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The Single Fitness Stat You Need to Know

Elite endurance athletes and exercise physiologists have long known that VO2 max may be the single greatest determinant of athletic performance. But few recreational athletes have access to the kind of specialized lab equipment typically used to assess and train their number. Now a new study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise suggests a reliable, yet simpler way to find your VO2 max: An online estimator using your age, weight, sex, waist circumference, resting heart rate, along with data on the frequency and intensity of exercise.

While this tool may work for large populations, it has limited use as a training tool for individuals to track changes in performance and to set targets. But athletes aren’t out of luck. You can estimate and train your VO2 max without setting foot in the lab.

What is Maximum Oxygen Uptake?
The physiology behind your max can get complicated, but it is essentially a measure of your aerobic engine size and just how much blood and oxygen your heart can deliver to your exercising muscles. Because this number serves as the ceiling on aerobic athletic performance, increasing it allows you to perform at a higher level or at the same speed with less effort. For young and middle-aged people, a max of 30-40 ml/kg/min is typical, though this number can be easily boosted with training and weight loss. World-class runners, cyclists, and triathletes are typically in the 70-85 range.

Can Max Be Estimated?
Yes, and you don’t need a high-tech performance institute to do it for you. A number of equations can help you find these numbers on your own. I contacted Dr. Andy Coggan, a Senior Scientist at Washington University School of Medicine  and author of Training and Racing with a Powermeter, for input:

You can find literature supporting anything from just under 10 to around 12 mL/min per watt as the slope of the power vs. VO2 relationship (i.e., economy) in trained cyclists. In my hands, the average would be ~10.5 mL/min per watt.

This means that you can multiply by the maximum power output (watts) you can sustain for 4-5 minutes on the bike by 10.5 and estimate the oxygen consumption associated with cycling. Account for basal metabolic rate and you get an estimate of max that is within perhaps 5 percent. A simpler way to do it is just multiply the power output you can sustain for 4-5 minutes by 12 and divide by your bodyweight in kilograms.   

Things are a little more complicated with running because the oxygen running speed relationship is much more variable than the oxygen power relationship in cycling. However, if you know your best 10k time, you can make an estimate using this equation from Dr. Dave Costill, one of the true pioneers in human performance research.  Dave founded the world-famous Human Performance Lab at Ball State University and has arguably studied more elite endurance athletes (especially runners) than anyone else.

120.8 – (1.54 x 10k time in minutes)

Using this equation
30 minutes = 75
40 minutes = 59
50 minutes = 44
60 minutes = 28

Make Your Max Rise
Making your VO2 max rise should be one of your primary goals as an endurance athlete. And there are two ways to tackle it: from the weight side of the equation or from the power production side. If you reduce your weight, your VO2 max jumps. So focusing on a sustainable junk-food-free diet is the key to lowering this number.

Equally important but sometimes harder to nudge is your power output. Pushing this number up takes a focused approach, but it also requires a low time commitment, making this one of the best ways to boost your fitness while training indoors as the winter approaches. Three times a week, complete four to six intervals in the three-to-five minute range with up to equal rest. Runners should aim to hit these repeats at their best 5k times while cyclists should target about 90 percent of the power output they can sustain for 4 to 5 minutes.

The gains you’ll see are potentially dramatic. Consider the average recreational athlete in his 20s or 30s. He weighs 80kg and has a 10k personal best of about 46 minutes.  Using the equation above his estimated max is 50ml/kg/min or about 4L/min. With interval training the power side of the equation may increase 5 to 10 percent. If he drops 5 percent of his bodyweight, or about 9 lbs, he’ll suddenly be in the 56-57 ml/kg/min range—a whole new performance category with a 10k time of perhaps 41 or 42 minutes.

Michael J. Joyner, M.D., is a physiologist and anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic and a leading voice in the world of exercise physiology. Over the past 25-plus years, he's published hundreds of studies, many of which have focused on how humans respond to exercise. Dr. Joyner also writes at Human Limits. The views expressed in his posts are his own and do not reflect those of his employer.

