Christine Thorburg, a physician, came to see my colleague Max Testa, M.D., and me after she had knee ligament reconstruction. She'd run cross-country in college and had done some recreational cycling at age 30, but that was about it. She asked us to test her.
When we saw her scores, we realized that she had an exemplary physiology for cycling. She had never been tested, had never known she would be good at the sport and had never had a training program.
We gave her a training program, and in one year she made the national cycling team. In two years she was the national champion and qualified for the Olympic time trials. In the 2004 Olympics in Athens, she came in fourth. And all this while continuing to work as a physician.
Last week, I wrote about an at-home test that can gauge how well your heart, lungs and blood are at delivering oxygen to your working muscles — a measurement called VO2max. Lab tests are the gold standard for assessing VO2max because they provide a precise, direct measurement. But the at-home test is a good option for people who don't have access to a lab.
Exercise is great in that there are so many ways to be gifted: with flexibility, power, endurance, strength, coordination, balance, rhythm, mental focus and so on. Like Christine, after testing, you will want to capitalize on what you have, because there is the potential to be gifted at every level.
If your VO2max is:
•Under 20: You're definitely unfit. You'll want to rule out a medical condition (such as heart or lung disease) that may be limiting you aerobically. You may also be overweight (a high weight number drops the VO2-to-weight ratio number).
•25 to 35: You're sedentary to average in your level of aerobic fitness.
•36 to 44: You have above-average aerobic fitness, that of someone who dedicates 3-5 hours a week to aerobic activity.
•45 to 49: You're definitely fit.
•50 to 60: You might be a competitive endurance athlete, a potential marathoner.
•61 to 70: You might be a national-level athlete.
•71 to 80: You might be an international-level athlete, a Tour de France rider.
•Above 80: You might be one of the top endurance athletes in the world.
•Above 90: You are genetically gifted and highly trained, possibly a top athlete in cross-country skiing, cycling, or mid- to long-distance running, where we see the highest scores.
If you have a high VO2max, you'll excel at activities that require high-intensity efforts, are sustained (over five minutes) and use a majority of your muscle mass. These include cross-country skiing, middle- and long-distance running, rowing, swimming, cycling and skating.
If you have an intermediate score, think about baseball, soccer, basketball or rugby, which may require efforts of several minutes at a whack, but rarely longer or of the highest intensity. To improve your VO2max, try cycling, running, swimming or rowing.
If your score was low, try sprinting (100-meter), weightlifting or any sport that requires speed and/or strength in efforts that last fewer than two or three minutes — such as football, volleyball, baseball, sprinting or sports that require more skill than endurance.
Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic gold medalist speed skater, is now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-wrote "Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Fitness Bible" (HarperCollins) with exercise performance physician Max Testa, M.D., and DeAnne Musolf. Visit http://www.fasterbetterstronger.com.