VO2 MAX: What It Means and Its Importance for XC Skiers

Cross country skiing is a high endurance sport, and the faster you ski the harder it gets on your muscles as they require more oxygen to keep up with the pace. This is where your physical shape and hence the VO2 Max factor come into action.

What Does VO2 Max Mean?

VO2 Max is the maximum volume (V) of Oxygen (O2) consumption which is measured during exercises that have an incremental increase in intensity. It is also known as maximal oxygen consumption, peak oxygen uptake, maximal aerobic capacity, or maximal oxygen uptake. In simple terms, VO2 Max is the measurement of an athlete’s physical shape.

Why Do Cross-Country Skiers Have High VO2 Max?

Cross country skiing is one of the most physically challenging and exhausting sports, though it is not given as much a credit in terms of endurance as it should be.

Let us compare it with other similar sports. Cross country skiers do not get much benefit from the gravitational force, unlike the downhill skiers. The XC skiing also does not involve any kind of choreography or costumes like figure skaters do. And if that is not enough, the cross country skiers use all their major body muscle groups to pass through both inclined and flat surfaces, unlike the runners where primarily only the lower body muscles are used.

VO2 Max is the maximum volume of Oxygen consumption

Since the professional XC skiers need to have an impressive capacity of consuming oxygen, they have undoubtedly the highest score of VO2 max. This is the case with all elite endurance athletes. Cross country skiers having a super high score of VO2 max means that their bodies perform efficiently at transporting oxygen from the lungs to different muscle groups through the bloodstream. This extraordinarily high aerobic capacity provides the XC skiers with a high endurance level that is necessary to complete the race.

The Numbers

It is unfortunate how often people ignore the high endurance levels and VO2 max factors of cross country skiers and give more credit to marathon runners, swimmers, and even cyclists. The fact remains the same, that is, a professional cross country skier outmatches the VO2 max level of all these stated sports. Let us dig more into numbers.

On average, a healthy male who does not train for any sport has a VO2 max level of 35 to 40 mL/ (kg . min) on average. For females who are healthy but do not indulge in any sort of endurance training, the VO2 max level is around 27 to 31 mL/ (kg . min). As you increase your training exercises, this VO2 max score increases, however, with your aging process, this score keeps on decreasing. For many people, VO2 max levels can increase by increasing their training, however, there could be some exceptional cases. Although oxygen uptake is more like an inherited ability, yet you can improve it by working out – no matter which gender you belong to.

For male Olympic swimmers, the VO2 max score is usually recorded around 70 mL/ kg/ min. For professional marathon runners that land at the top, this score is somewhere around 75 mL/ kg/ min. If you talk about professional cyclists, the VO2 max score can surpass the swimmers and runners and reach to an impressive high of 88 mL/ kg/ min.

In all these sports, women athletes are recorded to have a VO2 max around 10 points lower than their male counterparts. Though women have a smaller body structure and weigh less than the male athletes, male athletes have a higher percentage level of muscles and their testosterone helps them burn oxygen quickly.

But wait until you read about the whooping VO2 max numbers of cross country skiers. The highest VO2 max score comes from the cross country skiers where some have been tested to get as high as 96 ml/ kg/ min. Norwegian skier Bjorn Daehlie reached one of the highest scores of 96 VO2 max and amazed the world. What makes the XC skiers so fit? The fact is, cross country tournaments are one of the longest and toughest ones in Olympic where the terrain can be up to 31 miles (50 km) long, and not only that, this terrain is very steep and uneven.

Why is it Physically the Most Demanding Sport?

The athletes that score high on their VO2 levels are no doubt extremely well trained and super talented. But the best part about cross country skiing is that all you have to do is to go out and enjoy the physical endurance workout that cross country skiing offers. Cross country skiing is undoubtedly one of the sports that keep your entire body fit as it involves your upper and lower body muscles along with the core muscles. That is the reason why XC skiing is the most physically demanding sport.

As compared to high VO2 max sports that mostly use a certain region of muscles like swimming that uses primarily the upper body muscles and marathon running that mainly uses the lower body muscles where arms generally swing by freely, the XC skiing use a combination of all the muscles. While their upper body muscles perform with poles on the flat as well as hilly surfaces, the super strong leg and hip muscles navigate the XC skiers. And since a cross country skier uses both upper as well as lower body muscles, this means that the core muscles are also engaged that indulge the abdomen and lower back muscles into some serious work.

Why Do Cross-Country Skiers Collapse?

We have already established the fact that cross country skiers, like a majority of endurance athletes, have a very high VO2 max score or in other words, they possess the maximal oxygen uptake level. This makes their bodies extra efficient and the process of oxygen being taken from the lungs and provided through the bloodstream to the upper and lower body muscles as well as the core is ultra efficient as well. The VO2 max may be an important factor in high level skiers winning the race.

Having said that, a high VO2 max score cannot win you a race on its own. XC skiers need to be able to sprint which is an anaerobic capacity where the cross country skier takes energy from its energy reserves stored in the muscles of your body. This sudden thrust of powerful anaerobic energy only lasts for a short while and the athlete’s body needs a recovery period after that. This recovery period involves excessive breathing where the system is flooded with restorative oxygen. For clarity purposes, you can consider it as a toilet flush where all the water in the flush tank goes down the drain at a sudden burst, but then you have to wait for some time for the flush tank to refill. The same happens with the body in order to resume its energy levels. You must have seen cross country skiers lying down after crossing the finish line – their body collapses and the energy is completely drained.

Cross country skiing is an amazing sport that does not only require your high VO2 max levels but also high anaerobic capacity to sprint during a cross country race in order to win. As a cross country skier reaches the end of a race, he/ she must push himself/ herself and rely on the body’s anaerobic bursts, ideally with a minimal recovery time between the sprints. As a result, the body is literally starved of oxygen and due to the acid build up, the body, especially the legs and arms feel numb. The central nervous system, as a result, is unable to control the skier’s standing position and while they use their energy until the last drop, they collapse on the ground where their body quickly starts recovering and redistributing oxygen.


Cross country skiing and endurance sports are indeed one of the hardest and most challenging activities you can come across. When you do cross country skiing, you use almost your entire body muscles to move forward and glide across steep hills and uneven terrain. It is not just your body muscles that come into extreme work, your oxygen consumption is extremely high and for that reason, athletes with a high VO2 max level show the best performance. The faster you ski, the more oxygen your muscles need to perform at their best. For this reason, professional XC skiers aim to reach a high VO2 max score – as high as they possibly can in order to do as good as they possibly can on the slopes.

With constant practice and training, the VO2 max levels of XC skiers go up and they end up showcasing a super high VO2 max level as compared to many other high endurance sports. For this reason, maintaining a high VO2 max score is crucial for serious cross country skiers.