More on Armstrong versus Rowers

For a while it seemed that the Lance Armstrong as rower discussion was behind us, but I couldn't resist biting when I saw a comment over on the Concept 2 message board. Some good points are raised, but unless my information is wrong, the suggestion that Lance has a "relatively low VO2 max, and abysmal anaerobic capacity."

I will agree with Mr. Henrik's concerns about comparing the two sports - he makes good points. And the concern about Lance's physical proportions translating to rowing are also well founded. And comparing rowing and cycling values of Vo@ and thresholds are a bitr of an apples and oranges debate, but suggesting Lance has a low VO2 and "abysmal" anaerobic capacity seem a bit harsh.

The Sports Injury Bulletin site notes Lance's VO2 max is 83.8 ml/kg/min which as a relative number is excellent, and as an absolute number - which some would suggest is more relevant to rowing since there is less an effect of having to carry your weight around as in cycling up mountains - it works out to 6.285 L/min - also not bad compared even to your average heavyweight rower.

Not one to just believe anyting written on the web I looked for published evidence and found it. I would encourage you to read this article from the Journal of Applied Physiology - arguably the most prestigious scientific journal where sports scientists publish their work. The article is by Dr. Ed Coyle of the University of Texas who has tested Armstrong for years, and is summarized in some very accessible language here.

Coyle notes Lance's VO2max ranges between 75-85 ml/kg/min and as an absolute number it works out to around 6 L/min. He also reports a lactate threshold of 4.5-4.7 L/min in the 1992-1993 season. No values are reported from more recent tests.

Also, Dr. Fred Hagerman, one of the most well-known rowing researchers in his 1984 paper reports the VO2 max of "elite oarsmen" to be "6.1 +/- 0.6 L/min", and he also reports values of 6.25 L/min for the 1992 US Olympic team as seen on Stephen Seiler's site - all values similar to Armstrong. As Armstrong is much lighter than your average heavyweight rower his VO2 max when corrected for bodyweight at 83.8 ,is much greater than the 70.9 reported for the US Olympic rowers.

Of course it is also well-known that the VO2 max recorded will vary between sports so we are comparing apples to oranges here to some degree. It is also true that VO2 max is but a small piece of the puzzle in performance. What about anaerobic threshold?

VO2 at anaerobic threshold was reported at 85% of VO2max in rowers (Steinacker J M (1993), Physiological aspects of training in rowing. International Journal of Sports Medicine.14(Suppl 1):3-10). Lance's comes out at 77% of VO2 max - but this too is a bit of apples and oranges, partly due to the cycling vs. rowing issue as well. Also we have the problem that this percentage for rowers was not from elite rowers - those with a much higher VO2 max may not have the same high lactate threshold percentage. In fact, one striking example of lactate percentage not being all it's cracked up to be is from another study by Coyle that found that trained patients with ischemic heart disease can have thresholds at close to 100% of their (admittedly small) VO2 max (Journal of Applied Physiology, 54:18, 1983). Even if you accept the comparison and put Lance below most rowers, his anaerobic threshold is hardly "abysmal."

I'm sure there is far more to the discussion - please add your comments as we all learn from examining the topic. I would be interested in more information from Mr. Henrik. He actually mentioned Lance's anaerobic "capacity" which is a different thing from threshold - where did this data come from?