Limiting factors for maximum oxygen uptake and determinants of endurance performance

Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000 Jan;32(1):70-84. doi: 10.1097/00005768-200001000-00012.


In the exercising human, maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) is limited by the ability of the cardiorespiratory system to deliver oxygen to the exercising muscles. This is shown by three major lines of evidence: 1) when oxygen delivery is altered (by blood doping, hypoxia, or beta-blockade), VO2max changes accordingly; 2) the increase in VO2max with training results primarily from an increase in maximal cardiac output (not an increase in the a-v O2 difference); and 3) when a small muscle mass is overperfused during exercise, it has an extremely high capacity for consuming oxygen. Thus, O2 delivery, not skeletal muscle O2 extraction, is viewed as the primary limiting factor for VO2max in exercising humans. Metabolic adaptations in skeletal muscle are, however, critical for improving submaximal endurance performance. Endurance training causes an increase in mitochondrial enzyme activities, which improves performance by enhancing fat oxidation and decreasing lactic acid accumulation at a given VO2. VO2max is an important variable that sets the upper limit for endurance performance (an athlete cannot operate above 100% VO2max, for extended periods). Running economy and fractional utilization of VO2max also affect endurance performance. The speed at lactate threshold (LT) integrates all three of these variables and is the best physiological predictor of distance running performance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anaerobic Threshold / physiology
  • Cardiac Output / physiology
  • Heart / physiology
  • Humans
  • Lactic Acid / metabolism
  • Lipid Metabolism
  • Lung / physiology
  • Mitochondria, Muscle / enzymology
  • Muscle, Skeletal / metabolism
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Oxygen Consumption / physiology*
  • Physical Endurance / physiology*
  • Running / physiology


  • Lactic Acid
  • Oxygen