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Stacy Sims's War on Sports Drinks

YOUR HYDRATION drink may be dehydrating you. So says Sims, a 40-year-old exercise physiologist at the Stanford School of Medicine who is pushing for a new paradigm in sports nutrition.

"We have this fixation with not bonking, so the industry pumps drinks full of carbohydrates," Sims explains. "But these sugary drinks force your body to move water into the GI tract to facilitate digestion—and out of your blood and muscles. In other words: dehydration."

The fix, according to Sims, is simple. And it harks back to a commonsense approach used by most athletes in the sixties, before the rise of products like Gatorade. "Separating hydration from fueling—liquid from calories—is the most effective way to address each," she explains. According to Sims, athletes should get their calories from solid foods and use liquids only to meet their hydration needs.

Sims's research stems from her own difficulties with gastrointestinal distress while competing as an Ironman triathlete and elite road racer. She soon began experimenting with formulas containing small amounts of carbohydrates like glucose, along with sodium for absorption, unlike those used to make heavily carb-laden, mass-market sports drinks. In 2009, Sims developed a hydration formula for the Garmin-Slipstream cycling team at the invitation of its sports scientist, Allen Lim. The low-carb product went on to become Secret Drink Mix, sold by Lim's company, Skratch Labs. Lim and Sims later clashed on how to evolve the product and parted ways under less than amicable terms brokered by a lawyer. As Skratch has succeeded, others, including Nuun and SOS, have pushed a similar low--concentration approach to hydration. Last year, Sims launched her own hydration line, Osmo Nutrition.

So should Gatorade be worried? Sims thinks so. "All the companies say, 'Use our stuff. It works better,'" she says. "But I have peer-reviewed science to back me up."

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Can Antoine Vayer Crack the Doping Code?

On the eve of this year's Tour de France, Vayer, a journalist and former trainer for the Festina cycling team, published an electronic report and subsequent book, Not Normal?, that all but accused some of the biggest names in cycling of doping. In the publication, Vayer, 51, compared the power outputs of active riders with those of 21 Tour de France winners since 1982, including known dopers Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich. Vayer's theory: if a rider passes a certain threshold of power on a given section of the Tour, chances are he's cheating. Those he implicated include retired riders who have never been caught, such as five-time Tour winner Miguel Indurain (Vayer described his 1995 win as "mutant"), as well as supposedly clean active racers like Andy Schleck, Bradley Wiggins, Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador, and Chris Froome, who went on to win the 2013 Tour. In a tight-lipped sport that traditionally protects its own, this was akin to passing out scarlet D's.

Once Vayer's report spread everywhere from ESPN to The New York Times, the cycling world reacted with predictable defensiveness. David Brailsford, manager of Froome's Team Sky, called Vayer's work "pseudoscience." During the Tour, Froome, who has never tested positive, declared himself "100 percent" clean.

But here's the thing: many studies support Vayer's data, which is based on a complicated model that takes into account moving time, speed, grade, mass, drag, rolling resistance, wind, and other meteorological conditions to estimate how much power a rider produced on a given segment. The question is whether Vayer's interpretations are accurate.

"Vayer does himself a disservice by being overly bullish, but it doesn't mean he is wrong," says Michael Puchowicz, a former college racer and sports-medicine doctor at Arizona State University. "The best performances achieved during the doping era by Pantani, Riis, Ullrich, and Armstrong are incredibly unlikely to be achieved by a clean athlete." But Froome appeared to do exactly that at this year's Tour, clobbering the Ax 3 Domaines climb in Stage 8 with the third-fastest time in history. The performance
qualified as "miraculous" in Vayer's rating scheme.

So is he recklessly throwing arrows or leading cycling toward a more transparent future? It's hard to tell, but this much is sure: at a time when cycling's governing body, the UCI, is being maligned for years of negligence, the French trainer has emerged as the loudest crusader to clean up the Tour. "If we keep pretending that nothing is going on," Vayer says, "we'll wake up in another twenty years and all the cheats will still be running the sport."

