tively (N = 2).
test, each subject achieved a HRmax > age-predicted max-
imum and Lamax > 8 mmol l1 , which indicated maximal
effort.14 The prolonged 60 and 75% VO2max tests were con- 4. Discussion
ducted with mean work rates of 173 43 W and 218 55 W,
respectively, which corresponded to 55 3% and 71 1% This study demonstrates that among young males of mod-
VO2 R (both: P < 0.001, N = 21). erate to high aerobic capacity work rates of 60 and 75%
Oxygen uptake, work rate, HR, and La over the time VO2max lead to a considerable variability of La responses evi-
course of the prolonged exercise tests are presented in denced by a CV of 52.4 and 41.3%, respectively. Numerous
Fig. 1. Mean La during the 60 and 75% VO2max tests subjects were not able to maintain 75% VO2max for 60 min
and lactate steady state conditions were not present in all indi-
Table 2 viduals. Data show that for a higher percentage of VO2max
Comparison of the 60 and 75% VO2max test. the metabolic strain is less homogeneous than for a lower
60%VO2max test 75% VO2max test percentage which is evidenced by a significantly higher vari-
N (%) N (%) ance, a larger range of La, and a higher number of early
cessations. With regard to this heterogeneity, there seem to
Number of premature cessations
LOW (N = 7) 1 (14%) 4 (57%) be no significant differences between individuals with higher
MEDIUM (N = 7) 1 (14%) 6 (86%) and lower aerobic capacity. However, statistical analyses of
HIGH (N = 7) 0 (0%) 7 (100%) subgroup comparisons have to be interpreted carefully due
TOTAL (N = 21) 2*** (10%) 17*** (81%) to the low number of subjects in each stratum. As 60 and
75% VO2max corresponded to small ranges of VO2 R, it is
Number of subjects exceeding lactate steady state likely that these results can be transferred to percentages of
LOW (N = 7/6) 1 (14%) 0 (0%) VO2 R.
MEDIUM (N = 7/7) 0 (0%) 2 (29%)
HIGH (N = 7/7) 0 (0%) 1 (14%)
In the present study VO2 was kept constant by means of
work rate adjustments. In practice, constant work rates are
TOTAL (N = 21/20) 1 (5%) 3 (15%)
usually chosen for training or study purposes. Prolonged exer-
FINISHED (N = 19/4) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) cise at a constant work rate can lead to an increase in VO2 over
STOPPED (N = 2/16) 1 (50%) 3 (19%) the course of the exercise bout which is called the VO2 slow
Number of subjects exceeding VO2 at their IAT
component.17 The magnitude of the VO2 slow component
LOW (N = 6/6) 1 (17%) 5 (83%) is significant during intense exercise18 and, therefore, even
MEDIUM (N = 7/7) 1 (14%) 5 (71%) less homogeneous metabolic responses might be expected in
HIGH (N = 5/5) 2 (40%) 4 (80%) training practice.
TOTAL (N = 18/18) 4** (22%) 14** (78%) Studies focusing on the percentage of VO2max an
FINISHED (N = 17/4) 4 (24%) 4 (100%)
endurance athlete can sustain during long distance events
STOPPED (N = 1/14) 0 (0%) 10 (71%) identified LT, exercise economy, and fat oxidation rate as
FINISHED: subjects who completed the test and STOPPED: subjects who
important factors.19 These criteria as well as anaerobic capac-
stopped exercise prematurely. ity might at least in part be responsible for the observed
** Significant difference between 60 and 75% VO
2max test: P < 0.01. individual differences in La responses and maintainability
*** Significant difference between 60 and 75% VO
2max test: P < 0.001. in the present study. Billat and Koralsztein20 reported that
78 F. Scharhag-Rosenberger et al. / Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 13 (2010) 7479

within a homogenous group of elite runners time to exhaus- given percentages of VO2max leads to inhomogeneous La
tion at the velocity that elicits VO2max (vVO2max ) was shortest responses and, particularly for high percentages, uncertain
in those with the highest running velocity. During the 75% maintainability among young males of moderate to high aer-
VO2max test of the present study, the 12 subjects who cycled obic capacity. This holds true even for subgroups with only
with the highest work rates all terminated exercise prema- little variability in VO2max . The findings are likely to be
turely. However, 5 of the other 9 subjects did not complete transferable to exercise at fixed percentages of VO2 R. Thus,
their tests either and for those who stopped prematurely no exercise intensities for endurance training and scientific pur-
order of exercise duration was apparent. The role of the abso- poses should preferably not be prescribed as percentages of
lute work rate in the present study is therefore questionable. VO2max or VO2 R alone.
The reasons for premature exercise cessations in the
present study were not apparent in several cases. It is note-
worthy that mean La was not higher in subjects who stopped Practical implications
exercise prematurely than in subjects who completed 60 min
during the 75% VO2max test. Also, the number of subjects The degree of metabolic effort varies considerably between
who exercised above IAT was not higher in subjects who different athletes who exercise at the same given percent-
stopped prematurely. Acidosis as a reason for early exercise age of VO2max .
cessation might be considered in subjects with steep lactate The higher the given percentage of VO2max , the more the
increases only. An alternative explanation might be neuro- metabolic effort varies between different athletes.
muscular fatigue.21 A noticeable adjustment of the work rate Some athletes are unable to maintain a training session
was necessary to keep VO2 constant in some cases. This with 6075% VO2max while others are able to complete it.
might indicate decreasing muscular working economy.22 Training prescriptions by means of percentages of VO2max
Similarly, a couple of subjects showed high constant La lev- alone are not sufficient if a certain metabolic response is
els which are also frequently associated with an increased intended.
recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers that fatigue more
rapidly than slow-twitch fibers.21 In contrast, glycogen deple-
tion does not seem to be a reason for the subjects to stop Acknowledgment
exercise prematurely because exercise duration was too short
and, in some contrast to our findings, La levels tend to No external financial support.
be reduced whenever glycogen depletion is present.23 The
absence of obvious reasons for exhaustion is in line with the
Appendix A. Supplementary data
findings of Baron et al.24 who report that exercise termination
during exercise to exhaustion at the maximal La steady state
Supplementary data associated with this arti-
is not associated with evidence of failure in any physiological
cle can be found, in the online version, at
system.
doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2008.12.626.
Although they focused on other questions and surveyed
trained athletes, Coyle et al.10 and Orok et al.9 already demon-
strated interindividually different times to exhaustion and La
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