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One Mean Motherfracker

Steingraber is hardly a newcomer to the environmental scene: people have been comparing the former biology professor to Rachel Carson since 1997, when she published Living Downstream. The book examines how illness is linked to pollution, and it grew out of Steingraber's experiences battling a form of bladder cancer that may have been caused by industrial runoff.

But over the past three years, Steingraber, 54, has emerged as one of the country's top experts on the hot-button issue of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. And here's the really surprising thing: at a time when everyone from big green groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council to President Obama is touting America's newfound natural-gas glut as a bridge to energy independence, Steingraber has prevailed in her efforts to keep the process out of her home state.

In 2011, she received a $100,000 Heinz Award for her human-rights approach to the environmental crisis. At the time, it appeared that New York governor Andrew Cuomo was moments away from lifting a moratorium on fracking, so Steingraber used her prize money to help start the nonprofit New Yorkers Against Fracking, a coalition that includes thousands of members, from farmers to mothers to actor Mark Ruffalo. In 2012, she starred in the antifracking film Dear Governor Cuomo, which raised pressure on the state government. In March, she was jailed for blocking the entrance to a gas compressor station. A month later she published Raising Elijah, about how environmental issues like gas development will affect future generations. Meanwhile, the push to frack New York remains stalled. Cuomo has yet to lift the moratorium, and companies like Chesapeake Energy have started pulling out of the state.

There may be bigger names in the fracking debate—Josh Fox and Ruffalo come to mind—but none of them are as uncompromising or informed. "The data is showing us that we're killing our planet and killing our children," she says. "And scientists have a moral position to make sure that the data makes a difference."

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Lucy Walker Will Change Winter Sports

The list of recent documentaries that have fundamentally altered public attitudes about an important issue is short: The Cove, Super Size Me, Chasing Ice. Add to it Walker's The Crash Reel, which opens in theaters across the country this month. The film, a feature about snowboarder Kevin Pearce's recovery from a traumatic brain injury, makes an unassailable case that action sports are as dangerous as the NFL—and promises to change the way we see the X Games, super-pipes, and the very concept of big air.

"It's like we were breaking a story," says Walker. "There were a lot of things that we realized nobody had talked about before." Among them: an almost willful ignorance about the symptoms of head injuries and their prevalence in the action-sports community, the woeful lack of health insurance among athletes, and the complicity of the industry in pushing people like Pearce to risky heights.

The Crash Reel introduces us to Pearce when he's a fun-loving star primed to rival Shaun White as the world's greatest snowboarder. Then he suffers a brain injury on a Park City, Utah, halfpipe while training for the Vancouver Olympics, and everything about him, from his mental capacity to his disposition, changes. Walker spares us nothing, showing the accident over and over, going inside Pearce's Vermont home as his family helps him recover, and following him as he attempts to snowboard again. (His agent, Lowell Taub, gives Pearce detailed instructions on what to wear during his ceremonial return: "Nike gets a three-inch sticker on your helmet.") Walker also tackles the death of freeskier Sarah Burke, whose family faced a six-figure medical bill after she hit her head on the same Park City halfpipe where Pearce fell. The effect is brutal, which is the point.

"How come action-sports athletes aren't insured?" Walker asks. "I mean, how is that possible?"

Most important, Walker turns the clichéd sports comeback story on its head, making a convincing case that the most heroic thing you can do after a serious brain injury isn't to return to competition. Rather, it's to be selfless enough to walk away for the sake of your family.

Since finding this story, Walker has taken an active role in the issue of brain injuries, starting a nonprofit campaign called Love Your Brain together with the Pearce Family. (She also turned us on to the issue and helped spark our investigative report "After the Crash," which appears on page 68.) Walker has been nominated for two Oscars for her previous work (Waste Land and "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom"). If there's any justice in Hollywood, she'll be thanking the Pearce family from the podium in March.

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